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Fragrance 101: the downside of smelling good

Fragrance 101: the downside of smelling good

Fragrances are intoxicating and alluring. As they can improve our moods and trigger fond memories, no wonder we’re drawn to products with pleasing scents. Perhaps you have a spicy perfume that makes you feel sexy and confident or a citrus shampoo that invigorates and refreshes you. Even your foundation and chapstick have a pleasant smell that you probably enjoy.

But there’s also a downside to smelling good. Fragrances can disrupt your hormones, mess with your nervous system, and have been linked to cancer. And they’re everywhere — not only in perfumes — but also in cosmetics, personal care products (ahem, mainstream tampons), soaps, and household cleaning products.

So, how can something so sweet-smelling be so bad for your health?

Chances are, your coconut-scented conditioner and mango face scrub didn’t get their aromas from natural sources. Most fragrances found in consumer products are made from a complex mixture of synthetic, lab-created chemicals, some of which can be toxic.

In fact, according to the Center for Environmental Health and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), two consumer watchdog groups, many of the approximately 3,000 chemicals used to make fragrances have not been adequately tested for safety. For example, EWG commissioned an independent laboratory test of 17 name-brand fragrances and found a total of 91 ingredients used across these products, of which only about a quarter had been previously assessed for safety. Additionally, the tests revealed 38 “secret chemicals” that were not disclosed on the product labels of the fragrances under study.

For instance, many fragrances contain phthalates, a class of petroleum-based chemicals, which have been shown to disrupt hormones and lead to developmental disorders. It’s no wonder so many children’s products are now labeled “phthalate-free” and that both the EU and Canadian governments have restricted the use of phthalates in kids’ toys (though using phthalates to make kids’ toys is legal in the U.S.).

Fragrances can also contain styrene, a probable human carcinogen, as reported by the National Academy of Sciences. Another potentially dangerous ingredient is musk, a group of chemicals that can harm the nervous and reproductive systems.

Unfortunately for consumers, these ingredients do not have to be listed on product labels, thanks to “trade-secret” laws that protect manufacturers from revealing their special fragrance formulas. Instead, U.S. law allows manufacturers to use the terms “fragrance” or “parfum” as a stand-in for the tens of thousands of ingredients used across the industry to make your products smell good. (Think of fragrances as the “natural flavors” of the cosmetic world.)

And, here’s another shocker. According to the FDA, “Even some products labeled ‘unscented’ may contain fragrance ingredients” that are used to “mask the unpleasant smell of other ingredients, without giving the product a noticeable scent.”

You may be probably wondering how the U.S. government can allow this to happen? The problem is that the U.S. has a very lax regulatory system when it comes to the use of synthetic chemicals in consumer products. In theory, companies are supposed to “substantiate the safety” of synthetic chemicals before using them in products, but the FDA has not established standards as to what constitutes “substantiating safety,” i.e. it doesn’t require specific tests. Furthermore, the FDA doesn’t ask cosmetics manufacturers to share their safety information with the agency.

To sum it up, the American regulatory system assumes a chemical is safe until proven harmful. However, many other countries do the opposite: they require the manufacturer to prove the safety of a chemical compound before releasing it on the market. This explains why certain fragrance ingredients, like musk compounds, have been banned in Japan and in Europe, despite being perfectly legal in the U.S.

Chemicals banned for use in cosmetics

So what can you do to limit your exposure to potentially hazardous fragrances in your beauty regimen? Your best bet is to avoid products that list “fragrance,” “perfume,” or “parfum” on the label. Luckily, more and more personal care products are now being scented with natural ingredients derived from plants.

Also, when investigating a product, you should consult the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep Database, a great resource for evaluating product safety. The database assigns safety scores to different products based on their ingredients, and explains the potential risks and the scientific sources for their evaluations. You can search the database by ingredient, product, or company.

To make shopping easier, stick to trusted brands that have a track record of using natural and safer ingredients. Some affordable brands I trust are Dr. Bronner’s — which makes a variety of natural castile soaps, as well as shaving gel, hair care products, toothpaste, and lip and body balms; EO (“everyone”), which offers skincare and bath products; and Whole Foods’ 365 brand, which offer many different body care products that are scented with essential oils extracted from orange, lavender, mint, almond, tea tree, and more.

Bottom line: always read the label.