The dangers of synthetic scents aren’t always evident, but we have the science to prove that everyone, regardless of age or health, needs to make avoiding fake fragrances a major priority.
A National Academy of Sciences points out some vital facts: About 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil). They include benzene derivatives (carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. (1) Unfortunately, 30 years later, toxic ingredients continue turn up in products we use and breathe in on a daily basis. Some of the worst toxic ingredients used in lotions, shampoos, laundry detergents, cleaning products and so much more include synthetic scents, often listed as on labels as the elusive “fragrance.” And many on the list are known or suspected endocrine disruptors, compounds that tinker with hormonal health that can trigger weight gain and even set you up for diseases decades down the line.
Avoiding the dangers of synthetic scents is crucial. It’s something I need you to share with your family and friends. When a company puts “fragrance” on the label, don’t be tricked. This is a catch-all term actually can stand for thousands of different ingredients (literally, at least 3,000). And when you use a product containing “fragrance” or “parfum,” all of those mysterious ingredients are absorbed right into your bloodstream. These ingredients are predominantly made from chemicals and are just outright toxic for your health in so many ways.
While our allure with natural fragrances is baked into our DNA as a way to find food and mates, synthetic fragrances are completely unnecessary and are making us super sick in our modern-day world. Sure, drawing fragrances from nature has a long history in religious ceremonies, burials and a way to increase libido. But in this article, we’re focusing on the man-made fragrances that started emerging in the late 1800s. The dangers of these synthetic scents not only include short-term symptoms like allergies and respiratory distress, but also headaches, dizziness, nausea and brain fog. We’ll get into other, less obvious side (but super serious) side effects in a bit. (2) This serves as evidence that regardless of your age or health status, it is imperative that you avoid fragrance chemicals.
What Are Synthetic Scents?
Synthetic scents or “fragrance” represent an unidentified mixture of ingredients including carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals and environmental toxicants. These artificial scents can can be found in all kinds of body care and cosmetic products, as well as air fresheners, cleaning materials and laundry detergents. According to the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, hair products are especially problematic. More than 95 percent of shampoos, conditioners and styling products contain fragrance as an ingredient. (3) I’m sure you’ll agree that we all want our hair to smell good, but we could do without the use of toxic ingredients.
Research conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products. But it doesn’t stop there — none of these chemicals were actually listed on the label. (4)
In general, there at least 3,000 ingredients that could possibly be used to form a product’s scent. That’s according to the online “Transparency List” put out by the International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group. (5) I encourage to take a look at the following list, derived from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, to see just how many fragrance chemicals we’re possibly exposed to every day.
It may seem unbelievable, but the FDA does not even currently require fragrance and cosmetic makers to disclose exactly what they are using to scent products. If companies are using truly natural ingredients, then why be shy? Many will say that their formulas are proprietary and they don’t want other companies copying them. The FDA website also states how the agency cannot legally require companies to warn about allergens in cosmetic like they do with food. (6)
Are you wondering why companies would continue to use synthetic scents if they’re so bad for our health? The answer is straightforward — they are cheaper. Synthetic scents can be an extremely cheap way to give everything from shampoo to lotion to candles a desirable scent. Unfortunately, just because you enjoy a scent, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
Fake Fragrances: Making People’s Lives Miserable
In an August 2016 study published by veteran fragrance chemical researcher Anne Steinemann, PhD, we see the scope of how scented products impact our daily lives. But here’s a positive stat from the study: She found that more than 50 percent of the population would prefer fragrance-free workplaces, health care facilities and professionals, hotels and airplanes.
- Overall reported health problems after exposure to fake fragrance: Overall, 34 percent of the population reported one or more types of adverse health effects from exposure to fragranced products. The most common symptoms were: 18 percent respiratory problems; 16 percent mucosal symptoms; 15 percent migraine headaches; 10 percent skin problems; 8 percent asthma attacks; 7 percent neurological problems; 5 percent cognitive problems; 5 percent gastrointestinal problems; 4 percent cardiovascular problems; 4 percent immune system problems; 3 percent musculoskeletal problems; and 1 percent “other.”
