Is Fragrance Bad For You?
Is fragrance really bad for you? If so, are essential oils the answer to all our fragrance woes? In this post I’ll explore the answers to both of these questions.
You get up in the morning, roll from your bed sheets smelling of ‘fresh rain’. You shower with shampoo and body wash smelling like watermelon and strawberries. You dry yourself with your fluffy lemon- scented towel then apply your moisturiser and makeup with an assortment of nondescript scents, before splashing on some Chanel No 5 and leave the bedroom.
After breakfast, you wipe your daughter’s face with chamomile-scented baby wipes, pack her banana-scented pencil case and help her put on her strawberry-smelling shoes. On the way to school, you chuck out your rubbish bag smelling of fresh cut lavender. Your 5-year-old daughter sits in a classroom breathing in a concoction of essential oils wafting from a diffuser. She washes her delicate small hands in fluorescent pink soap that smells of who knows what. You walk through your office to your desk inhaling a collection of perfumes, deodorants and body lotions as you go. You run to the loo and breathe in the sickly air freshener wafting all around you. You return home, burn some incense and a citrus-scented candle.
After all of this, you wonder why you have a headache and why your daughter starts wheezing…
What is fragrance exactly?
Fragrance is added to almost everything these days. It’s hard to avoid. Yet, there is a reason that workplaces and clinics in various parts of the world are banning the use of fragrance. This is yet to happen in Australia but it has come close.
When we see the word fragrance or ‘parfum’ on the back of a bottle we tend to think of one chemical. The truth is that behind this sweet sounding word can lie about 100 chemicals. This concoction of chemicals does not need to be shown on any labels, for fear of disclosing ‘trade secrets’ (the truth is, any chemist can use what’s called gas chromatography to analyse any fragrance and tell you what’s in it). For trusting customers who pick up products containing fragrance whilst in the supermarket or chemist, it’s a problem.
Let me give you an example of why.
For twenty years, a widely used artificial musk known as Versalide was the fragrance of choice, especially in laundry detergents. Versalide replaced earlier chemicals found to be carcinogenic. However, in 1978 it was tested in rats and was found to cause devastating damage to their brains and spinal cords. Versalide caused degeneration of the myelin sheath which protects the neurons in the brain, commonly seen in multiple sclerosis, a rapidly increasing disease, especially in women. It was finally banned in 1982.
You might think this wouldn’t happen now our safety regulations are so much better. Far from it. Several thousand ingredients can be used to make a synthetic fragrance. These ingredients are mostly derived from petrochemicals. None of them has been fully tested for safety and their impacts on your endocrine or hormonal system are entirely neglected.
If tested at all, the ingredients of synthetic fragrance are only ever tested in isolation with no consideration given to synergistic health effects, that is, when used with other chemicals in your product, or when you combine the ingredients of one product with another i.e. shampoo and conditioner, or foundation and blusher.
What are the health effects?
You can ingest fragrances, inhale them, or absorb them through your skin. Fragrances that stay on your skin on all day are the worst sort. It’s why the American Dermatitis Society voted fragrances and perfumes as ‘Allergen of the Year’ in 2007; they are a known skin allergen and irritant, triggering all sorts of reactions from headaches to asthma.
Other concerning ingredients among the plethora of chemicals used to make fragrances include toxic preservatives, synthetic musks and phthalates.
Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are a key component of nearly all synthetic fragrances, with special powers to make the smell adhere to you for hours on end. They have been given a lot of bad press because they are known endocrine disruptors linked with birth defects, reproductive changes in children, behavioural problems, ADHD, breast cancer, childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Put simply, if you want to get pregnant you need to avoid fragrances.
Men aren’t off the hook either: a higher level of phthalates in both sexes reduces your chances of conceiving. Pregnant women exposed to fragrances increase their risk of having children with behavioural issues and ADHD.
One particular phthalate has been especially well studied. It’s called DEHP. In animals it’s been shown to reduce sperm quality and quantity, and can result in undescended testes and a birth defect of the penis known as hypospadias.
You might say but this is just lab experiments in rats but all these effects associated with hormone disruptors are showing true in humans.
Have a look at these statistics:
- In a study undertaken in Western Australia between 1980 and 2000, it was shown that hypospadias affects one in 231 births, which is an increase of 2% per annum.
- Cases of undescended testes have doubled between 1950 and 1980.
- Male sperm count has declined more than 50% in 40 years.
- Testicular cancer has doubled since the 1970s in the UK.
- Breast cancer rates in women have tripled since 1982 and in men have doubled.
- The age of puberty for girls has dropped to as young as seven years of age, which is linked to an increased rate of breast cancer later in life.
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Who’s looking out for our safety?
Here in Australia, it’s the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assesment Scheme (NICNAS).
They don’t do any actual testing.
Their assessment of chemicals purely relies on the safety reports of others.
Unfortunately, these safety reports mostly come from the same people who make the fragrances!
Of the forty thousand chemicals they have listed on their register, they have “assessed” 3000. There are some chemicals on their register flagged as having no data at all. Despite the fact that a few chemicals have been banned, there are many nasties still out there.
Take formaldehyde, a ‘Known Human Carcinogen’, yet it is still allowed in cosmetics at up to 0.2% and 5% in nail hardeners, provided you label it. That’s why I will never set foot in a nail salon.
So, are essential oils OK?
Yes and no. Unfortunately, many essential oils are adulterated with petrochemical solvents.
If you can find high quality, pure, preferably certified organic oils, that is your best bet. Be warned, these too can contain Volatile Organic Compounds that can irritate you immensely. Both limonene and linalool derived from citrus oil and lavender oil can cause adverse allergic-type reactions.
Is fragrance bad for you? That’s a yes – here’s what you can do about it
- Avoid any products that list perfume, parfum or fragrance.
- Pure unadulterated essential oils are a good alternative provided you do your homework on their purity and safety especially around children and animals.
- Buy phthalate-free products.
- Beware of unscented products – just because it doesn’t smell doesn’t mean it doesn’t have fragrance added. Fragrances are often added to mask the smell of other unwanted chemical smells.
- Offload anything in your home that is fragranced, unless it’s fragranced with pure essential oils. This includes scented candles, incense, air fresheners, bin bags, deodorants, shampoos, aerosols, cleaning products and, sorry ladies, PERFUME!
Alternatives to your conventional perfumes do exist. They are made with pure essential oils. I’ve tried many. I’ll be honest, between their scarcity and the very personal nature of fragrances, it’s hard to find a good one. Alas, here’s a beautiful brand that loves making pure natural perfumes for women and men right here in Western Australia.
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