By Chere Di Boscio
Recently in some towns in North America, people who claim they are sensitive to scent have demanded a ban on toxic perfume in the workplace, hospitals, classrooms, and other public places. Amazingly, despite the apparently conflict with the rights of perfume lovers, many of these bans have been approved.
The reason behind this is the controversial claim that many people make to having Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a disorder that gives sufferers headaches, watery eyes, nausea, rashes and breathing difficulties when confronted with any kind of chemical: cleaning products, air fresheners, and, yes, perfumes.
Doctors claim MCS isn’t a real syndrome; sufferers insist it is. There certainly must be some truth to their claims—after all, we all have an ‘enemy’ scent that makes us feel nauseous, and many people do complain of headaches after spending too long at the perfume counter in department stores. So the question is: how can we smell delightful, whilst not making ourselves and others feel ill?
Stop the Sprays
The first step here is to realise that people who are sensitive to perfumes are usually most affected by sprayed scent: the chemical particles are diffused and inhaled, and are also more likely to land on the skin and hair of those who don’t intend to wear the perfume themselves. Scent that comes in dropper bottles is less likely to offend.
Secondly, we have to realise that not all perfumes are created equal. Some, especially new scents, carry a far heavier chemical burden than others. Prior to the 1920s, perfumes were generally based on natural products only: flower and citrus oils, real musk, and spices. In 1921, Coco Chanel was the first to make a completely synthetic aldehyde based perfume, which she called Number 5. Since then, the chemicals industry exploded, and most commercial perfumes carry very few natural ingredients indeed.
Danger in the Bottle?
In fact, it is very difficult to know what exactly is in not only perfumes, but any product with a scent, ranging from household cleaners to shampoo, as the complex formulae for perfume ingredients do not have to be listed on the label. Instead, such ingredients are just simply noted as ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, even though dozens of dangerous chemicals may comprise this single ingredient.
However, perfume ingredients can be so toxic that in America, the National Academy of Sciences targeted perfumes as one type of neurotoxin (or, chemicals that cause brain damage) that should be tested for their impact on human health. The Academy claims that as much as 95 percent of chemicals used in scent are petroleum derived chemicals capable of causing cancer and damage to the nervous system.
The worst chemicals, they assert, are parabens, synthetic musks and phthalates. All of these man-made chemicals dominate many commercial brands of perfume and body sprays, and are thought to be responsible for male reproductive damage, cancer, hormone disruptions, and even birth defects.
To analyse what top perfumes contain, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a non-profit group with coalition members from the Breast Cancer Fund, Environmental Working Group, Clean Water Action, and other public and environmental health organisations, researched some top-selling fragrances and were startled at what they found.
Most products the looked at contain a dozen or more secret chemicals not listed on the labels, and multiple chemicals that can set off allergic reactions or disrupt hormones. Many have never been tested for safety on humans.
All 17 of the popular fragrances tested contained chemicals not disclosed on the labels. Brands tested include: American Eagle Seventy Seven, Chanel Coco, Britney Spears Curious, Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio (for men), Old Spice After Hours Body Spray (for men), Quicksilver (for men), Calvin Klein Eternity for Men, Bath & Body Works Japanese Cherry Blossom, Calvin Klein Eternity for Women, Halle by Halle Berry, Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity, Victoria’s Secret Dream Angels Wish, Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow, AXE Body Spray for Men, Clinique Happy Perfume Spray, and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue.
Here’s what the researchers found, on average:
• Ten chemicals associated with allergic reactions like asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis were found in all the products. Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio contained 19 different sensitizing chemicals, more than any other product in the study.
• Four hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to a range of health effects including sperm damage, thyroid disruption, and cancer. Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver, and Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow each contained seven different chemicals with the potential to disrupt the hormone system.
Pretty scary stuff.
What To Do?
Even if your favourite commercial scent was not listed above, chances are it probably contains at least some of the sensitising chemicals found in the brands above. The solution to avoiding illness from chemical scents is simple: choose organic brands of household cleaners and personal grooming products, which are forbidden by labelling laws to contain harmful ingredients.
As for perfumes themselves, opt for a more natural brand such as Abel Vintage, Coqui Coqui or Honore Des Pres. These are far less likely to cause allergic reactions or damage your health, but are sometimes a bit more expensive, as natural oils have become more costly than man-made chemicals. Still it is well worth it—you are paying for quality ingredients rather than expensive advertising campaigns, which is the main expense behind the price of most commercial scents. With more complex bouquets on offer from an increasing number of specialised companies, a healthier lifestyle has never smelled so sweet.
To see our video on why using only natural perfumes is important, click here.