- Scented laundry products vented outdoors: 12 percent reported health problems from the scent of laundry products coming from a dryer vent. Symptoms include headaches, breathing difficulties and other health problems.
- Proximity to fragranced person: 23 percent reported health problems from being near someone who is wearing a fragranced product.
- Trouble in public places: 17 percent of people say they are unable or reluctant to use public toilets because of air freshener, deodorizer or scented product; 14 percent are unable or reluctant to their wash hands with soap in a public place because they suspect the soap is fragranced. Further, 22.7 percent have been prevented from going to some public place because of scented products.
- Economic losses: Fragranced product exposures have economic implications, too. Of those surveyed, 20 percent would enter but then leave a business as quickly as possible if they smell fragranced products, and 15 have lost workdays or a job due to fragranced product exposures in the workplace.
Clearly, the United States is ready for fragrance-free policies. Share these facts with your employers, favorite businesses and local government to encourage fragrance-free policies.
Serious Dangers of Synthetic Scents
According to the Breast Cancer Fund, when it comes to the prevention of cancer, avoiding synthetic fragrance is one of the main ways to help yourself. That’s because the dangers of synthetic scents include hormone-disrupting phthalates and synthetic musks. (7)
The National Academy of Sciences endorsed the 2011 finding by the National Toxicology Program, a collaboration of scientists from several government agencies, that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based on “compelling evidence.” The organization also said that some studies would support “a strong argument [for] listing styrene as a known human carcinogen.” (Their italics, not mine).
Styrene is found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust. Doesn’t sound like it would smell too good, but shockingly, it’s actually being used in cosmetic sprays and liquids as well as cleaning products. According to the EWG, if a company doesn’t fully disclose that it contains styrene (which it most likely will not) then the only way you’ll know it’s present is if you use a gas chromatograph or mass spectrometer. (8)
Sadly, styrene is just one of many ingredients linked to cancer being used to create artificial fragrance. Phthalates are another group of chemicals often disguised as “fragrance.” They are connected to cancer, endocrine disruption as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity. These dangerous synthetics are already banned from cosmetics in the European Union, but are still quite common in products produced and sold in the United States. Phthalates often hide under the “fragrance” ingredient, but they can also appear on ingredient lists as phthalate, DEP, DBP, and DEHP. Be sure to avoid all of those. (9)
Child Autism & Other Birth Defects
Most products that list “fragrance” contain a very unwanted ingredient when it comes to good health. I’m talking about phthalates, again. Research conducted by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center demonstrates that fetal exposure to phthalates is linked to autism, symptoms of ADHD and neurological disorders. This why pregnant women have to be ultra careful when it comes to the products they’re exposed to on a daily basis. The dangers of synthetic scents could be even more life-altering for a developing fetus.
A 2010 New York Times article quoted Dr. Landrigan on the subject. He said that he is “increasingly confident that 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 chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime.” (10)
A very interesting 2010 peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that women with higher levels of certain phthalates gave birth to children that, years later, were more likely to display disruptive behavior. (11) It’s alarmingly true that fragrance materials are able to accumulate in human fat tissue. They are also present in breast milk. (12)
Allergic & Toxic Bodily Reactions
Fragrances are one of the top five allergens in the world. (13) Allergic reactions include headaches and migraines, difficulty breathing and sinus irritation, just to name a few. Fragrance mixtures also commonly trigger contact dermatitis, a type of allergic skin reaction. (14) In recent years, health reports show that allergies, sinus problems, migraines and asthma have all increased dramatically. Many experts believe there’s a likely link between the rise in these conditions and the increased use of products containing fragrance. (15)
Using animal models, a 1998 study published in Archives of Environmental Health looked at how fragrance products produce toxic effects in mammals. They found that the emissions of fragrance products caused various combinations of: eyes, nose and throat irritations; pulmonary irritation; decreases in airflow velocity when exhaling; and signs of neurotoxicity. This neurotoxicity was even worse when the animal subjects suffered repeated exposure to the scented products. (16)
Asthma & Other Breathing Difficulties
If you have asthma, you really don’t need anything to get in the way of breathing easily. It’s extremely common for asthmatics to suffer health symptoms when exposed to perfumes, colognes and other scented products, especially when they contain artificial scents.
