Full of toxic petroleum- and coal-derived synthetic chemicals, 'fragrance' is a catchall term for whatever secret ingredients manufacturers want to add.
Fragrance is called “the new second-hand smoke.” Like cigarettes, fragrance is harmful to the health of users and bystanders, its toxic effect lingering for hours after initial use. Unfortunately, the level of public awareness about the dangers of fragrance has not yet reached that of smoking, nor have fragrance-free workplaces and public spaces become the norm. The response to fragrance is lagging several decades behind cigarettes, but that will change quickly as more people realize how hazardous fragrance is to human health.
Fragrance, also called parfum, is a key ingredient in perfumes and colognes. It is put in a wide range of products from detergents, soaps, and cleaners to diapers, candles, medications, cosmetics, and sunscreen. While some fragrances are added to give a pleasant aroma, others are used to mask the harsh chemical smells of the other ingredients, so even an ‘unscented’ product contains fragrance in order to create that non-scent.
According to a 2009 study called “Fragrance in the Workplace is the New Second-Hand Smoke” by University of Maryland researchers Christy De Vader and Paxson Barker, the problem with fragrance is not its scent but rather the synthetic chemicals derived from petroleum and tar:
“Over the past fifty years, 80 to 90 percent of fragrance ingredients have been synthesized from petroleum and some of the commonly found harmful chemicals in fragranced products include acetone, phenol, toluene, benzyl acetate, and limonene.”
Only 800 of the approximately 4,000 chemicals used as fragrances have been tested for toxicity, either alone or in combination with others. These chemicals are so bad that “the U.S. National Academy of Sciences has grouped fragrances with insecticides, heavy metals, and solvents as categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing.” (There’s Lead In Your Lipstick, Gill Deacon).
All of these toxins cause central nervous system damage. Physical reactions to fragrances are categorized as (1) Respiratory – allergic and non-allergic asthma, reactive airway dysfunction syndrome, (2) Neurological – migraines, nausea, dizziness, mental confusion, (3) Skin – irritation, sensitization, and (4) Eye – tearing, inflammation.
People who use products containing synthetic fragrance create a bubble of toxins that continue to be emitted for hours after initial use, affecting everyone nearby. David Suzuki’s website cites a study of asthmatics that found that exposure to perfumes and colognes triggered reactions in three out of four people with asthma. There is also evidence that exposure to fragrance may contribute to the development of asthma in children.
Despite the U.S. FDA’s acknowledgement that fragrances are responsible for 30 percent of all allergic reactions (Deacon), manufacturers of fragranced products continue to be protected under the provision of “trade secrets” established by the FDA for the perfume industry many years ago. This means that manufacturers can add almost anything under that heading and consumers will never know what’s in it. Regulations are tighter in the EU, where the use of many fragrance ingredients is limited and manufacturers are obligated to state whether it contains any of 26 allergens commonly used as fragrance.
Creating more fragrance-free workplaces, schools, and public spaces would go a long ways toward improving individual health. It would also save money, considering that in 2004 migraine headaches alone cost American employers $24 billion in direct and indirect healthcare costs (De Vader and Barker). It requires a significant mental shift, though, since many people are attached to their personal scents or don’t want to give up conventional products for alternative, perhaps less effective, ones.