Are Chemicals in Perfume and Cologne Harmful?

Q: Are chemicals in perfume and cologne harmful?

A: Want to hear something crazy? Ingredients in perfumes are not required to be listed on the label because of a loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 that explicitly excludes fragrances from needing to list their ingredients as part of keeping their “trade secrets.”

Just last year, the Environmental Working Group released the results of an independent study showing that there are potentially harmful chemicals in many popular fragrances. And what’s more, many of these chemicals are not listed on the label.

Analytical Sciences, an independent laboratory in Petaluma, Calif., tested 17 popular fragrances, including Coco Chanel and Armani Acqua Di Gio, and found 40 chemicals in the products. 38 of those were not listed on the ingredients list. Some of those chemicals are linked to hormone disruption and allergic reaction, like diethyl phthalate, a chemical that has been linked to sperm damage and many other scary side effects. (Ironic how that cologne you’re wearing to reel the ladies in might actually be hurting your chances of closing the deal.)

And that was just one report in the growing mountain of evidence against synthetic perfumes.

Back in 1999, the Environmental Health Network commissioned an analysis of Calvin Klein’s Eternity after complaints of numerous allergic reactions to the product. The results showed a list of 41 chemicals, many known to be toxic. Since then, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported that the fragrance industry uses mostly synthetic chemicals (so that lavender scent you’re smelling may not actually be coming from lavender) and at least 900 of those chemicals are known toxins.

A study done in 1995 by Louisiana State University revealed that simply inhaling perfume from the strips in magazine advertisements could adversely affect asthma sufferers.

Hard to believe that with all this data, the perfume industry still averaged sales of $25 billion to $30 billion as of 2009.

But synthetic perfumes are a relatively new concept, considering how long perfume has been around. Perfume was used in ancient Egypt as incense to offer up to the gods, and was a sign of rank in ancient Persia, with only the wealthy having gardens of sweet-smelling flowers and herbs. It wasn’t until early in the 19th century that the chemistry of perfume changed with advances in organic chemistry. Perfumers and chemists figured out a way to break down the component parts of a particular scent and then re-create that scent with synthetic chemicals — much less expensive to produce and more reliable to reproduce over and over again. Hence the birth of synthetic perfumes and the beginning of the modern perfume industry.

So what’s a perfume lover to do? Of course, you could go without, but many perfume aficionados feel naked without their signature scent. Thankfully, those perfume-wearers will be happy to know that there are natural alternatives to synthetic perfumes — perfumers that obtain their scents from natural sources, not synthetic chemicals. Some natural perfumeries include Aftelier Perfumes, Anya’s Garden Perfumes and Joanne Bassett. For a more comprehensive list, check out the Natural Perfumers Guild.

It may take a while to find the natural perfume that suits you, but it’s well worth the wait, considering the alternative. And what to do with that leftover sweet-smelling synthetic serum you’ve got in that little glass bottle by your bed? If it’s capable of slowly damaging your body, it might be worth it to see if a few sprays help with the roach infestation in your basement.

— Chanie