Read the label: Fragrances

We are enamoured of fragrances, and virtually every aspect of our lives is touched by a fragranced product. But is it a touch too much? Pat Thomas reports.

A quick account of all the perfumed bodycare products we use is sobering: soaps, creams and body lotions, ointments, talcs and bubble baths, shampoos and sunscreens – just to name a few.

In an overcrowded market, where there is often little to differentiate the performance of one product over another, a product’s scent is its unique signature and is often given greater prominence in advertising than performance.

Our love affair with the way things smell has given manufacturers free reign to manipulate our purchasing behaviour by linking the scent of a product with a desired quality such as love, sexiness, freshness, innocence and a wild, independent spirit. It’s a tactic used in the marketing of all bodycare products, but which is used to particularly great effect in fine perfumes – witness how many are named after emotions.

Once upon a time, perfumes were derived from natural plant and animal ingredients. But these can be expensive and subject to the variations of season and availability. As science progressed, manufacturers found ways of producing chemicals with ‘nature identical’ smells, which could be produced in high volumes without the need for worrying about the availability of natural resources. Today, nearly all fragrance chemicals are synthesised almost entirely from petrochemicals, and while they can be made more cheaply and the scent may linger longer than that of naturally derived scents, they are problematical for human health.

First and foremost, many of these chemicals are considered hazardous waste. As far back as 1986, the US National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxic chemicals that should be thoroughly investigated so that we might better understand any potential harm to human health. This placed these chemicals right up there with insecticides, heavy metals, solvents and food additives as primary causes of disease in humans. But government and industry have been slow to demand or fund such research.

The word ‘parfum’ is used to denote fragrance in a bodycare product. Parfum is made up of dozens of chemicals containing solvents similar to those used in adhesives, as well as benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, and central nervous system disorders.

Inhaled fragrance chemicals can cause sore throat, runny nose, sinus congestion, wheezing, shortness of breath, nausea and muscle pain. They are also a major trigger for asthmatic episodes. Once in the body, they easily breach the blood brain barrier – the protective membrane designed to keep toxins away from sensitive brain cells – and produce symptoms resonant with central nervous system (CNS) disruption - headache, mental confusion, listlessness, inability to concentrate, irritability, seizures, restlessness, agitation, depression, sleepiness.

Many bodycare products are heavily perfumed, and at least one study has demonstrated links between heavy perfume exposure during pregnancy, and learning disabilities and behaviour disorders in children. Studies have also shown that inhaling fragrance chemicals can cause circulatory changes in the brain.

In addition to being inhaled, fragrances can be absorbed through the skin – especially through children’s skin, which is thinner than that of adults. The greater the emollient quality of the product you are using (think skin creams, roll on deodorants, etc) the greater the absorbency. While fragrance chemicals can be quick to saturate the blood, they are slow to clear from the body. When they penetrate the skin they can cause discoloration of internal organs. They can also be toxic to the liver and kidneys. Still others accumulate in fatty tissue and leech slowly back into the system, or are passed on to our children through breast milk. 

Fragrances add little to the function of the product. They are unlikely to provide the ‘aromatherapy’ experience promised, especially if they are synthetic. Yet we are obsessed with them. While it’s an unhealthy obsession, it’s not an inevitable one. Each of us has the power to reduce the number of synthetic fragrances we come into contact with on a daily basis. Start by reading the label.

Labelling rules have changed in the last couple of years and manufacturers of cosmetics – and household cleaners – must list any of the 24 fragrances that the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products (SCCNFP) has identified as common contact allergies.

So now it’s easy enough to avoid these. But the fragrances not listed on the label are still potentially powerful enough to trigger more subtle emotional symptoms or longer-term health problems. Even some natural essences can cause allergic reactions in some individuals, though these are rare because natural essences are derived from the whole plant, and are believed to contain a variety of naturally occurring chemicals that mitigate any potential allergic reactions. If in doubt, or if you are very sensitive, you may wish to avoid scented products entirely.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2006

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