From perfumes to candles to laundry detergent, fragrance is a common ingredient that is found in nearly every household and beauty product on the market today. And while we can't deny that it smells delectable, there's always the question of safety.
The effects of fragrance on our health have become a source of concern in recent years as consumers have become more aware of the toxic ingredients in their daily lives.
What is fragrance?
Artificial fragrance refers to a scent or aroma that has been chemically synthesized and added to a product to enhance its smell. These fragrances are typically made from a combination of synthetic chemicals, and may be found in a wide range of products.
How are fragrances regulated?
While there are regulating agencies that oversee the use of certain ingredients in our everyday products, there are limitations that make it difficult to know what is truly hiding in the ingredient list.
The FDA regulates fragrances used in cosmetics and personal care products, requiring manufacturers to list all ingredients, including fragrances, on product labels. However, manufacturers are not required to disclose the specific chemicals used to create a fragrance because they are considered trade secrets. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for consumers to know which chemicals they are exposed to. In some cases, chemicals used in fragrances have been banned in other countries due to safety concerns.
This trend continues in the case of cleaning products and other household items, where the EPA requires manufacturers to submit data before products can be sold but does not require disclosure of the specific ingredients that make up a fragrance.
How are hormones affected?
Artificial fragrances can potentially affect hormones in a number of ways. One way is through the disruption of the endocrine system, which is responsible for producing and regulating hormones in the body. Many artificial fragrances contain chemicals known as phthalates, which are often used as plasticizers to make fragrances last longer. Phthalates have been shown to have hormone-disrupting effects, particularly with regard to reproductive hormones such as estrogen, and may contribute to conditions such as infertility, decreased sperm count, and breast cancer.
Synthetic fragrances may cause the body to release stress hormones like cortisol, which over time can have a number of detrimental effects on the body, including weight gain, high blood pressure, and weakened immune system.
The smell of artificial fragrances can also cause the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin, which can have a mood-elevating effect but can also be addictive and lead people to become reliant on the fragrance to feel good.
Many people also report migraines and other allergy-type reactions to strong fragrances.
What about natural fragrances?
As consumers begin to move away from artificial products, there has been a rise in “clean” products that use terms like “natural fragrance” and “naturally derived”. The term "natural fragrance" generally refers to fragrances that are derived from natural sources such as plants, flowers, fruits, and spices. However, it's important to note that just because a fragrance is derived from a natural source doesn't necessarily mean that it is completely natural or free from synthetic components. Some natural fragrances may contain trace amounts of synthetic compounds in order to enhance their scent or improve their stability.
There is even less regulation for non-synthetic fragrance. The use of the term "natural" in fragrance marketing is not strictly regulated, and there is no standard definition for what constitutes a "natural" fragrance.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires that companies with products that are labeled as “natural” be truthful to the consumer. They must also be able to substantiate claims that their product is made with natural fragrances. However, this requires resources to investigate, and many brands get away with false claims because of the sheer volume of products on the market.
There are third-party organizations, such as the Natural Products Association (NPA) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), that have developed their own standards for natural products and offer certification programs for companies that meet these standards. However, the EWG has recently come under scrutiny for containing out of date ingredient lists and affiliate links even for the products they rate poorly. Despite this, these organizations are still a good way to determine if a product is certified to be free of synthetic material.
What about products that use Essential Oils?
Some companies have moved to using essential oils, which are derived from plants, to add fragrance to their products but this comes with its own set of problems. Essential oils can cause issues like skin sensitization, photosensitivity, allergic reactions, and hormone disruption if used incorrectly. Essential oils need to be properly diluted down in order to not cause skin irritation, and some essential oils are not appropriate for topical applications. In addition to this, essential oils are often produced using methods that involve solvents, which can result in small amounts of synthetic material.
While referencing the EWG is a good way to evaluate the general safety of a product, directly contacting a company to request a Certificate of Analysis is another option for investigating the ingredients yourself, but requires a deeper knowledge of ingredients. A CoA is typically produced by a third-party laboratory that tests the composition and purity of the product sample given. If choosing to do this, make sure to verify that the lab is real, truly independent, and that there are recent batch numbers and dates. Sometimes a company will choose not to share their CoA, in which case we recommend not buying from them.
Do you have any favorite non-toxic fragranced products that you like? Comment below and share your favorite brands!