One study looked at patients with a history of worsening asthma symptoms after being exposed to cologne. They found that the patients’ exhalation volume decline by 18 to 58 percent during cologne exposure. (17)
There’s no doubt in my mind that synthetic scents are enemies of optimal breathing, especially if you have breathing issues to begin with, like asthmatics. If you have asthma or any other breathing trouble, then truly fragrance-free products are your best bet.
Better Alternatives to Dangerous Synthetic Scents
The good news is that if you are a careful reader, you can help yourself and your family to avoid the dangers of synthetic scents in all of the products you buy and use.
There are also many better options and ways to avoid the dangers of synthetic scents including:
- Just live with fewer fragrances in your life. One easy solution to freshen your air? Put a bowl of white vinegar your countertop or windowsill to aid in natural odor control. Be sure to focus on cleaning up the source of odor, though, too — not just covering up the foul smell.
- Completely avoiding any product that lists fragrance, parfum, phthalate, DEP, DBP, or DEHP as an ingredient.
- Look for products that use essential oils when you are looking for a scent.
- Buying certified organic products, which are less likely to include artificial scents (but still read labels). Watch out for “limonene” or “linalool” on labels, too.
- To provide a fresh, natural scent to your home or office, use fresh cut herbs and flowers and potted plants. Studies have even shown that the best houseplants that remove pollution help strip indoor air of some toxic compounds.
- Make homemade cleaning products since they are another huge source of synthetic scents.
- Buy laundry detergent that is scented with pure essential oils or that is fragrance-free. You can also make your own homemade laundry soap.
- If you are super sensitive or just don’t want to deal with smelling anything at all then choose fragrance-free or unscented products. Just make sure to still read labels carefully because sometimes companies will use other questionable ingredients to create that lack of a scent.
- If you want to burn an occasional candle, use beeswax with a lead-free wick. But understand that any type of combustion will cause some level of particulate pollution in the home. (But at least you won’t get the toxic fragrance or petroleum chemicals.)
- Question companies that don’t fully explain how their products are scented. Maybe you’ll get some additional information or at best, get them to think again before not fully informing their customers.
- Share the stats in this article with your employer and favorite businesses. Let them know about the economic harms of allowing fragrances in public and work spaces.
High quality, 100 percent pure essential oils are not cheap like synthetic scents, but for good reason. Essential oils are extremely concentrated. It takes a 1,000 pounds of handpicked flowers from an orange tree to produce the neroli essential oil, which has an incredible floral and citrusy intoxicating scent. Neroli is just one of many awesome options when it comes to essential oils.
Also, make sure to avoid synthetic scents with pet products, since the dangers of synthetic scents can be similar for animals.
Final Thoughts on the Dangers of Synthetic Scents
I really want to emphasize how important it is that you and your loved ones avoid the dangers of synthetic scents as much as possible. I also want to remind you again about what’s so much better than those fake smells — essentials oils. With so many scents to choose from and combine, the options for lovely natural scents are practically endless. They even make plug-ins now that use essential oils.
Interestingly, people who are heavy users of fake fragrances seem to build up a tolerance to them. But as you give up the dangers of synthetic scents, you’ll likely become less tolerant of them. So many people tell me that after they detox from chemical fragrances, they often feel sick when they walk down the detergent aisle or body spray sections of stores.
One of the best ways to protect your overall health is to choose products that are truly free of fragrance or ones that fully disclose a natural fragrance ingredients. Pregnant and breastfeeding moms should be especially careful for the sake of themselves as well as their developing children.
You really have to read labels to know what you’re getting these days when it comes to everything, especially any scented product. If you have asthma or breathing problems and are currently using synthetic scents, you are very likely to notice a big difference when you remove these fake fragrances from your life. Some of the other health effects might be less obvious, but the science is there to demonstrate how the more you cut out the dangers of synthetic scents from your life, the more you can hopefully decrease your chances of some serious and chronic health problems.
So toss those synthetic scents in the trash immediately and go smell a flower and remember how the best scents are truly all around us in nature, and bottled in essential oils too.
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