Roses. Candy. Perfume. The standard fare for Valentine's Day gift giving. This year, though, you might want to think twice before you buy a gift of scent. It seems that behind that sexy fragrance is likely a hodgepodge of secret chemicals — some that are associated with health concerns, including allergic reactions, endocrine disruption or reproductive toxicity — according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Many of these chemicals do not appear on the product label.|
Health risks from the chemicals depend on the product's mixture, the chemicals' hazards, the amount absorbed into the body, and an individual's susceptibility to health problems. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health in 2009, fragrance allergies most often affect the wearer, but a growing number of people report adverse reactions to scented products — whether they're worn by others, displayed in stores, or added to air fresheners and other household products.
Fragrance chemicals are inhaled — and absorbed through our skin — and can then accumulate in the body. Many of the chemicals in perfumes and colognes also are found in other household products, thus increasing your exposure to and risk for developing allergies. For example, limonene commonly is listed as "citrus oil" in cleaning products and degreasers. Even products labeled as "unscented" may contain fragrances used to mask the smell of other chemical components.
Beyond causing allergy issues, a significant number of fragrance chemicals also can act as hormone disruptors. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics cites several studies that indicate exposure to hormone disruptors has been linked to health issues, including an increased risk of cancer (particularly breast and prostate cancers); reproductive toxicity and effects on fetuses; and predisposition to metabolic disease, such as thyroid problems and obesity.
An added concern is that although studies have been conducted on individual chemical components found in fragrances to assess the health risks they pose, very little research has yet been done on those chemicals in combination with one another. So, while we may know phthlates and BHT (two common chemicals found in fragrances known to disrupt hormone balances) are problematic on their own, we do not know if their deleterious effects are further magnified by being combined in the same product.
Given these concerns, how can these chemicals remain secret, even though they present potential health risks? Apparently, it's because of a big loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, which requires companies to list cosmetic ingredients on labels. Fragrance, however, is exempt. Initially, this was done to protect perfume manufacturers from competitors who might want to duplicate signature scents, but it has had the unintended consequence of keeping consumers in the dark about the chemical make-up of products they use everyday.
So what are you to do? Since it may be impossible to identify which chemical ingredients trigger issues, the safest choice is to avoid scented products altogether. Doing so, however, can be nearly impossible. Even looking for products stamped "natural," "pure," or "organic" hold no guarantee, since these terms do not have an enforceable legal definition.
If you — or your significant other — just can't do without your favorite fragrance, consider using it less often and eliminating other scented products from regular use. Another suggestion: consider essential oils. They come in a wide range of scents, are botanically sourced, and can be produced using sustainable methods. It is important to remember they are commonly sold at a very high concentration, which can be irritating to the skin. To use them safely, dilute a few drops of the scented oil in a neutral "carrier" oil such as almond or grapeseed oil before dabbing them on the skin. A complete list of tips for using essential oils can be found at auracacia.com.
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