When I was 15 I was shopping with my sister at Macy’s and she bought me this little apple-shaped bottle of perfume on display at the checkout counter. It smelled like heaven – sweet, velvety, and a lingering hint of sophistication. Be Delicious, DKNY’s “apple perfume” became my staple fragrance for several years – it made me feel confident and sexy, and I didn’t think twice about what was in it. In all honesty, I still miss that perfume sometimes. But, I cannot go back to using synthetic fragrance, because in keeping with the curse of toxic-free education, you cannot unlearn this information…
Fragrance, also labeled parfum, is an umbrella term for a blend of various synthetic chemicals and are trade secret. That means companies don’t have to disclose the specific chemical compounds used in their blends. There are approximately 3,000 different chemicals used in proprietary fragrances, many of which are linked to various health concerns including cancer, allergies, neurotoxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.
In addition to ‘fragrance/parfum’, there are a number of other ingredients in perfumes, including solvents, dyes, stabilizers, penetration enhancers, preservatives, and UV filters. The fragrance industry is internationally self-regulated, and companies are not required to disclose any ingredients they use. Some companies do choose to provide customers with a limited ingredient list, but many others do not.
One of the biggest concerns with these ingredients is that many are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which means they affects your hormones. The dangerous problem with EDCs is that they are very powerful at very small doses. Fetuses, infants, and children are at an even greater risk of health impacts from EDCs because they are in stages of rapid development and do not have fully formed endocrine systems. Fragrance compounds can be EDCs, as can some of the filler ingredients like oxybenzone (UV filter), phthalates (solvent), and BTH (preservative).
The Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics co-published results from testing and analyzing the safety of 17 name brand perfumes/colognes in their 2010 report, Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrances. They found many perfumes contained undisclosed ingredients that can affect development, reproductive health, immune function, and potentially cause cancer.
Fragrance is also a potent allergen, causing and triggering asthma. I have asthma and I’m moderately sensitive to fragrance. A few times now, I’ve been at the gym and had to relocate to a machine on the other side of the room because someone with incredibly strong smelling perfume gets onto the machine next to mine. I get a headache and feel dizzy, which doesn’t make for a very successful workout! The tide is slowly changing in regards to fragrances in public spaces, but many people are still unaware of fragrance sensitivity, which can worsen as one is continually exposed to unwanted secondhand fragrance over their lifetime. When individuals use synthetic perfumes, they develop a tolerance to the scent and gradually apply it in heavier doses. So to them, it might seem like a pleasant, subtle aroma, but to those of us with sensitivities, it’s a formidable cloud of toxic air. For those with severe allergies, it’s a trip to the emergency room. This is why it’s so important for people to respect fragrance-free zones and to be aware that fragrance sensitivities can be as serious as any other allergy.
I highly recommend reading a Canberra Times (Australia) article about toxic chemicals in fragrance, in which the author perfectly captures what it is like to go through our heavily scented world with a fragrance sensitivity. She also talks about the science of scent and the health risks associated with certain ingredients.
The issue of fragrance is complex and a bit dense, which is why this post is just a scratch on the surface of this topic. My next post in the fragrance series will cover other consumer products and provide details on the specific chemicals used in fragrance blends.
Not Just a Pretty Face, by Stacy Malkan
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