Your favorite perfume might make you smell fresh as a spring garden, but that designer scent could contain toxic after-notes. Scientific research provides evidence that the harmful effects of some scented personal care products linger even after the shroud of fragrance has faded away.
You should know that the Food and Drug Administration has much more limited role when it comes to regulating cosmetics and body care products than it does medications. In fact, with the exception of color additives and a few prohibited ingredients — think deadly chloroform and mercury compounds — a cosmetic manufacturer can use almost any raw ingredient in its products without FDA restriction.
And lurking amid a slew of unpronounceable chemical compounds used to formulate your go-to perfume or body wash is a one-word ingredient that encompasses a lot more risks than its familiarity suggests: “fragrance.”
Sometimes listed as “parfum,” fragrance is a generic, all-encompassing label that manufacturers are permitted to use in product labels due to a legal loophole in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act. The FPL Act states that nothing deemed to be a “trade secret” shall be forcibly divulged to the public. A study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reports that the fragrance industry uses up to 3,000 ingredients — the majority of which are synthetic. Of this staggering number of mystery chemicals, 900 were identified as toxic.
So what exactly is tingeing your sweetly scented shampoo with poisonous under-notes? One culprit wearing the mask of the overarching “perfume” label is phthalates, which are known to disrupt hormonal systems, causing harm in critical periods of development and potentially hindering the functioning of sexual organs. Studies have linked phthalates to the development of breast tumor cells and are believed to render certain anti-estrogen cancer treatments, like tamoxifen, less effective.
The phthalates DEP and DEHP, which are banned in Europe, were found in 12-out-of-17 popular fragrance products tested in a 2010 “Not So Sexy” report by watchdog group the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. A 2004 CDC report on “Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals” found measurable levels of phthalates in the general population, indicating widespread exposure. They also found that phthalates were found in higher levels in adult women than in men — not all that surprising considering the primary consumers of scented soaps, body scrubs, shampoos and cosmetics.
A 2009 study in Austria, published in Science of the Total Environment, found that younger people with a higher use of personal care products, particularly perfumes and scented lotions, had the highest levels of polycyclic musks — a potentially harmful synthetic ingredient in some fragrances — present in their bodies. And the ugly truth of such beauty products is that their effects are more than skin-deep; the musks were measured by the level present in the study participants’ blood. While the effects of musks on humans are unknown, they have been shown to negatively impact reproduction in rats and fish, and can damage DNA.
Fragrances also can be more asthma-inducing than alluring to those around you. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, 30.5% of survey participants said they found scented products on others to be “irritating.” And by “irritating,” they don’t just mean “I don’t really care for her perfume.” They are referring to headaches and breathing difficulties some individuals suffer as the result of hidden fragrance ingredients.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics fragrance study we mentioned earlier also discovered an average of 10 sensitizing chemicals commonly associated with allergic reactions from asthma to contact dermatitis present in the tested perfumes. These chemicals caught the attention of the makers of the European Union’s Cosmetics Directive in 2005, when they added an amendment requiring cosmetics manufacturers to include such potentially harmful chemicals in product labels if they are present higher than a certain concentration.
To save yourself the worry and others a potential headache, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics suggests reducing your daily fragrance exposure. This can be something as simple as opting for a fragrance-free laundry detergent, lotion or household cleaning product.
Be wary of products boasting that they are “fragrance-free,” however, as some products labeled as such actually contain special fragrances to cover up the undesirable chemical smell of other product ingredients. Unfortunately, even appealing labels like “natural,” “organic” and “hypoallergenic” don’t carry much legal meaning either, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows but does not require products to be certified organic, warns the Organics Consumers Association.
The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics database provides a list of truly all-natural fragrances. Most are simply diluted versions of highly concentrated natural oils — think peppermint or lavender.
Chances are, if you can pronounce and understand the short list of ingredients, you can spritz or slather on the product without fear of transforming yourself into a freaky science experiment. Just go easy, please — the unspoken rule of not suffocating your elevator companions with your signature scent still applies.