For many of us, splashing or squirting perfume or cologne on ourselves is part of our daily grooming regime. But is our obsession with scent and smelling nice causing harm to ourselves and our planet?
In this post I’ll share the health and environmental impacts of fragrance and why I choose not to wear perfume.
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Before I delve into the issues around perfumes I just want to paint the picture of why they’ve never appealed to me.
Of course I’ve been gifted, and have even purchased myself, some lovely perfumes over the years….
My first trip to France in 2000 coincided with Lancôme’s “Miracle” launch and I returned home with more than one bottle of the luxury fragrance. However the irony is that I never finished that bottle, or bottles of other high-end perfumes that I purchased in my early twenties.
I simply didn’t feel great wearing them.
You see, I’m a migraine sufferer and I’ve always been super sensitive to certain smells. In fact, on a bad day, smells such as exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke and strong perfumes alone can trigger me to have a migraine attack…. which is never pretty (think auras where I can’t see, a throbbing headache and debilitating nausea…)
At the time I didn’t really question why perfumes affected me, I just accepted the fact and passed my bottles onto friends who happily took them off my hands.
And then I went on living life as you do in your early twenties……I didn’t really give perfumes any more thought until I became a mother a decade later.
While preparing to give birth to my first baby, I undertook a breastfeeding class held by the Australian Breastfeeding Association as I was eager to soak up any tips that would help me successfully establish breastfeeding. I recall the instructor explaining that a baby’s sense of smell is one of the most important elements of initiating breastfeeding.
She advised new mothers and fathers to not wear perfume/aftershave or use strong-smelling deodorants or soap for the first few days after birth, because perfumes can eliminate or mask natural odour signals that a newborn baby uses to locate the breast.[i]
We were also advised to politely request that any friends or family who came to visit the new baby also avoided wearing perfume and other fragrances. The reason for this was because the handling of a newborn baby by friends and relatives can leave their individual smells (food, perfume, aftershave, deodorant, cigarette smoke) on their clothes. This may confuse your baby and interfere with their recognition of you as mother and their ability to breastfeed.[ii]
Now this wasn’t a surprise to me as I’d long stopped wearing any perfume and was well in the process of detoxing my body and personal care products. However it did make me more interested in learning more about perfume and any associated health and environmental impacts.
WHAT IS IN PERFUME?
To understand the risk of any health implications from perfumes it pays to know their composition. But this is where things get tricky….
For intellectual property reasons, perfume houses don’t typically divulge the composition of their top fragrances.
It’s not unlike my Grandma and her raspberry coconut slice! Her recipe was top secret and if you squeezed it out of her she never made it for you again! Or she gave you the recipe but tweaked it a little so your batch never turned out as good as her….. but I digress…….
While you may not uncover a full list, you will be able to obtain general ingredients.
Here’s the ingredient list from Lancome’s Miracle perfume as published on their website:
ALCOHOL, PARFUM / FRAGRANCE, AQUA / WATER, LINALOOL, GERANIOL, ISOEUGENOL, CINNAMYL ALCOHOL, LIMONENE, HYDROXYCITRONELLAL, CITRAL, CITRONELLOL, ETHYLHEXYL METHOXYCINNAMATE, ETHYLHEXYL SALICYLATE, BUTYL METHOXYDIBENZOYLMETHANE, BUTYLPHENYL METHYLPROPIONAL, BENZYL BENZOATE, BENZYL SALICYLATE, BHT, BENZYL ALCOHOL, CI 147 / RED 4, CI 1551 / ORANGE 4, CI 172 / RED 33, CI 1914 / YELLOW 5, ALPHA-ISOMETHYLIONONE, HEXYL CINNAMAL.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL HEALTH IMPACTS OF PERFUME?
Adult humans are reported to absorb up to 60% of products directly applied to the skin. Toxins in perfumes and other body products absorbed through our skin typically end up in our bloodstream and are transported to our organs.
When we take a closer look at the above ingredients (using The Chemical Maze[iii] as a resource), we start to get a clearer picture of potential side effects of wearing perfume.
The Chemical Maze advises caution against using all the perfume ingredients listed below, with the exception of Fragrance, Isoeugenol, BHT and Benzyl Alcohol, which are ranked higher and are classified as being best avoided.
Here’s the specific potential health impacts of individual ingredients:
- FRAGRANCE (perfuming) – allergic reactions; asthma; suspected immune and neurotoxicity; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR).
- LINALOOL (perfuming) – allergic reactions; skin irritation; facial psoriasis. Plus it’s not assessed for safety in cosmetic by CIR.
- GERANIOL (perfuming) – allergic reactions; contact dermatitis; skin and eye irritation. Plus it’s not assessed for safety in cosmetic by CIR.
- ISOEUGENOL (perfuming) – allergic reactions; contact dermatitis; immune system toxicity; some animal studies show adverse effects; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
- CINNAMYL ALCOHOL (perfuming) – sensitisation; allergic reactions; may cause irritation to the skin, eyes or lungs; not assessed for safety in cosmetic by CIR.
- LIMONENE (perfuming) – sensitisation; skin; eye and lung irritation; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
- HYDROXYCITRONELLAL (perfuming) – allergic reactions; skin irritation; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
- CITRAL (perfuming) – allergic reactions; may cause irritation to the skin, eyes or lungs; sensitisation; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
- CITRONELLOL (perfuming) – irritation to skin, mouth, eyes or lips; sensitisation; allergic reactions; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
- BHT (antioxidant) – skin irritation; human skin toxicity; suspected liver, respiratory, skin or sense organ, kidney, immune and neurotoxicity; safe as used up to 0.5% (CIR).
