All the efforts to lace our household products with sweet-smelling synthetics are backfiring. As many of us have found out firsthand, perfumes and fragrances top the charts when it come to triggering allergies and irritations.
Maybe you relate to the headaches, watery eyes, and difficulty breathing that come when you get too close to a manufactured scent. Those reactions — while disagreeable enough — are warning signs of a bigger problem — cancer. Keep reading and I’ll show you what I mean. . .
The perfume industry’s products are riddled with toxic ingredients. Research increasingly links those toxins to cancer. Just some of the harmful reactions they trigger are allergies, sperm damage, reproductive toxicity, and hormone disruption. Hormone disruption in particular is linked to certain cancers.
Trade secrets more valuable than human health
As of now, there’s no requirement that perfume makers let us know the ingredients in their fragrances. The industry calls this “brand protection.” What’s worse is that the FDA looks the other way. According to them, non-disclosure is fine because consumers are not “adversely affected.” They make this assumption on the grounds that we don’t eat perfumes. Yet these substances can enter the body when we inhale them or rub them on our skin as perfumes, creams, soaps and so forth.
The fragrance industry uses up to 3,000 ingredients in different scent concoctions. Most of those ingredients are synthetic. At least 900 have been identified as toxic, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
In 1998, Scientific Instrument Services released one of the first analyses to ever look at toxicity in perfumes. They studied six popular brands. Incredibly, over 800 ingredients were identified in each perfume — ingredients that included an alarming range of volatile organic chemicals. Two of the biggest offending ingredients are phthalate esters and synthetic musks, both toxic man-made chemicals.
It’s as bad as second-hand smoke
This issue isn’t without advocates, of course. In 1999, the California Environmental Health Network filed a Citizen Petition asking the FDA to require warning labels on fragrances. The goal was to point out which perfumes make it to the market without undergoing appropriate safety testing.
Then the 2010 President’s Cancer Panel report suggested that hormone-disrupting chemicals, like those found in perfumes, could be the source of many more cancer cases than previously thought. It’s a fact that messing with our bodily systems puts us at risk for being out of balance and increasing our risk for disease — cancer in particular.
And just two years ago, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned tests on top-selling fragrance products. Results showed 14 toxic chemicals, on average, were used in but not listed on the ingredient labels of popular fragrances. In a joint warning statement with the Environmental Working Group, they said, “The majority of chemicals found … have never been assessed for safety by any publically accountable agency, or by the cosmetics industry’s self-policing review panels.”
Worst of all, it’s not just the person wearing perfume who gets exposed to cancer-causing toxins. Fragrance chemicals are volatile and get into the air quickly. When we breathe, fragrance from every scented item used by the people around us enters our lungs.
This means one person’s choice to wear a fragranced product can cause health problems for a lot of unsuspecting people. Most at risk are those with asthma, chemical sensitivities, respiratory illnesses, chronic fatigue, and immunological illnesses.
The leading cancer awareness groups
don’t know how to deal with this
The risks of scents aren’t well known, which is a problem. Even big cancer-awareness organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure don’t appear to fully recognize the risks.
Just last fall, Komen launched a well-intentioned marketing campaign, promoting a perfume called “Promise Me” to help raise funds for breast cancer research. But the campaign suffered embarrassment after allegations the fragrance being promoted contained cancer-causing toxins.
The executive director of the group Breast Cancer Action had the perfume scientifically tested after safety concerns were voiced. They found ingredients that were a potential cause of breast cancer.
One of the offending ingredients was galaxolide, a synthetic musk known to accumulate in the body. Trace amounts have been found in the fat, blood, and breast milk of women who wear perfumes. It’s a known hormone disruptor, and some studies show that it may in fact contribute to the development of breast cancer.
When Komen was contacted with this information, the foundation reacted in a strangely contradictory way. Its representatives dismissed the claims, stating their own internal teams had thoroughly reviewed all the current research about perfume ingredients and found no elevated risk. Yet, they also agreed to reformulate the perfume to eradicate concerns about the ingredients.
The original perfume was discontinued, although it remains available still through several popular retailers. A new perfume is expected to be ready for distribution sometime this year.
What to do to protect yourself
Unlike a lot of cancer threats, it’s easy to steer clear of this one. If you want to smell clean and fresh, use soap, preferably fragrance-free or using natural scents. Perfumes are at the top of my list of “avoidable exposures.”
One thing to be wary of: It’s not just perfumes that emit hazardous chemicals. Anything with fragrance is suspect. Thousands of household products contain chemicals not listed on the label, including dryer sheets, scented candles, air fresheners, hair sprays, and shampoos. Manufacturers aren’t required to list the ingredients in fragrance blends, so it’s up to you to protect your health.
By the way, natural scents such as lavender or lily of the valley can cause allergic reactions in some people, but at least they aren’t carcinogenic.
Even if you don’t think fragranced products bother you, it’s a good idea to make sure by giving them up for a few months. Then use them and see if you have a reaction. Bear in mind that a wide range of reactions is possible, ranging from swollen sinuses and headaches to skin rashes and eye irritation.
Here are some tips for getting all the chemical-laced fragrances out of your life:
- Give up perfumes (obviously). Instead, use pure essential oils. Just make sure they’re extracted through a cold-press method and not with solvents.
- Check labels. Fragrances are exempt from labeling regulations, unfortunately, but at least all personal-care products are required to list a general description of ingredients on the label. Avoid anything that has the following: perfume, parfum, linalool, limonene, or fragrance. Blanket terms like “fragrance” and “perfume” conceal a host of petrochemicals and other toxins.
- Go natural when you clean. Use white vinegar and baking soda in place of expensive cleaners and you’ll wipe out a lot of the toxic scents in your house. Better yet, you’ll save money. This is an important step, because air fresheners and other cleaners aren’t required to disclose their inactive ingredients (which are usually toxic).
- Use beeswax candles instead of fragranced candles. Instead of polluting, they’ll actually improve the quality of your air indoors by boosting negative ions.
Chances are, you’ll feel significantly better after taking a hiatus from the airborne toxins in perfumed products.
There are lots of consumer products and services that we’re told are safe, when they’re not. In the last issue we wrote about one that could well be the number one cause of cancer in the United States. If you missed this important information, click here and take a look now.
“Could Perfume Marketed to Benefit Breast Cancer Also Cause the Disease?” By Bruce Watson, Daily Finance.
“Fragrances and Perfumes Can Be Toxic.” Cancer Prevention Coalition.
“FPIN Home Page.” Fragranced Products Information Network.
“Lab Tests Find Toxic Chemicals in Popular Perfumes.” Environment News Service, May 13, 2010.
“Perfume: Cupid’s Arrow or Poison Dart,” Cancer Prevention Coalition.
“Perfume sold to fund cancer research may actually cause cancer,” By Kevin Fitzgerald. Digital Journal.
“President’s Cancer Panel: Eat Organic, Avoid Plastics.” By Leah Zerbe. Rodale.
“Secret, Toxic Perfume Chemicals Linked to Cancer, Sperm Damage,” By Leah Zerbe. Rodale.
“Synthetic Musks.” The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
“The Environmental Health Network of California Files Petition With the FDA.” Environmental Health Network.
“The 1st Update of the Inventory of Ingredients Employed in Cosmetic Product.” The Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers.