Fruity, floral, earthy, fresh, spicy, sexy. From perfumes to cleaning products, candles, creams, soaps, decorative cosmetics, toilet papers, laundry detergents, air fresheners to scented toys - in fact, almost everything that is used to care for you or your home has some sort of "attractive" scent.There are over 5,000 chemicals that are currently used in these scented products. But usually you won't find any of them on the label of the product you buy. How is that even possible? Because fragrance compositions are considered trade secrets and therefore protected from disclosure, even to regulatory authorities. Instead, there is one magic word on the ingredients list, and that is most often "fragrance". And a single "perfume" can contain a combination of up to 300 chemicals with varying health risks. And those risks may not be small.
It is scientifically proven that smells and odours can affect our mood. Just think of fresh stroopwafels, clean laundry or a basket full of dirty clothes and our emotions are already working. Manufacturers of cosmetics and household products know that added scents and aromas are great for making their products seem better, more effective or healthier. And if you're like most people, you definitely think added fragrances are 100% safe. Unfortunately, (synthetic) fragrances can be linked to a whole set of health risks, so let's take a look at them.
The evolution of perfumery
Scents and perfumes have a long history in human culture. For centuries, their use has taken two predominant forms: either for ritual purposes (e.g. in the form of incense) or as a kind of "decoration" for the body. Over the centuries, perfumes have consisted of natural ingredients, essentially plant but also animal extracts derived from musk. And because up to thousands of kilograms of plant material were needed to obtain just one kilogram of essential oil, perfumes were particularly expensive and available only to some. It wasn't until the mid-19th century that change came. The advent of modern synthetic chemistry greatly enriched the fragrance portfolio (among other synthetic substances) and allowed for greater creative freedom. Perfumery, initially a craft, was transformed into a powerful industry. Chemistry has thus become the basis of modern perfumery: synthetic fragrances, i.e. fragrances that contain natural ingredients combined with synthetic substances or are made entirely of synthetic substances, are generally perceived as stronger, longer-lasting, more sophisticated and cheaper than natural fragrances.
The fact that natural fragrances can be replicated in the lab has brought a number of benefits - mainly economic and perhaps a few environmental. Indeed, synthesizing fragrances from cheap petroleum derivatives is much cheaper than sourcing, extracting and purifying natural raw materials. Batches are also more reproducible because the quality and price of natural raw materials is very sensitive to changes in agricultural practices, natural and climatic conditions such as sunshine, rainfall, temperature, but also soil, and diseases. Moreover, synthetics represent an alternative to ingredients coming from fragile or depleted ecosystems, like sandalwood. It has a sweet, spicy scent and is used in perfumes, personal care products, as well as in Hindu and Buddhist rituals and traditional Chinese medicine. Its over-exploitation has led to a global shortage and an increase in the market price of sandalwood. As a result, Santalum album was listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and its exploitation has been strictly controlled ever since.
Picture: Sandalwood ritual
It has so many benefits, so where is the problem?
You might sense from the introduction that if perfume mixtures are disclosed even from the regulatory authorities, something is suspicious here. Exposure to (synthetic) fragrances is associated with a range of health problems: skin, respiratory, neurological and systemic pathologies are the most commonly cited. Fragrances are consistently presented as the first (or second) most common cause of allergic contact dermatitis. They aggravate eczema and asthma, and can cause migraines. Most fragrances belong to at least one of three groups: phthalates, synthetic musks and/or sensitizers (substances that can cause hypersensitivity on contact). From the group names, we can already guess that these are not the best ones to put on your skin and breathe in.
Phthalates are a fairly diverse group of substances that are most commonly used to soften plastics. You can find them in plastic bags, PET bottles, various food packaging materials, toys and PVC flooring. And since phthalates are not tightly bound in plastics, they can be released. In cosmetics, they are most often used to slow down the release of fragrance and also to make fragrances last longer. Health risks vary according to the type of phthalate - some are neurotoxic or reprotoxic (disrupting reproductive organs, damaging sperm), while others damage the endocrine system (hormone balance) or impair immunity, are responsible for thinning bones and/or compromise kidney and liver function. In addition, children's rapidly developing organisms are more sensitive than those of adults. Unfortunately, exposure to phthalates is associated with impaired masculinity and feminisation in boys.
