Surely you’re familiar with one of these scenarios:
The Scented Candle That Won’t Go Away
You walk into a store full of scented candles. They smell so fresh and lovely, but a few minutes later, your nose starts to itch and you are starting to get a headache. You notice that you’re having a harder time focusing on anything and you start to feel light-headed. You end up buying a candle and leaving, feeling better as soon as you walk out the door. A few days later, the smell of your new candle is on everything: your coat, your car, the living room – even when it’s not lit. The headache just won’t go away and you start to feel worn down and tired.
The Mist That Never Disappears
You spray a fine mist of air freshener all over that musty pile of backpacks in the mudroom. Your second-grader grabs his bag, now slightly wet and sweet-smelling, and starts to do homework, but is having trouble focusing. He’s getting a headache and starting to whine about wanting to play outside. Meanwhile, the fake scent of flowers dissipates as it numbs sensory receptors in your nose and starts driving your puppy a little crazy. Eventually, you can’t smell it anymore, but you’ve ingested it through your nose, lungs, and skin.
Fragrance Is the New Secondhand Smoke
If you’ve experienced anything like this and connected the dots, you know how insidious synthetic fragrance can be. It’s only human to seek out pleasant smells and to try to eliminate unattractive scents from our environments. However, the immediate and long-term effects of synthetic fragrance exposure is hazardous to our health. Simply adding a pleasant smelling chemical to our bodies and air will not only affect our own health, but the health of the people (and pets!) who share the air with us.
The History of “Fragrance”
Trying to link the past with the present fragrance industry unfortunately reveals a radical disconnect and departure from the original therapeutic purpose and use of pure essential oils. Today’s synthetic fragrances are a far cry from the healing balms treasured so much by the ancient world that some were worth more than gold. Instead of being medicinal, today’s fragranced products are associated with diabetes, obesity, autism, ADD/ADHD and hormone disruption.1 Sadly, the person wearing or using the fragrance is not the only one affected. Synthetic fragrance affects air quality for those sharing the space as well.
From pure to perverse, it is twisted irony that the word fragrance has now gained infamy as the new secondhand smoke when the etymology of the word perfume comes from the Latin phrase, “per” meaning “through” and “fumus” meaning “smoke”.
The emerging awareness of this very “volatile” situation reveals problems much more pervasive and dangerous than tobacco smoke.2 Even washing clothes in detergents and fabric softeners containing fragrances releases toxic chemicals onto the skin and into the air all day long. At night, sleeping in pajamas and on sheets washed in the same toxic materials has the same effect. Because of this, people are awash in fragrances 24 hours each day.
When people go to a public place, they are sharing what is now being called “secondhand fragrance”. This is the combination of harmful chemicals being released into the public air space from air fresheners, cleaning products, and scented candles, plus all the products people are wearing (from hair spray, shampoo, clothes, to perfume, etc). Everyone is involuntarily breathing contaminated air even if they choose to not wear fragranced products. It’s time to clear the air and prioritize human health, not economic interest. Already, cities like Detroit have created Fragrance Free Zones, where perfume and aftershave are discouraged. There is a growing tension between two fiercely opposing camps: the National Perfumers Guild and Fragrance Houses versus the “Anti-Fragrance Activists.”3
What could be wrong with a beautiful fragrance? Nothing, if it is a genuine and authentic plant derived, unadulterated essential oil or an organic, wildcrafted scent oil. These oils have been effectively used for fragrance throughout history. However, since World War II, inexpensive, synthetic chemicals can produce fragrances that are abundantly available and can be terribly toxic.
What’s Actually in A Fragranced Product?
