Synthetic Fragrances and the Dangers They Present
If you spend any time learning about the human sense of smell, you quickly discover that it is much more than “one of our five senses”. Just like sight lets us see colors but also allows us to perceive depth, movement and more, smell is connected to and part of emotion and memory. It is a sense that, as scientists explain, can be “harnessed to manage our own well-being” and it is why so many of us like to wear perfumes or scented oils and other products. However, there is a difference between the natural aroma of a certain spice, wood, flower or other item and synthetic fragrances.
As some of the harshest chemicals in skincare and cosmetics, it is important that you are well aware of the dangers of fragrance and take all steps possible to avoid them. In this report, we’ll explore the many dangers of fragrance in cosmetics and learn just how and why fragrance has become such a problem. We’ll also look at great methods for avoiding your exposure to, and risks from synthetic fragrances.
From the Beginning
It’s best to just start right at the beginning. We just learned that there are beneficial perfume health effects. For example, we can use a safe and effective scent or perfume to trigger a happy emotional response. Natural lavender in a bath oil or perfume, oils extracted from spices to dab behind the ear and create an appealing or beguiling scent…these are but two examples.
We can even use natural scents in more unique ways, such as the use of the enticing aroma of baking cookies in a home that is for sale. Humans have, in fact, used scents and fragrances for centuries as they are an ideal way to mask unwelcome odours or improve our sense of well-being.
However, those are (for the most part) natural “scents”, and not necessarily synthetic fragrances. That means we have to understand just what the modern word “fragrance” is describing. If we turn to the experts, we’d see definitions as concise as this one:
Fragrances are complex combinations of natural and/or man-made substances that are added to many consumer products to give them a distinctive smell.
Lemony fresh, pine-scented, and more obscure concepts like summer linen or berry fresh are a few ways that synthetic fragrances scent consumer goods. In fact, there are scores of fragrances created every single year in order to create appealing solutions for consumers to use. Naturally, that leads us to a big question about synthetic fragrances and their health effects?
The Effects of Synthetic Fragrance
While it is most certainly true that synthetic fragrances offer many of the same benefits of natural scents, such as triggering certain moods or responses, signifying a sense of cleanliness or freshness and even stimulating attraction, the chemical formulation of synthetic fragrances are not always the best.
In the U.S., it is the Food and Drug Administration (otherwise known as the FDA) that is tasked with regulating fragrances used in the products that are applied directly to the human body. They define it a bit differently than the definition seen above:
…any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product.
The ingredients used as fragrances are regulated by the agency and seen as being part of the consumer goods known as cosmetics and personal care products. They can appear in everything from perfumes and colognes to aftershave, shampoo, shower gels, shaving products, lotions, and more.
Unfortunately, the ways that fragrances are described in product labelling leaves a lot to be desired. Though a single whiff of a product will tell you that it contains natural and/or synthetic fragrances, the FDA says that the manufacturer is compliant simply by noting “fragrance” or “artificial fragrance” on the label.
This is far more unfortunate than we might realise. Though it is argued that fragrance is a protected, proprietary issue and cannot be itemised without giving away a brand’s trade secrets, certain industry watchdogs have found that most fragrances contain hazardous compounds. As one article in Scientific American pointed out:
…many popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays contain trace amounts of natural essences, they also typically contain a dozen or more potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals, some of which are derived from petroleum… consumers can’t rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside that new bottle of perfume.
Watchdogs to the Rescue
While there is no list offering consumers individual perfume toxicity ratings or a clear list of the toxic chemicals in perfume or top cosmetics, several organizations have made a point of running independent lab tests on top selling products. The results are pretty disappointing. Not only are there usually harmful chemicals in fragrances, but there might be a toxic stew of around 14 to 17 mystery chemicals in any one of the top selling brands.
And just what problems do these mystery compounds present? The studies have revealed everything from allergic responses, asthma triggers, dermatitis, headaches, and hormone issues to the presence of chemicals that can actually accumulate in the body and cause cancer. As the Scientific American article noted:
Examples include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, which concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk.
The rules around disclosing such harmful chemicals in cosmetics and beauty products are not consumer friendly. They allow manufacturers to describe ingredients in whatever way they like, as long as it is part of the “fragrance” category.
All of This to Smell Good?
Do you really feel it necessary to put your health at risk just to smell good? No, neither do we, and this is why we suggest you make a point of identifying fragrance free cosmetics and beauty products if you are to ensure your ongoing health and well-being. This is, as you might guess, a fairly simple and straightforward thing to do.
Before we start to discuss the ways to find fragrance free skincare brands or use natural fragrance oils to safely create appealingly scented goods or experiences, let’s be sure you are very clear about the extent of the dangers caused by synthetic fragrances.
