Not many people are aware of the dangers of synthetic scents like those found in air fresheners, shampoo, scented candles, detergents and dryer sheets. While the health effects might not be evident right away, there is science to prove that we should all be avoiding fake fragrances.
Synthetic scents are so bad that they’re even being called the new second-hand smoke. This is no surprise given about 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil). These include things like benzene derivatives (carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene, and many other toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions (1).
Avoiding synthetic scents is one of the most important things you could do not only for your health, but for the health of those around you (and not to mention the environment). When companies slap the word “fragrance” on the ingredient list – don’t let this trick you. Fragrance is a catch-all term that can stand for thousands of different ingredients (over 3,000!). When you use a product containing “fragrance” or “parfum,” all of these ingredients absorb through the skin and directly into your bloodstream.
What are Synthetic Scents?
Synthetic scents, otherwise known as “fragrance” on store-bought products represent a mixture of toxic ingredients that are known carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals and environmental toxicants.
Fragrance can be found in anything from:
– laundry detergent
– air fresheners
– scented candles
– lotions and serums
– dryer sheets
– plug-in air fresheners
– perfumes, colognes and body sprays
– other personal care products
Fragrance can also be found in “natural” products, too, so don’t be fooled by the term “natural” or “organic” on the front label.
Research conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found over 14 chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products (2). However, none of these chemicals were actually listed on the label – and they don’t have to be. Since manufacturers do not need to disclose the ingredients of the fragrances they use (thanks to the FDA), we’re often kept in the dark about them.
In general, about 3,000 ingredients could be picked from to create a product’s scent. Check out the online “Transparency List” put out by the International Fragrance Association to get an idea of how many fragrance chemicals we’re possibly exposed to every day.
If synthetic scents are so bad for our health, why do companies keep using them? As with most companies trying to save a penny at every opportunity, it’s because the scents are cheap – extremely cheap.
5 Serious Health Dangers of Synthetic Scents
Synthetic scents take a huge toll on our health – here are just a few ways that fragrance and parfum ingredients negatively affect the body.
1. Respiratory Irritant
We breathe in synthetic scents, and unless we are directly putting them on our skin, our lungs are our body’s first line of defence against the toxic chemicals. It’s actually quite common for asthmatics to suffer health symptoms when exposed to perfumes, colognes and other scented products, especially when they contain artificial scents.
Studies have even confirmed the negative effects synthetic fragrances have on respiratory health. One study showed a decline in exhalation volume by 58 percent when exposed to synthetic cologne (3).
If you have any breathing issues, steer clear of synthetic scents. They’re doing your lungs no good, and trigger an inflammatory response, which makes breathing harder. I remember back when I used to use perfumes and my breathing was always hampered every time I sprayed the bottle on my body. Somehow, I didn’t make the connection (until now, of course).
2. Cancer Causing
When it comes to preventing cancer, avoiding synthetic fragrances is at the top of the list. This is especially so for those wanting to avoid hormone-related cancers like breast cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. Why? Synthetic scents include hormone-disrupting phthalates and synthetic musks that completely throw our hormones off-whack (4).
One fragrance ingredient, styrene (also found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust), is particularly concerning. The National Academy of Sciences stated that some studies would support “a strong argument [for] listing styrene as a known human carcinogen,” based on “compelling evidence.”
Phthalates are another group of chemicals often disguised as “fragrance.” They’re connected to endocrine disruption, cancer, as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity. While these synthetic scents are banned from cosmetics in the European Union, they’re still quite common in products sold in the United States.
3. Reproductive Toxicity
Phthalates are also particularly concerning for the reproductive system, and have been linked to decreased sperm counts (5), early breast development (6) and birth defects (7). Artificial musks are also linked to hormone disruption, and are thought to persist and accumulate in breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood, and the environment.
So any mothers who are breast-feeding their children and using products that contain synthetic scents are passing these chemicals on to their babies. And this is where the next point comes into play.
Fetal exposure to phthalates has been linked to autism, symptoms of ADHD and neurological disorders. According to Dr. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Centre, “autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.” He adds, “the crux of this is brain development. If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemical that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime (8).”
Allergic reactions to fragrances also trigger headaches and migraines. Take toluene for example. This chemical is a well-established neurotoxin that can cause loss of muscle control, brain damage, headaches, memory loss, and problems with speech, hearing and vision.
Until recently, scientists believed that the brain was protected by an impermeable mechanism known as the “blood-brain barrier.” However, recent studies have shown that this system allows many environmental toxins (including those found in synthetic fragrances) and other scented products access to our delicate brain tissue. Once these compounds reach the brain, they can take years to eliminate, meaning they cause substantial damage to the brain until they exit (if they ever do). This damage can take the form of inflammation and plaque build-up in the brain – conditions that lead to serious brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
5. Liver & Kidney Damage
Chemicals found in synthetic scents like phthalates are known to damage the liver and kidneys. If the liver and kidneys aren’t functioning well, it’ll show on our skin in the form of rashes, dermatitis, acne, eczema and psoriasis. Fragrance mixes also trigger contact dermatitis, a type of allergic skin reaction (9).
How To Avoid Dangerous Synthetic Scents & The Best Natural Alternatives
So what’s a person to do when we’re constantly bombarded by fragrance in just about every product out there? Follow the steps below to ensure you stay fragrance-free.
Read Your Labels: if the label says “fragrance” or “parfum,” simply don’t buy it. Also avoid any product that lists phthalates, aldehydes, DEP, DBP, or DEHP as an ingredient. Instead, look for products that use essential oils as their fragrance source.
Make Your Own Products: making your own cleaning products and deodorant isn’t as hard as you might think. You can use essential oils for your fragrances, but be sure that the essential oils you’re using are pure. I like the essential oils from Eden’s Garden best. Instead of toxic air freshener, diffuse some essential oils in a diffuser and notice how much better you feel. You can even put a bowl of white vinegar on your countertop or windowsill to aid in natural odour control.
Double-Check Organic Products: while certified organic products are less likely to include artificial scents, watch out for “limonene” or “linalool.” These are synthetic, man-made versions of compounds people believe to be natural.
Ditch The Candles: if you want to burn candles, avoid anything that isn’t made with all-natural ingredients like soy wax or beeswax (make sure it is also made with a lead-free wick). Also, make sure the candles aren’t scented, as some beeswax and soy candles might still be made with fragrance or parfum.
Use Essential Oils Instead of Perfume: whether you want to mask the fact that you haven’t showered in a week or just want to smell good, skip the perfume and cologne and go for essential oils instead. I love frankincense and sandalwood, and suggest the oils manufactured by Eden’s Garden (voted number 1 non-MLM essential oil company). Always be aware, however, that some people have sensitivities to essential oils, so if you decide to wear these out and about, wear very little, if none at all.