The Danger of Synthetic Fragrances

Environmental Medicine

The Danger of Synthetic Fragrances

Companies aren't required to list the ingredients associated with synthetic fragrances, leaving the population exposed to thousands of toxic chemicals.

What are fragrances?

Our sense of smell and the enjoyment of fragrances found in nature is intricately intertwined in our DNA, and serve as indications for finding food and mates. Synthetic fragrances, however, are man made scents that negatively impact our health. Synthetic fragrances started emerging in the 1980s, and are entirely developed in a lab. Many of them have been found to contain carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals, and even environmental toxins. What’s more, 95% of cosmetics and styling products contain the word ‘fragrance’ on their ingredient label.

When a product has the word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on the bottle, this is actually a code word for about 3000 different ingredients, many of which can cause long-term damage to our health and homes. These ingredients are usually chemical in nature, and are downright toxic for humans. Roughly 95% of synthetic fragrances come from petroleum, a toxic chemical that has been linked to a number of health issues ranging from allergies, to birth defects, and even cancer. Many toxic ingredients disguised as ‘fragrance’ exist in a multitude of everyday household items, such as shampoos, detergents, lotions and cleaning products. Not only are these ingredients toxic, but they are also hidden, and little research has been conducted on their effect on human health. These chemicals affect everyone, but the most vulnerable include pregnant women, infants, and the elderly.

Hidden Toxins

Studies have shown that up to 66% of ‘secret chemicals’ found in products have not been assessed in regards to their safety on human health. In fact, the US food and drug administration, and the International Fragrance Association, have not checked the vast majority of secret fragrance chemicals (1). The legality of fragrance secrecy is down to a loophole in a packaging and labeling act from 1973. The act states that companies are required to list the ingredients in cosmetics on labels, with the exception of fragrances. Due to this loophole, lab tests reveal on average 14 secret chemicals per product, with some products even doubling the amount of ingredients listed on the label (1). This means consumers are using products daily, which unknowingly expose them to untested chemicals that may have an adverse effect on their health. Not only are synthetic fragrances harmful all on their own, many of them can also react with ozone in the air creating secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde.

A study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that widely recognized brand-name colognes and perfumes contain a large quantity of chemicals that have not been assessed for safety (1). The chemicals found in these products have been shown to be:

  • Sensitizers: known to trigger allergic reactions such as asthma, headaches, and contact dermatitis.
  • Hormone Disruptors: known to potentially wreak havoc on the hormonal system.

For hormone disruptors aka endocrine disruptors, the effects of continuous use can range from birth defects to impaired fertility (1). An endocrine disruptor is a chemical that can interfere with the body’s endocrine system, potentially effecting developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects in humans, and the environment. Thyroid hormone disruptors can impact the brain development of the fetus, newborn babies, and young children. They may also be contributing to the significant rise in Hashimoto’s and Grave’s disease, two common thyroid autoimmune conditions. Chemicals that mimic estrogen could be contributing to the onset of breast cancer, and issues with the reproductive system. Currently, 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer, and young girls are entering puberty roughly 2 years earlier than they did 40 years ago (1). Women aren’t the only ones being affected either. Endocrine disruptorscan lead to defects in the male reproductive system, which appear to have risen in the last two decades. One such chemical is diethyl phthalate (DEP), which has been found in 97% of Americans and has been linked to sperm damage. A new study has linked DEP to the development of ADHD in children (1).

Many chemicals found in fragrances are also thought to be carcinogenic. A carcinogen is a substance that has the potential to cause cancer in living tissues. They act on our DNA, causing harmful changes on a cellular level. Other hidden toxins are considered to be neurotoxins. These chemicals cause damage to nerve tissue, and are destructive to the nervous system. This can play a role in the development of depression, anxiety, ADHD, multiple sclerosis, and dementia.

These unlabeled, and unchecked chemicals can make their way into the body through inhalation, or absorption through the skin, and as a result, many Americans are polluted with cosmetic ingredients everyday, throughout the duration of their lives. In fact, there have even been studies showing synthetic musks in the cord blood of newborn babies. These musks have been linked to toxicity to the endocrine system (1). Many people question why companies continue to use synthetic fragrances even after they have been proven to be detrimental to our health. Unfortunately, as it is with most big business practices, it boils down to money, and synthetic fragrances are much cheaper.

The Health Risks

Cancer: The Breast Cancer Fund states that avoiding synthetic fragrances is one of the best ways to encourage the prevention of cancer (2). Styrene, a chemical commonly found in cosmetics and cleaning products, is listed as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”, while other studies suggest there is a strong argument for increasing its listing to being a “known human carcinogen”. Phthalates are another group of chemicals closely connected to cancer, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive toxins. They are already banned from cosmetics in the European Union, but are still commonplace throughout the USA. They appear on an ingredient list as ‘fragrance’, DEP, DBP, and DEHP (3). Unfortunately, both styrene and phthalates are just two of many potentially carcinogenic chemicals disguised as ‘fragrances’.

Child Autism & Birth Defects: Phthalates, as well as being a known carcinogen, are also strongly linked to symptoms of ADHD, neurological disorders, and autism. Dr. Landrigan, a top researcher at Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, states he is confident that autism is “in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed”, and “if babies are exposed in the womb…to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime” (4). Fragrance materials are able to penetrate human fat tissue, and are also present in breast milk, meaning pregnant women must be exceptionally careful.

