Have you ever thought of what clean smells like? When I pose this question to a group or my students, I usually get a unanimous “nothing”. Then why are we so conditioned into thinking that clean has an actual smell? One word for you: marketing. We are bombarded by clever marketing that convinces us to buy perfumes and fragrance so we’ll smell better to our friends, family, colleagues and potential partners.
Fragrance advertising aims to sell us a better or more glamorous life, but unfortunately what they are truly peddling is a cocktail of harmful chemicals that may trigger a variety of health problems.
What Is in Your Fragrance?
Well, we don’t often know the full extent of ingredients in perfumes and fragrances. Some assume it’s a minimal blend flowers, herbs, spices and oils – and that is what perfume used to be. Thousands of years ago, the essences of herbs and spices were extracted to make perfume, later, perfumers began to distill flowers as well.
In the last century, more synthetic compounds have been added to perfume and fragrance blends. In fact, ‘fragrance’ is a sweeping term that can include hundreds of chemicals. That makes it particularly difficult for the consumer to even know what they are using, especially when there isn’t full disclosure of the ingredients on the label (it’s not required according to most government regulations and the perfume industry is self-regulating). What’s more, many of the ingredients in fragrance haven’t even been tested for safety.
The following graphic is from the report Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance. The entire report by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group is well worth your time, and delves into the hidden chemicals in fragrances and their impacts on our health. The report authors tested a selection of popular fragrances, and the graphics below show the percentage of untested chemicals and the secret chemicals they contain.
Health Risks of Fragrance and Perfume
Our skin is our largest organ. What we slather into and spray on our skin gets absorbed, or we inhale it, and this can lead to many serious health effects.
Fragrance and Hormone Disruption
The body has a variety of chemicals that communicate information about how our tissues should respond. Hormones are key players in this communication network. They need to be in balance, much like all of the instruments in a symphony need to be tuned. When the hormones are “out of tune”, symptoms and disease can ensue.
Fragrances have hormone-disrupting effects. They work by interfering with the production, release, transport and metabolism of hormones, and how they bind to the receptors on cells. They have been linked to various health issues 3 including breast cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid problems, and obesity, to name just a few.
Some of the common endocrine-disrupting chemicals in fragrance include:
This group of compounds, which are also found in plastics, can lead to impaired fertility (for both men and women), altered hormone levels and obesity, along with a host of other health effects from lower Vitamin D levels to irregular cardiovascular activity. In children, exposure to them may disrupt normal development, as well as increase the risk of allergic diseases and asthma, childhood obesity and behavioural problems.
Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
BHT can have both estrogenic and anti-estrogenic activity, as well as repress our natural response to estrogen. It may also be toxic to the liver, thyroid, kidney, and lungs, can affect blood coagulation, and promote tumor growth.
Synthetic musks have been shown to interfere with both estrogen and androgen receptors. Synthetic musks persist by bioaccumulating in our bodies and the environment. Musks have been detected in human blood samples, breastmilk and fat tissue.
Fragrance and Allergies, Eczema and Skin Conditions
Fragrances and fragrance exposure have been associated with a number of allergic effects, such as:
- Chest tightness and wheezing
- Infant diarrhea and vomiting
- Mucosal irritation
- Reduced pulmonary function
- Skin irritation and contact allergy/dermatitis
- Aggravation of eczema
Fragrance and Asthmatics
In this survey of asthmatics, 64% of asthmatics reported negative effects from fragrance, including asthma attacks, migraines, and respiratory problems.
Fragrance and Headaches and/Or Migraines Headaches
The smell of fragrance is a trigger for migraine headaches. In this study, exposure to perfume or fragrance odors brought on migraines within minutes. Participants also reported that fragrances triggered migraines more than paint, gasoline and bleach.
In another study, floral perfumes were actually used as a tool to trigger migraines in participants to differentiate between migraines and other types of headaches.
Fragrance Isn’t Just in Perfumes
The tricky thing about fragrance is you don’t need to wear perfume in order to be exposed. Fragrance compounds are also found in:
- Personal care products (shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, etc.)
- Makeup and hairstyling products
- Laundry products
- Home cleaning products
- Air fresheners
On average women use 12 personal care products daily; men use 6. All told, women are exposed to 168 chemicals each day and men about 68. When we use multiple products per day, and spritz perfume on top of that, there is a constant exposure and accumulation of these harmful compounds.
What You Can Do About Fragrance
- Eliminate anything that has a smell: fragrance, perfume, cologne, air fresheners, “plug ins”, cleaning products, laundry detergents, toilet bowl fresheners, etc. I have an entire course about how to create a healthy home to help you eliminate unwanted chemicals.
- Clean up your beauty care/personal care products and opt for natural, fragrance-free options.
- Detoxify from chemical exposures. I have a full post about safe detoxification, as well as a podcast episode to listen to.
- Opt for non-toxic scents. If you want to wear perfume, choose carefully. Scents are not intended to last for hours on end, nor cling to your clothes for days or weeks. I personally like the colognes and perfumes from Living Libations.
- Determine root cause of odors. If your reason for wearing fragrance or perfume is to mask an odor, it’s best to determine the root cause.