“Fragrance”: A Secret Worth Knowing

by egndukwe on October 31, 2012

Image courtesy of BrandonSigma / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What’s your routine? I mean your fragrance routine. Personally, I spray on both wrists, rub them together, and tap behind my ears, then rub the excess on my pants. I’m not sure why, but that’s what I do. A friend once told me about his roommate’s intricate routine which involved spraying cologne on key parts of his body before spritzing a specified number of times into the air, waiting until the cologne cloud drifted down to an optimal height, then running through; effectively covering his front half. Not to neglect his other half, he would then spray another cloud to run backwards through. It sounded serious. But before you incorporate a cologne or perfume cloud into your own daily routine, you might want to know a little more about what is in those spritzes.

In 2010, the Environmental Working Group commissioned an independent lab to test 17 different, popular fragrances. The final report uncovered a total of 40 chemicals in the products—38 of which were not listed on product labels. How are companies able to avoid listing these secret chemicals? In 1973 the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act established loose guidelines for the labeling of cosmetic products, stating that anything a company considers to be a trade secret (anything that may give a company a competitive advantage) does not have to be explicitly stated. Instead, it can be described on the product label with words like “fragrance” or “other ingredients”. As a result, certain chemical formulations described as fragrance may actually pose varying health risks. In fact, following a review of the literature, researchers found that 10 of the 38 secret chemicals had no published toxicity information. The tests also showed the presence of:

  • Sensitizers, chemicals that often result in allergic reactions; tests showed that on average, each product contained 10 sensitizers. In recent years, fragrance allergies have become more and more prevalent. Scientists believe that this is in part a result of the use of multiple products with fragrances, including laundry detergents and other household cleaning products. Research suggests that many ingredients in fragrances can cause contact dermatitis on several parts of the body, most often affecting the underarms, hands and face. Contact with fragrances may also lead to respiratory complications like asthma, wheezing and tightness of the chest.
  • Hormone disrupters, chemicals that interfere with the normal functioning of the hormone system; on average the study found 4 potential hormone disrupters in each product. In the body, hormones carry messages from one cell to another. Once a hormone reaches its target cell, the hormone instructs that cell to carry out a function. Hormone disrupters can interfere with this process in many ways, for example they may prevent a hormone from being released, they could prevent a hormone from binding to its target cell, or they could even mimic a hormone, causing the cell to act as if the actual hormone was present. Hormone disrupters could be contributing factors in many conditions like early puberty, breast cancer and even infertility.

One piece missing from the report is information on the amount of the chemicals that were detected in the products compared to the amount needed in the body to have a negative effect. There is mention of the fact that the chemicals may accumulate in body tissues through inhalation as well as absorption. However, no contextual information is given as to how much of these toxic chemicals are delivered with each spray and how much is absorbed on average—factors that are crucial to evaluating just how dangerous these products are. To better understand what we as consumers are being exposed to, more detailed information needs to be reported.

What can you do in the meantime? One alternative is to invest in companies that fully disclose the ingredients in their fragrant products (listed in Appendix F of the report). While not all the products may be harmless, this gives you the opportunity to be fully aware of what you’re putting onto your body and allows you to investigate the effects each ingredient may have. On the other hand, you may not have the time to Sherlock Holmes a complex ingredients list or the money to invest in companies that utilize more natural ingredients, in that case it’s important to limit your exposure to some of these toxic products.

I know I’m guilty of occasionally using a multitude of scented products while getting ready; showering with a scented body wash before layering on a scented lotion, then spreading on a scented deodorant and finally finishing off with a heavily scented perfume. Knowing that there may be moderate to severe negative effects of some of these products, it’s not a bad idea to limit your exposure. Use one scented product a day and reserve the layering for special occasions where you really want your scent to stand out. This might mean you have to change your fragrance routine a bit, but honestly, the cologne cloud didn’t sound like a great idea anyway.

Lok Pokhrel October 31, 2012 at 11:59 am

Important topic and interesting write-up! Keep up the good work, Ezinne!

Erik Cox October 31, 2012 at 12:36 pm

Disappointed…expected to see ambergris in there somewhere…

Excellent article, well written and researched.

Amy Peace October 31, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Nice to see that you looked at the concentrations of these chemicals in the fragrances – as you’ll appreciate, with better analysis equipment you could probably detect 100s of different chemicals in most fragrances, but at trace levels; it’s the exposure level that’s critical to determine whether harm could be caused.

Worth noting that you’ll actually get more numbers of chemicals in fragrances from natural sources, given the complex cocktails that have evolved in plants to create the fragrances – most people don’t realise that fragrances made synthetically will actually be more ‘pure’ (in the true sense of the word, when focusing on key ingredients). Manufacturers will often identify the main chemical(s) that give the odour in nature and then just recreate the identical chemical through synthetic routes. Further to this, you need to be careful about implying that natural means non-toxic. Clearly you wouldn’t be keen to have some compounds extracted from chilli peppers in your fragrance!

There are lots of references out there on sensitizers that are naturally occurring chemicals, here’s a random one from a quick google search:

Hope this helps

Jennifer November 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm

interesting post! this is relevant to my interests because i’m a person who is extremely sensitive to the scents other people wear. i’ve had to move offices, apartments, and social hangouts because of other people’s scents. I’ve gone to the hospital for asthma attacks, and experienced days and days of body pains and stomach upset because of overexposure to scents. it amazes me how obsessed our culture is with changing scents and adding scents to our daily lives, usually under the guise of hygiene or fashion. bizarre!

i love the layout of this post, with the bold/headline links and bullets with explanations and suggestions for action items. selfishly, i’d have appreciated a little blurb on how scented items affect and expose not just the wearer, but anyone near the wearer in the home/workplace/elevator/coffee shop/etc. :)

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