Minefield of Chemicals: Toxic Fragrance (part 2)

How to avoid fragrance chemicals:

  • Read labels: avoid “fragrance (parfum)” without any detail
  • Look for “fragrance-free” official label
  • Avoid air fresheners and perfumed cleaning products; try natural ways to eliminate odors
  • Choose products that disclose source of fragrance: essential oil blends or botanicals
  • Find trustworthy companies with certifications that backup claims of “no synthetic fragrances”
  • Switch to green cleaning or DIY cleaning

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.




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Citrus top notes, floral undertones, with hints of carcinogens: toxic fragrances (part 1)

Ad from DKNY.com for Be Delicious perfume

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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Toxic-Free Fun in the Sun Follow-Up: Avoiding Toxic Chemicals & Choosing Safer Products

This is a follow-up to my Toxic-Free Fun in the Sun post last week where I provided an overview on the current research regarding health and environmental impacts of sunscreen chemicals. As part of this, I created a list of sunscreens that I think are safe to use for you and the ecosystem, which you can find down at the end of this blog post, past the sciencey stuff!

Photo my mom took snorkeling at Kahalu’u Bay, Hawaii. You can see bleached coral here, which I think is Lobe Coral.

I wanted to investigate the specific toxic chemicals in sunscreens and dig a little deeper into the possibility of “natural” sunscreens still being toxic to aquatic life. What is learned is this: while there is some indication that natural ingredients with insecticidal properties may pose a danger to some marine life, mineral sunscreens are still the much, much better option over chemical ones.

The natural ingredients that may harm marine life include neem oil, citrus essential oils, clove, cedarwood, cinnamon, citronella, eucalyptus, fennel, geranium, lemon grass, Manuka, niaouli, patchouli, peppermint, and tea tree essential oils.

Healthy Lobe Coral, from Oceana.org

There is also concern over the use of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in mineral sunscreens, especially at the nanoparticle level. Here is the simplified version of the issue: “nanoparticles” became a hot buzz word and people started using them in all sorts of products from skin care to socks. Then there was a backlash and concern over health implications from using microscopic version of these materials. There is weak data suggesting health risks associated with nanoparticles unless they are inhaled – this goes for most fine powders when inhaled. It is difficult to accurately measure, and thus, define what constitutes a nanoparticle; the FDA has not taken an official stance on defining what constitutes nanomaterial. Many companies choose to use non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to be on the safe side, and hopefully they do enough testing on the ingredients that their claims are true for the final product. Badger Balm has a good article on the issue of nanoparticles in sunscreens and how they conduct testing to ensure their products are true to size. EWG still recommends coated nanoparticles over traditional chemical UV filters.

I had an email exchange with someone from the NGO MarineSafe and their opinion was that “chemicals such as oxybenzone will do far more and wide reaching damage in the ocean than natural ingredients. These chemicals are persistent and long lived in their impact so switching to products that avoid this substance will make an immediate positive impact on the environment.”

For sunscreens, active and inactive ingredients can be toxic, so it’s important to not just find a mineral based sunscreen, but also find one that is free of other toxic chemicals. I would recommend you follow the same precautions as you would with other skin products as a general rule of thumb, but I’ve highlighted some of the common ingredients in sunscreen that are essential to avoid:

Oxybenzone: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG score: 8

  • Carcinogenic (increase production of free radicals) & possible mutagen
  • Studies link high level exposure to other health concerns including eczema, skin allergy reactions, breast cancer, low birthweights, and endometriosis in older women
  • Coral bleaching, damages coral DNA & disrupts endocrine function (One drop in amount of water equal to 6 ½ Olympic-size swimming pools is enough to cause harm to coral)
  • Harmful to algae, sea urchins, fish & mammals

Methylisothiazolinone: Preservative  |  EWG score: N/A

  • “2013 allergen of the year” by American Contact Dermatitis Society
  • Possible neurotoxicity
  • Possible harm to marine life as it inhibits growth of bacterial & microorganisms (some of which are beneficial); data seems limited

Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A):  …  |  EWG score: 5-9
The “…” is because it doesn’t serve much function, they say it’s to enhance performance, but that’s just what they say…

  • Link to skin tumors & lesions on sun-exposed skin: may accelerate cancer growth
  • Frequent use might pose danger to fetuses (brain swelling, DNA changes, developmental problems, organ toxicity)
  • Highly persistent and toxic to aquatic life (didn’t find much info on this though)
  • Other names: retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinol

Octinoxate: Penetration enhancer   |  EWG score: 6

  • EDC* (mimics estrogen & can disrupt thyroid function)
  • May contribute to premature aging (damages skin cells by producing free radicals)
  • Development & reproductive toxicity
  • Highest risk: pregnant women & children due to estrogen mimicking

(*EDC = Endocrine Disrupting Chemical)

Homosalate: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG Score: 4

  • Possible EDC/might enhance pesticide absorption in body
  • Possible environmental toxin; persistent/bioaccumulative

Octisalate: Chemical UV Filter & penetration enhancer  |  EWG Score: 3

  • Weak hormone disruptor & breaks down into toxic metabolites
  • Possibility that is can enhance herbicide absorption

Octocylene: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG Score: 3

  • Accumulates in body
  • Creates free radicals leading to cell damage & DNA changes

4-methylbenzylidene camphor: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG Score: 7

  • EDC; possible developmental toxicity
  • Persistent/bioaccumulative

Parabens: Preservative  |  EWG Score: 4-7

  • EDC (estrogen mimicker, which causes a cascade of other health problems including cancer)

Fragrance (parfum): Artificial scent  |  EWG Score: 8

  • EDC; cancer, neurotoxicity, allergies, birth defects

Mineral Sunscreens

So, now that we know what to avoid, what are some products that we can use? There are thousands of sunscreen products out there, but after digging through EWG’s recommendations, scuba or Caribbean tourist websites, and other blogs, I’ve developed a list of brands/products that I think would be safe and affordable options.

Also, remember, there are non-sunscreen options to reducing your chance of skin cancer and avoiding sun burns. For example, staying indoors during the midafternoon when UV rays are most potent, staying in the shade, or wearing sun protective clothing are all good options. Good luck and stay unburned out there!