Don’t believe everything you smell… or can’t smell!

I've recently written a research paper on three different chemicals found in day to day personal care products.  I found the information available on the ingredient 'fragrance' to be the most concerning.  In the interest of spreading awareness, I am sharing with you, friends, my research.  I discuss both the health and environmental effects of this ingredient, as well as provide some practical recommendations.  Buckle in.

Due to manufacturers protecting trade secrets and a lack of knowledge and research on the toxicity of many thousands of chemicals that fall under the umbrella of “fragrance”, this ingredient is arguably the one we should be the most concerned about.  The true effects of these chemical compounds on our bodies and the environment are largely unclear.

Take a look around your home, and you will find that fragrance, a.k.a. parfum, is an ingredient listed in just about everything from deodorant to laundry detergent.  Even more alarming, according to the David Suzuki Foundation: “Even products marketed as ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘unscented’ may in fact contain fragrance along with a masking agent that prevents the brain from perceiving odour.”  Further, some fragrance ingredients are not actually perfuming agents; rather they are included to enhance the performance of perfuming agents.

The David Suzuki Foundation also reports that approximately 3,000 chemicals fall under the term “fragrance” or “parfum”.  If the ingredient appears on a cosmetic ingredients list, it most likely represents a complex mixture of dozens of such chemicals.  Perhaps the greatest concern is that not only have many of the ingredients not been tested for toxicity, but certain fragrance recipes are considered by manufacturers to be trade secrets and are therefore not required to disclose the list of ingredients.  Certain studies suggest that many of these unlisted ingredients can trigger migraines and allergies as well as exacerbate and cause respiratory symptoms in asthmatics.  In laboratory experiments, adverse health effects such as cancer and neurotoxicity have reportedly been associated with fragrance ingredients.  Environmental Defence published a report after analyzing 17 name-brand colognes and perfumes and identifying 38 “secret chemicals” i.e. not listed on the product, finding an average of 14 such chemicals per product.  The report found that among these chemicals are those that can trigger allergic reactions or interfere with hormone function.  

As the trend goes, the regulatory practices in the European Union are far stronger than here in North America.  The David Suzuki Foundation reports that regulations were recently announced by Health Canada banning six phthalates, including DEP (used to make scent linger) in children’s toys; however, the use of DEP in cosmetics is unrestricted.  Further, the European Union restricts the use of two common “nitromusks”, as well as many other fragrance ingredients.  Warning labels on products are required on any products that contain any of the 26 commonly used allergens used as cosmetic fragrances.

Environmental Working Group rates the overall hazard of fragrance in between moderate and high (eight out of ten), with an above moderate rating for allergies and immunotoxicity.  Good Guide rates fragrance as a “controversial ingredient”, noting it is the subject of debate.  It states the concern that some fragrance compounds are respiratory irritants or allergens.  It also acknowledges that few companies disclose the specific ingredients used in their products and notes that some commit to not using potentially hazardous ingredients.  What is most alarming about Good Guide’s rating of fragrance is its statement that “Because the evidence of hazard is inconclusive, this ingredient does not contribute to product scores.” 

In terms of the effects on the environment, the “synthetic musks” used in fragrances are definitely a concern.  The David Suzuki Foundation reports that studies show that these chemical compounds are bio-accumulating in the fatty tissues of aquatic life and increasing levels of sediment in the Great Lakes.  It comes as no surprise then that Environment Canada has classified several of these musks as toxic and human health priorities and is currently assessing “moskene”, a synthetic musk, under the aforementioned Chemicals Management Plan.  They’ve also flagged several others for future assessment.  Given that we know these chemical compounds are bio-accumulating in aquatic organisms and environments, coupled with the fact that we largely remain under a veil as to the true effects these chemical compounds have, it is clear that care should be taken in both the production and disposal of these chemical compounds in order to protect our ecosystems.

Until further and focused research is conducted and assessments made about the toxicity levels of these chemical compounds, and until manufacturers are committed to using only non-hazardous ingredients in their products, it’s fair to say that we are putting our health, and the environment, at risk when using products containing this ingredient. 

So, what can we do? Especially when we can't trust that 'unscented' products are safe?  Well, we can avoid these products that boast 'fragrance free' or 'unscented' and try to search out products that are scented with essential oils.  Or, consider making some of our own products! There are so many recipes available online for making your own deodorants and shampoos.  We can shop at local farmer's markets and craft fairs, and talk to the artisans who spend their blood, sweat and tears making personal care products like soaps and lotions that aren't harmful. As always, the best approach is to get really curious, ask questions, consult multiple sources, critically assess available information, taking into account the methodologies used, and goshdarnit, demand some answers.  

ignorance is not bliss,

PS next up? Parabens!