Investigating Personal Care Products: The Ugly Truth About Fragrance

We’ve all been there — suddenly enveloped in a cloud of excessive perfume in the ladies room, or stuck next to a perfume junkie on a six-hour plane ride. What’s wrong with people wanting to smell nice, you ask? Well, nothing, except that most perfume these days is made from toxic chemicals that can be damaging to your health. In fact, 95% of the chemicals in fragrances are derived from petroleum.

Many of the chemicals in perfume are the same ones found in cigarette smoke, but we not only inhale them as vapors, we also absorb them through our skin which makes the chemicals go directly into our bloodstream. According to Master Herbalist Klaus Ferlow (whose article on the growing health and environmental hazard of fragrance is definitely worth reading), some fragrance chemicals can even alter the skin’s surface tension, which greatly facilitates the absorption of other chemicals into the skin.

Toxic chemicals in synthetic fragrance are absorbed through our skin and go directly into our bloodstream.

Toxic chemicals in synthetic fragrance are absorbed through our skin and go directly into our bloodstream.

Many people are bothered by synthetic fragrance — developing headaches, sinus problems, and even asthma. Those who suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) become physically sick, often to the point of being incapacitated, when exposed to artificial fragrances. A minimal amount of exposure is enough to cause damage — like a trace of scented laundry detergent or a whiff on strong cleaning products in a restaurant. I am personally extremely sensitive to cleaning products and can smell them — and feel the accompanying headache and shortness of breath — from a mile away.

Fragrances are now used in almost every cleaning, laundry, and personal care product on the market, yet there is no regulation of the fragrance industry. Because of a giant loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, the FDA allows manufacturers to simply put “fragrance” in the list of ingredients, even though a review of government records shows that the FDA (or any other publicly accountable institution) has not assessed the vast majority of these secret fragrance chemicals for safety when used in personal care products.

In the “Not So Sexy – The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance” report commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and analyzed by Environmental Working Group laboratory tests revealed 38 secret chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, topped by American Eagle Seventy Seven with 24, Chanel Coco with 18, and Britney Spears Curious and Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio with 17. The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products. Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues. These include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone (synthetic musk), a synthetic fragrance ingredient that concentrates and chronically accumulates in human fat tissue and breast milk.

Your skin is your body’s largest organ, you need to care as much what you put on it as you do what you put in your mouth. The good news is that there are plenty of great options out there — personal care products and perfumes that use natural instead of synthetic fragrance (or eliminate the fake scents altogether). Shop at a store you trust, and lay off those toxic cleaning products, there are natural ones out there now that are not only less toxic but also more efficient.

A Perfume Organic makes natural perfumes that do not contain any toxic synthetic ingredients and are also certified organic.

A Perfume Organic makes natural perfumes that do not contain any toxic synthetic ingredients and are also certified organic.

The EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database gives “Fragrance” a rating of 8, meaning high hazard, with this motivation: The word “fragrance” or “parfum” on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. This does not mean that all fragrance is highly toxic, but since there is no further listing of what’s in a specific fragrance, we think it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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