- BENZYL ALCOHOL (perfuming, preservative, solvent, viscosity controlling) – Classified as harmful is used in products used around the mouth; liver; immune and neurotoxicity; allergic reactions; safe with qualifications (CIR); insufficient data to support safety where inhalation is primary route of exposure.
- ALPHA-ISOMETHYLIONONE (perfuming) – possible human toxicant; central nervous system disruption; may cause sensitisation; suspected environmental toxicity; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
- HEXYL CINNAMAL (perfuming) – allergic reactions; contact dermatitis; skin irritation; not assessed for safety in cosmetics by CIR.
Of course these are potential impacts and whether or not perfumes will have a detrimental impact on you comes down to your susceptibility (or sensitivity) as well as the dose (i.e. how often and how much you’re applying).
While synthetic fragrances contribute to my migraines, they may have no noticeable effect on you. Note that the absence of a noticeable effect doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not having an impact on your health.
But surely perfumes are tested for safety? I hear you ask…..!
One of the concerns I have about cosmetics, including perfumes, is that many ingredients haven’t been assessed for safety. Furthermore, many of the ingredients aren’t even disclosed and a good case in point here is FRAGRANCE……
WHAT IS FRAGRANCE?
Fragrance (or parfum) is commonly listed on many cosmetic and household products from perfumes to soaps, shampoos, deodorants, body lotions and cleaning products.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the term fragrance or parfum in an ingredient list represents just one ingredient, but that couldn’t be further from the truth…..
The term usually represents a complex mixture of dozens of chemicals. Indeed, some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances!!![iv]
Similar to the many separate ingredients listed in the Lancôme perfume example above, most of the thousands of chemicals used in fragrances have not been tested for toxicity, alone or in combination. Many of these unlisted ingredients are irritants and can trigger allergies, migraines, and asthma symptoms.[v] Laboratory experiments have also linked some individual fragrance ingredients with cancer[vi] and neurotoxicity.[vii]
Like my Grandma’s Raspberry Coconut Slice, fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets and manufacturers are not required to disclose fragrance chemicals in the list of ingredients.
So essentially, when you purchase a perfume, there’s no way knowing exactly what you’re applying to your body, even if the ingredients are listed on the bottle, because if fragrance/parfum is listed there could be tens or even hundreds more chemical ingredients included than what’s listed.
This loophole in labelling regulations doesn’t just apply to perfumes for cosmetic use, it impacts all products that contain fragrance.
WHAT IS THE POTENTIAL ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF PERFUME?
While normal use of perfumes generally doesn’t produce an adverse environmental impact, the manufacture of perfumes and their raw materials, and any accidental or purposeful discharges to air, water or soil, can lead to negative environmental impacts.
From an ecological perspective, synthetic musks in fragrances are of particular concern due to their ability to persist and bioaccumulate in the environment. Measureable levels of synthetic musks have been detected in fish and sediments in the Great Lakes of Northern America.
IS THERE A NATURAL, HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE TO WEARING SYNTHETIC PERFUMES?
The good news is you can enjoy wearing a scent without resorting to expensive traditional perfumes. By switching to a suitable organic or therapeutic grade essential oils (or perfume made from essential oils) you can smell lovely and reap the therapeutic benefits of essential oils as well!
These days when I wish to wear a scent, I opt for an essential oil blend. Young Living “Joy” or even “Stress Away” oil blends smell delicious and have the added benefit of lifting my mood or easing any anxious thoughts. You can purchase Young Living Essential Oils here, using these instructions.
I was also gifted an organic perfume that a friend purchased from Sacred Self. It’s a cute roll on with a quartz crystal inside, that I carry in my handbag (as well as wear once a week or so) and I’m a big fan!
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
To enjoy optimum health we really need to smarten up on not just what we put IN our bodies, but what we put ON them.
That’s one of the main reasons why I created the Home Detox Boot Camp 2.5 years ago. It was the first online course of its kind to guide participants on a journey to break up with toxins in their homes and has helped hundreds of participants create a cleaner, greener home.
In the course I delve into cleaning and pest control products as well as personal care and beauty. All in a supportive community and with access to me for questions and insights from guest experts who are leaders in their fields.
I’ll be opening the doors again this coming week and you can join here.
[i] Varendi, Porter, Winberg (1996) Attractiveness of amniotic fluid odour: evidence of prenatal olfactory learning? Acta Paediatrica 85: 1223-1227.
[ii] Cox (2009) Baby Magic: Planning for a lifetime of love, Australian Breastfeeding Association, Victoria: p72.
[iii] Statham, B and Schneider, L. (2012) The Chemical Maze Bookshelf Companion: Your Guide to Food Additives and Cosmetic Ingredients. Hyde Park Press
[v] Thyssen, JP et al. “Contact sensitization to fragrances in the general population: a Koch’s approach may reveal the burden of disease.” Br J Dermatol 460, 4 (Apr 2009): 729-35.
[vi] Stahlhut, RW et al. Concentrations of urinary phthalate metabolites are associated with increased waste circumference and insulin resistence in adult U.S.males. Environmental Health Perspectives 115, 6 (Jun 2007).
[vii] Health Canada. Government of Canada Acts to Help Ensure Soft Vinyl Toys, Child-Care Articles and Other Consumer Products Are Safer. News Release. June 2009