Fragrances are a ubiquitous part of our daily lives and can be found in a wide range of products, from household cleaners to personal care items. However, behind the captivating scents of that bottle of perfume or jar of moisturizer you received for Valentine's Day might lie a toxic cocktail of chemicals. These fragrances can contain harmful ingredients that may pose a risk to your health and that of your loved ones. If you regularly use scented products, you may be exposing yourself to these hazardous chemicals without even realizing it. Some fragrances contain phthalates, a group of chemicals that can disrupt hormones and harm reproductive health. Other fragrances may contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can contribute to air pollution and cause respiratory issues. Furthermore, some fragrances can trigger allergic reactions and irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs.
Unfortunately, the ingredients in fragrances are not always disclosed on product labels, making it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about which products to use. In some cases, fragrance or parfum can refer to a mixture of hundreds of different chemicals, many of which may be toxic. Perfume and scented products are allowed to list fragrance, fragrance oil, perfume or parfum in their ingredient lists as catch-all terms that can hide hundreds of undesirable ingredients. So even if the label of a product claims that it has been cleanly formulated, it may not be so clean if you see perfume or fragrance in the ingredient list. These hidden chemicals can include benzene derivatives, phthalates, and aldehydes among others. These have been linked to cancer, birth defects, allergies, asthma, immune system issues, and respiratory issues. Exposure to synthetic fragrances has even been known to be harmful to the nervous system. Additionally, some of the hidden chemicals in fragrances are often the culprits behind allergies and skin sensitization. So, if you are experiencing a skin reaction to a scented product, there is a high probability that it is related to the fragrance ingredients. To reduce the probability of sensitization, we always recommend switching to fragrance-free products, especially for those who have reactive skin.
But wait a minute—If these fragrance ingredients are so bad, why isn’t the government regulating them? The answer, unfortunately, is that the cosmetics industry is largely unregulated. Given that consumers have been conditioned to love wonderful smelling products, there can be little incentive for brands to educate customers on how harmful fragrances can be. Additionally, many companies cite trade secrets as the reason they are unable to list the ingredients behind their fragrances. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about the products they use. The absence of regulation combined with the secretive nature of fragrance ingredients has created a concerning situation for consumers.
One of the worst offenders is a class of ingredients called phthalates. They are esters of phthalmic acid and are used to soften plastics. They are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can be found in many plastics and often in fragrances. Phthalates help cosmetic products hold color and make scents longer lasting so they can be found in personal care products, cleaning products, and other home products like candles. The EPA and the WHO consider phthalates a probable carcinogen and some studies have linked phthalate exposure to low birth weights, risk of childhood asthma, diabetes, and even adverse effects on neurodevelopment in children. Needless to say, this is not something that you’d want around yourself or your baby. And while many countries have banned phthalates, the United States has not. There have been steps taken to eliminate phthalates from some children’s products, but they are still legal in cosmetics and other household products.
So how do we find phthalates in labels? You search ingredient lists to look for ingredients that end with “phthalate” like:
No matter how vigilant you are about ingredient lists, however, any product that contains synthetic fragrance or parfum could harbor hidden phthalates so the best choice would be to choose a product act explicitly states that they are fragrance-free and phthalate-free. Remember that the average woman uses 12 personal care products each day. Daily exposure to those combined the various products found around your home can add up over time. This cumulative exposure is a cause for concern, as it increases the risk of long-term health problems associated with phthalate exposure.
The best way to avoid all these problem chemicals is to choose fragrance-free and phthalate-free products. Remember that unscented is not the same as fragrance-free. Fragrance-free means that the product does not contain fragrances. Unscented may mean that a fragrance has been added to the product to counteract a malodor. In this case, you may not actually detect that the product has any noticeable fragrance, but phthalates may be present all the same. Always read ingredients labels and choose safe products that do not contain synthetic fragrances and phthalates.
Disclaimer: As with all of the information posted on our site, this article is meant to be for informational and educational purposes only, and is not medical advice. When in doubt, please ask your physician.