Today, fragrance is the elephant in the room. “Fragrance” or “parfum” on an ingredient list actually represents a trade secret fragrance recipe that could be made up of not just one or two chemicals, but hundreds of synthetic chemicals.4 These chemicals are selected from a reservoir of 5,000 ingredients.5 And of this large number of ingredients, none of them actually have to be disclosed or tested for safety.6
According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) study, 72% of products with the ingredient “fragrance” contained endocrine disruptors called phthalates.7 Phthalates have been linked to diabetes, obesity, liver and breast cancer, hormone disruption affecting fertility and development as well as linked to ADHD and Autism in first and third trimester prenatal exposure. The National Academy of Sciences, working with an expert panel, stated that there may be cancer-causing chemicals in fragrance recipes.8 Unfortunately, because of secrecy and a lack of transparency in labeling, there is really no way for a consumer to make informed decisions about fragranced products.9
Up to 95% of these the synthetic chemicals used to make fragrance recipes are derived from petrochemicals.10 These particular ingredients are known (according to a 1991 EPA analysis) to cause cancer, birth defects, nervous system disorders, asthma, and allergies.11 To make matters even worse for the unsuspecting public, many products labeled as “unscented” are actually the fragranced product with the addition of another masking fragrance.12
What about Natural Fragrance or Essential Oils?
Unfortunately, the term “natural fragrance” or “essential oil” on an ingredient list does not necessarily mean it is safe. In a study analyzing 25 top selling products, researchers found that the “green”, natural, and organic fragranced products emitted just as many hazardous chemicals as regular fragranced products.13 That’s because most essential oils in consumer products are processed with a toxic solvent. In addition, essential oils containing terpenes such as pine and citrus oils react with ozone in surrounding air to create secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, and ultrafine particles.14 To ensure safety, essential oils in products should be verified as organic and wildcrafted and extracted without solvents. 15, 16
How can we help protect the public?
Fragranced products are harmful to our health. Babies, children, the elderly, and those with cancer or other chronic illness are particularly at risk. The current demand for products that “smell good” reflects the misinformed innocence of consumers. Awareness of this issue is in its infancy, but the good news is that action is already being taken to pave the way in educating and protecting the public. The American Lung Association has created a fragrance-free policy for workplaces and for schools. Harvard University teaching hospital is a model for promoting fragrance-free policies in their hospital.17 Brigham and Women’s Hospital has even initiated a campaign for fragrance-free health care.
The best way for individuals to influence the fragrance industry is at the cash register – this will ultimately provide the impetus for change in the marketplace. Be proactive and only buy products that are unscented or have pure, safe essential oils. Even just removing all products with fragrance as an ingredient will immediately improve air quality in your home. Take charge of your family’s health and wellbeing – ditch these synthetics!
Join us to Clean Up Your Act. We are pledging the following:
- Don’t Buy Fragranced Products (unless contain pure organic essential oils)
- Ditch All Synthetic Fragrances
- Invest in Fragrance-Free, Nontoxic Alternatives
We’ve seen how quickly these changes can transform our health and our indoor air quality. Join us to try to for yourself! And let us know how it goes for you – we love to hear from you!
Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Consultant, Building Materials Specialist, Certified Baubiologist, Certified Baubiology Inspector, and Board Certified Nutritionist. Her research and experience with clients around the country ties acute and chronic illness with exposure to environmental stressors – chemicals in air, food and water and the increase in exposure to electromagnetic fields. She is dedicated to educating people about how a nutrient rich diet coupled with an environment free of products with synthetic chemicals is foundational to health.
What is a scent oil and how is it safer than other fragrances? Find about the differences: Wildcrafted Scent Oils. Curious about fragrances and other chemicals that might be lurking in your home already? Check out this article on the dangers of common laundry chemicals and what they do: Do You Know What’s In Your Laundry Detergent? Want to replace your air freshener? Our favorite DIY options are here: Nontoxic Air Fresheners | Remove Odors Naturally.
Ready to streamline your routine? Read Clare’s tricks in Safe + Simple: Tips from a Minimalist Mama.
Going on a trip? Check out our Healthy Travel Guide for our favorite travel snacks and tips for preventing sunburn, jetlag, and more!
Want another trick for improving indoor air quality? Find out why we’re loving Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps! Keep reading about chemicals to avoid in your home: Common Chemicals to Avoid – A Branch Basics Series.