My last fragrance article focused on perfume/cologne, but fragrance chemicals are present in many more consumer products. We are so inundated with fragrance in our society that its prevalence often goes unnoticed. Go to a store like Target or Fred Meyer (subsidiary of Kroger), walk around all the departments, and notice where you find fragranced products. Fragrance is heavily used in personal care products, but it’s also used in clothing, children’s toys, cleaning supplies, trash bags, Kleenex, and even feminine hygiene products.
The heavy use of fragrance is one of the worst problems because it makes everyday life difficult for those with sensitivities, limits consumer choices, and exposes people to toxic chemicals without their consent. The use of fragrance in public space is similar to the secondhand cigarette smoke issue. Smoking and using fragrance are not just individual lifestyle choices because they affect other people without their consent. This also pertains to company choices to use fragrance in public spaces, such as air fresheners in hotels or workspaces. Additionally, individuals should not have to work so hard to find products that are free of fragrance chemicals or are not unnecessarily scented. Even products labeled as “unscented” sometimes contain fragrance to mask the smell of other chemicals. The EPA has defined “fragrance-free” as an official term manufacturers can use to indicate that a product contains no fragrance chemicals; this is part of the Safer Choice label program.
So, what are some of the toxic chemicals used in fragrances and why should we be concerned? In my last fragrance post, I went over briefly some of the health risks associated with fragrance ingredients. Here, we’re going to examine just a few of the chemicals found in fragrance to give you a snapshot of why synthetic fragrances are so concerning. I think an important thing to keep in mind is how unregulated the fragrance industry is, so we’re not just worried about the health risks alone, it’s a combination of these ingredients being potentially toxic and having basically no safeguards to protect us.
- Acetaldehyde: Affects kidneys, reproductive, nervous, and respiratory systems. Classified by CA Prop 65ˆ as known/suspected carcinogen. IARCˆ (International Agency for Research on Cancer) and the NTPˆ (National Toxicology Program) list it as a possible carcinogen.
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA): Possible endocrine disruption; also listed as carcinogen by CA Prop 65.
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): Stabilizer and preservative. Eye and skin irritant and possible respiratory system irritant. Limited evidence of thyroid damage, including cancer, from BHT.
- Dichloromethane (methylene chloride): Shown to cause mammary gland tumors and classified as possible carcinogen by IARC and NTP. Also, possible carcinogen to individuals working with it. Use is restricted by European Commissionˆ and it’s been banned by the FDA.
- Diethyl phthalate: Fragrance solvent that’s a possible endocrine disruptor and neurotoxin; poses threat to reproductive system. Irritates eyes, skin, and respiratory system.
- Formaldehyde: known human carcinogen. Banned in personal care products in Japan and Sweden. European Union and Canada restrict it. CA Prop 65 states in gas form, its carcinogen. Individuals working with formaldehyde are at risk of cancer and immune system impairment.
- MEA, DEA, TEA – ethanolamine: When used in conjunction with certain preservatives, they form nitrosamines (a chemical class). The IARC and NTP consider various compounds in this chemical class as possible or known carcinogens.
- Oxybenzone (BP-3): This UV filter is a possible EDCˆ; it might be toxic to liver cells and can accumulate in the body. European Union regulates its use in cosmetics.
- Propyl paraben (propyl p-hydroxybenzoate): Possible endocrine disruptor (EDC). Banned by Denmark for children’s products under 3 years old. European Commission restricts its use in cosmetics.
- Styrene: Toxic to blood cells and liver when ingested; neurotoxic when inhaled. European Commission classifies it as a “category 1” endocrine disruptor, which means there’s strong evidence that it is carcinogenic.
- 1,4-Dioxane: This is a byproduct of making other chemicals and a common contaminant in final products. Since it’s a contaminant, it doesn’t need to be disclosed on ingredient labels. Under CA Prop 65, it’s known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects. IARC and NTP both list it as possible carcinogen.
These substances are only a few of the thousands used in fragrance blends, but it gives you a good sense of the types of health concerns we’re dealing with. The evidence to support health risks is weak though, because most substances are not really tested. It’s difficult to make environmental and public health assessment on substances when there is insufficient data.
In addition to these chemicals, there is some evidence that certain chemical compounds found in essential oils may be harmful to our health and the environment. My next post in this fragrance series will dive deeper into that aspect.
ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.