Allergies & Asthma: Allergic reactions known to be caused by fragrances (now recognized as one of the top five allergens in the world) include, headaches, asthma, sinus irritations, dermatitis, and migraines (1). Researchers believe that the recent rise in these conditions is strongly linked to the rise in the use of synthetic fragrances. In fact, those with asthma commonly notice that their symptoms worsen when they are around synthetically scented products like perfumes and colognes.

Household products that contain fragrances:

  • Most personal care products
  • Sunscreen
  • Shampoo/Conditioner
  • Soap
  • Body Wash
  • Deodorant
  • Body Lotion
  • Makeup
  • Facial Cream
  • Skin Toner
  • Serums
  • Scrubs
  • Perfume
  • Cleaning products
  • Scented candles
  • Air fresheners
  • Laundry detergent
  • Kitty litter
  • Trash bags
  • Etc., etc., etc.

Some of the chemicals found with fragrances include (1):

  1. Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate): A chemical used for UV protection and to increase the shelf life of products. Studies have shown that this chemical stimulates estrogen receptors resulting in excess estrogen in the body. It was also shown to disrupt the hypothalamo-pituitary-thyroid pathway resulting in suppression of normal thyroid hormone levels.
  2. Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3): Another chemical used for UV protection. Studies show that it is also an endocrine disruptor leading to increased estrogen stimulation in women, decreased androgen in men, and increased stress hormone in both sexes. One study also found that pregnant women exposed to this chemical were more likely to give birth to babies with decreased birth weight.
  3. Benzophenone -1: A sunscreen ingredient shown to be a hormone disruptor that can bind and stimulate the human estrogen receptor.
  4. Benzophenone -2: A sunscreen ingredient that interferes with thyroid function.
  5. Diethyl phthalate (DEP): A fragrance solvent associated with adverse effects on the development of the reproductive system.
  6. Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT): A preservative with links to having adverse effects on the thyroid including thyroid cancer.
  7. Synthetic musks Galaxolide, Tonalide and musk ketone: Thought to stimulate the growth of hormone-sensitive cancer cells, and could negatively impact the endocrine system.
  8. Benzyl Salicyate, benzyl benzonate and scent chemical lililal (butylphenyl methylpropional): Shown to have estrogenic activity in a recent study with breast cancer cells.

How to avoid fragrances

Avoid: The easiest ways to avoid these unpleasant hidden ingredients is to always choose ‘fragrance free’ products. However, be careful of labels that state ‘unscented’, as this likely means the manufacturer has added other fragrances to mask the original odor. Completely avoid anything that has fragrance, parfum, phthalate, DEP, DBP or DEHP on the ingredient list. The following are some helpful resources for making sure that your products are chemical free.

  • Download the Think Dirty App. This app allows you to scan the barcode on a product and then provides a result from 1-10 indicating how dirty the product is. This takes the guesswork out of interpreting the ingredient list.
  • Visit the Environmental Working Group (EWG) site for information about 100s of hidden toxins in your environment and how to avoid them. They also have 71k products in their database that you can get safety information on.
  • The Safe Cosmetics site is similar to the EWG, and provides tons of information on chemicals to avoid and the health risks associated to them.

Buy Organic: Certified organic products are much more likely to use less synthetic scents. Look for products that clearly state that they only use essential oils to provide a natural aroma. You can also shop for products that are fragrance free. However, try not to automatically trust products that claim to be ‘natural’, many may remove harmful chemicals, but still contain synthetic fragrances. This was a frustrating discovery for me when I was searching for healthier products for my home. I would find body products that contained primarily organic ingredients, and then the last ingredient would be ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum”. Why a company would go to the effort of creating a natural product only to then add synthetic fragrances is beyond me. One such company that was a huge disappointment to me was Meyers ‘natural’ cleaning products. They are especially deceptive, because they list that they use essential oils, because they do, but they also contain synthetic fragrances as well. Something they obviously don’t advertise. The following are some products that I am currently using and loving in my own home.

DIY: Making everyday cleaning products and cosmetics from natural ingredients, is not only cheaper, but also ensures your environment is chemical free. You can make everything from dish soap, to detergent, to shampoo and conditioner, with just a few simple ingredients. WellnessMama has a new book out that contains recipes for 100 different DIY cleaning and body products.

Essential Oils

One way to safely stay away from synthetic fragrances, and still invite refreshing aromas into your home, is through the use of essential oils. Yes, essential oils are more expensive than cheaper – and far more harmful – synthetic scents, but this is all for a good reason. Essential oils are extremely concentrated (it takes about 50 lemons to produce a 15ml bottle of lemon oil). The great thing about essential oils is that there are so many options to choose from. They can be combined, diffused, added to homemade cosmetics and cleaning products, and mixed with fractionated coconut oil to make a perfume replacement. Not all essential oils are created equally though. Many companies use chemical solvents to extract the volatile oils, which then get inhaled with the plant-based fragrances. Dr. Axe has a bunch of therapeutic grade organic essential oils.

Essential oils are bottled nature, they bring us all the goodness of Mother Earth without any harmful chemicals or hidden ingredients. One of the best ways to protect your health is to live as chemically-free as possible, and where you can, opt for more natural, organic products to use in your home.

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Affiliate Disclosure: In the spirit of full disclosure, there are affiliate links in this article, which means that I may get a commission if you decide to purchase any such product. I only recommend products and services that I use and love myself.