It can be altogether too easy to become desensitised to the phrases like “using that can give you cancer”. We see it too often and in too many instances in which someone is trying to promote or market an idea. However, there is absolutely no dishonesty in the saying yes when asked “can perfume cause cancer?”
Multiple studies have shown that products without any sort of natural fragrance, or just token amounts, and instead relying most on synthetic fragrances can put a consumer at risk in many ways. For example, as one report notes:
…about 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil).
Such agents as toluene, aldehydes and benzene derivatives appear in these products, too, and that means you are at risk for:
- Problems with your nervous system
- Birth defects and autism
- Moderate to severe allergic reactions
- Endocrine system disruption (this can cause such unusual responses as chronic disease and ongoing hormonal issues as well as weight gain and more)
- Chronic headache or nausea
- Unclear thinking
- Respiratory issues
This is no exaggeration. For example, if you look at the “short list” of the most common offenders, you find such compounds as:
- Acetaldehyde – This is a potential carcinogen, it harms the kidneys and respiratory system and can have negative effects on your nervous system.
- Benzophenone – This is a compound that is known to disrupt the endocrine system and lead to such deadly issues as tumours of the liver.
- BHA – This is a famously problematic compound and noted carcinogen. It is also an endocrine disruptor.
- BHT – This is a noted agent famous for causing moderate to severe eye and skin irritation.
- BP-3 – A noted liver toxin.
- Butoxyethanol – This compound irritates the eyes, nose, throat and skin and ongoing exposure has been shown to cause everything from liver or kidney damage, problems with the respiratory system to bloody urine and lymphatic damage.
- Bytylphenyl methylpropional – This is a noted skin irritant.
- DEP – A hormone disruptor with links to nervous system issues, it is also an irritant to the skin, respiratory system and the eyes.
- Dioxane – This is a carcinogenic compound.
- Formaldehyde – This is a noted carcinogen banned in many countries but still used in many chemical formulations, including synthetic fragrances.
- Methyl Chloride – This will typically harm the skin, liver and kidneys as well as harming the nervous system.
- Methylene chloride – Noted for causing tumours of the mammary glands.
- Propyl P-Hydroxybenzoate – This is banned in some countries and linked to breast cancer.
- Resorcinol – This can harm the nervous and cardiovascular systems, damage the liver and spleen and is banned in some countries.
- Styrene – This is a toxin that harms the red blood cells, central nervous system and the liver. It is also known to be carcinogenic and may be an endocrine disruptor.
- Synthetic musk – This accumulates in the body and can cause all kinds of organ damage, hormone issues, and problems with reproduction and development.
- TI02 – This is a known carcinogen that can damage the lungs and respiratory systems.
Does that list make you eager to use products relying strictly on organic fragrance blends or pure essential oils? That would be the only way to be sure you are enjoying both safe and non-toxic fragrance. Perhaps hearing that manufacturers continue to use those harmful chemicals simply because they are cheaper will be the tipping point for you to begin using perfume free cosmetics and organic perfume.
Escaping the Dangers of Synthetic Fragrances
As we promised, it is not at all complex to begin freeing yourself from the many dangers found in synthetic fragrances. While you might think that we’ll lean entirely towards the use of natural perfume or Certified Organic cosmetics, you can go even beyond that. As a simple illustration of this point, just consider such tactics as:
- Living without any fragrances or unnatural scents. Why scent the hair or skin? You can find all natural perfume and all natural cosmetics with light and appealing aromas, but you can also find them without any added fragrances.
- Eliminating any product in your home in which the word “fragrance” appears in the labels.
- Make your own toxic free perfume or essential oil perfume by experimenting with high quality oils from reputable suppliers.
- Don’t forget the fragrances apart from the toxic free cosmetics or chemical free cosmetics. For instance, think about your household cleaners and the harmful agents they use, as well as any air fresheners, laundry detergents and all of the rest.
Begin with organic cosmetics and beauty products since they are the materials in such close contact to the skin. Then take steps to free your home of the dangers of synthetic fragrances and replace them strictly with natural scents created from safe, natural and wholesome materials.
Givaudan.com. (2017). Discover the science behind our sense of smell | Givaudan. [online] Available at: https://www.givaudan.com/fragrances/discover-science-behind-our-sense-smell
Cosmeticsinfo.org. (2017). Fragrance | Cosmetics Info. [online] Available at: http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredient/fragrance
Scientific American. (2017). Scent of Danger: Are There Toxic Ingredients in Perfumes and Colognes?. [online] Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/toxic-perfumes-and-colognes/
Dr. Axe. (2017). Liver Tumors, Brain & Kidney Damage, Weird Allergy-Like Symptoms & Headaches Linked to Candle & Shampoo Ingredients. [online] Available at: https://draxe.com/dangers-synthetic-scents/