2. Synthetic musks
Synthetic musks are another group associated with a number of health risks. Not only are they endocrine disruptors, but they can also be carcinogenic (most commonly associated with breast cancer), have genotoxic effects and, in addition, enhance the effects of other genotoxic substances (by the synergistic effect). They can block efflux transporters in the liver, which can lead to accumulation of toxic substances and organ damage. They accumulate in adipose tissue and may also pass into breast milk. Not only 'contaminated' breast milk, but also prenatal exposure to certain chemicals (particularly those in perfumes) may be responsible for autism spectrum disorders in children. Not to mention their accumulation in the environment.
3. Sensitizing substances
Sensitizing substances are substances that can cause hypersensitivity when inhaled, ingested or in contact with the skin, so that further exposure to these substances will cause adverse health effects, such as respiratory problems, allergies, or eczema. It should also be noted here that the allergenic potential of a substance does not depend on whether the substance is synthetic or natural. In particular, its chemical structure, concentration, purity and interaction with other compounds are decisive. Allergic reactions often occur even when exposed to natural essential oils. The most frequently cited fragrance allergens are limonene and linalool - rarely sensitizing in themselves, but their oxidation products are strong allergens. In addition, combined exposure to different allergenic fragrances can lead to a significant risk, even if the individual fragrance components have only a low allergenic potential.
In fragrance products you can often find also other substances and their names alone can tell us that they have carcinogenic and/or toxic effects: styrene, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, ethyl acetate, methylene chloride, acetaldehyde, benzophenone, formaldehyde, methanol, 1,4-dioxane to name a few.
Regulations by legislation - can we feel protected?
The health risks of synthetic fragrances and perfumes seem terrific, so how come their use in cosmetics or household products is not regulated by law? Current laws do not give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require disclosure of fragrance ingredients. In the US, companies are required to list individual ingredients on the label, but this usually excludes fragrance components such as the aforementioned trade secrets. IFRA (International Fragrance Association) and RIFM (Research Institute for Fragrance Materials) develop and set GOOD standards for chemicals used as fragrance ingredients in products. The US, Canada and Europe rely on IFRA and RIFM to identify ingredients for use in perfumes. Simply put - the "fragrance" industry is essentially self-regulating and can take guidance from IFRA or RIFM on the health risks of certain chemicals into account. But they don't have to! Additionally, it should be pointed out that what IFRA and RIFM are doing is certainly commendable, however there are a number of chemicals that are potentially hazardous but there are no published safety reviews or IFRA standards for them. In short - safety standards for the use of fragrances and perfumes are far from adequate.
All cosmetic products placed on the EU market are assessed as safe in accordance with the Act on the protection of public health. This means that all ingredients in the product are either safe for health or safety limits are set for "risk ingredients" with potentially toxic effects that must be respected. However, for the ingredient 'fragrance', the safety of its composition is not checked at all due to trade secrets.
Do you feel like switching your perfume now?
Perfect first step would be switching your commercial perfume for natural perfume. You can try our top brand Aimée de Mars. Also, a safer solution may be to use essential oils. When you realize how fragrant everything around you is, you may try using the essential oil for your laundry or as an air freshener. They are obtained by distilling pure plant material with water or steam or by pressing citrus peels. You won't find any synthetic additives in pure essential oils. But even in their case it is good to be cautious. Essential oils can also cause allergies or skin irritations, and some are photosensitive. Before using an essential oil, it is always necessary to dilute it properly and test it first on a small patch of skin to see if it irritates you. Although the scent of essential oils is not as long-lasting (compared to synthetic perfumes), their aromatherapeutic use is really wide and definitely worth a try. In case you need something milder than essential oil, we recommend hydrolates or floral waters - you can find what they are and how they can be used in our blog.
Are you also interested in other non-toxic topics? You might like:
- Pavlistova, Pavla and Hrivnakova, Katarina. Svet non toxic: mene je vice, CPress, 2021.