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When Good Smells Are Bad for You: Beware of Toxic Fragrances

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Have you ever noticed how a certain scent can evoke powerful memories and emotions in you? For me, the smell of lilacs brings to mind my grandmother…the scent of a burning fireplace, my childhood home…and baking cookies make me think of Christmastime and the hordes of cookies that my Mom, sister and I used to bake for our holiday cookie trays. When I am working on a new skincare product, unknowingly the first thing I do is smell the product. I watch my staff and other testers do the same. We are “scent-ual” beings! If we like what we smell we smile and move on to the texture evaluation step. One issue with skincare that can be worrisome is that the amazing scents are often derived from sources that are not so good for our bodies.

Have you ever felt dizzy, sneezy or have your eyes water when you are near someone wearing a lot of perfume? For those of us who have young adult sons, who remembers the Axe craze of the early 2000’s? I would instantly get a headache when I walked into the bedroom after my boys had sprayed themselves down with that stuff. (Apparently, the girls really liked it.) One fragrance can contain up to 200 synthetic chemicals to achieve its unique scent. And, the current labeling laws allow the manufacturer to label it simply “fragrance“ or “parfum,” so nothing is being disclosed. These toxins can disrupt hormones and trigger asthma, headaches, wheezing and skin rashes.

A 1986 report by the National Academy of Sciences disclosed that 95% of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives (cancer causing chemicals), aldehydes, toluene, and many other toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. A 2001 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that synthetic fragrances were often shown to contain hormone disruptors linked to abnormal cell reproduction. Certain chemicals mimic estrogen in the body and that is reason for concern because these compounds are linked to higher risk for breast cancer. And this 2010 study from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has even more details on the health risks of fragrance chemicals.

Current laws do not provide the FDA with the authority to require disclosure or public safety of fragrance ingredients. In the U.S., companies are required to list ingredients on the label; however, this regulation excludes the individual constituents of fragrance in order to preserve fragrance trade secrets—thus sustaining a loophole that leads to disclosure gaps.

The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) develop and set voluntary standards for chemicals in the “fragrance” component of products. The US, Canada, and Europe rely on IFRA and RIFM to identify ingredients for use in fragrance. In effect, this means the international Fragrance industry is self-regulating!

Don’t be alarmed, we don’t have to give up our treasured “scent-uous” skincare products, we just need to choose carefully. Essential oils are a safe source for adding scent to a product when used in low quantities, as well as a plethora of natural botanical ingredients that offer the scents of nature to your daily routine. Aloe, cucumber, green tea, manuka honey, chamomile and citrus are a few favorites of mine. Be sure to read your labels carefully to ensure that the scent comes from a natural source. The only thing to avoid on the label is the word “fragrance,” as far as my research tells me. Natural fragrance or natural essential oil are okay. There is no reason why you can’t enjoy the amazing experience that scents can bring to our lives. Just take some time to make choices that enhance your life without shortening it. And, while you’re reading labels, be sure to avoid products with these other toxic ingredients too.

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