What's that smell?!

Author Team Essentialist

We all have our favourite perfume that makes us feel irresistible, the candle that induces blissful oblivion, or some scented lotion that transports us back to a dreamy vacation. Whatever it is, we're not here to rob you of your happy state, we simply want you to start looking more closely at your scented products.  

The making of fragrance is almost entirely unregulated. In a world where extensive compliance measures govern nearly every industry, fragrance managed to get a pass. We’re going to explain why this should be cause for concern, how greater awareness will impact your consumption, and how you can improve your sensory experience by using natural scents. In short, you should know the costs in order to weigh the benefits.

When sprayed or applied directly on the skin, many chemicals from traditional perfumes are either inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Most people aren’t aware that these chemicals can accumulate and pollute the body. This also rings true for products that contain fragrance, even though not all are applied directly to the skin. When using traditional fragrance, you’re physically exposing yourself to a number of hazardous ingredients including petrochemicals, formaldehyde, diethyl phthalate, musk ketone, solvents, stabilizers, UV absorbers, preservatives, dyes, air pollutants and ultra-fine particles. Most of us haven’t considered the toll this takes on our bodies so, we'll spell it out for you. Risks include, but are not limited to: adverse thyroid effects, hormone disruption, allergic reactions like asthma, wheezing, headaches, and contact dermatitis.

At the heart of the controversy are the chemicals themselves. There are approximately 3,100 stock chemical ingredients used to formulate scents and alarmingly few of these chemicals have been independently tested for safety. It should also be noted that the regulatory bodies responsible for the limited testing required are “self-policing” and industry funded. Any testing not conducted by an external party should probably be cause for concern.

The objective is protecting proprietary fragrance blends at the expense of consumer safety. A company need only state “fragrance” in an ingredient list, potentially hiding the harmful chemicals within. It's perfectly legal, disclosure to consumers, manufacturers, or regulatory agencies isn't mandatory. Given that fragrance is used in virtually all home and personal care products, toxic chemical exposure is rather difficult to avoid if you're not vigilant. To illustrate this point, one-third of currently available fragrance chemicals in the US are either known to be toxic or considered potentially toxic by scientists from other countries around the world.  

A prime example is phthalates, or specifically diethyl phthalate, commonly used in fragrance to extend scent life. It is banned in Europe and recognized for having multiple adverse causes including cancer, human reproductive and developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, birth defects & respiratory problems. The FDA has not taken precautionary steps instead stating that “Phthalates are a group of chemicals used in hundreds of products. The phthalate commonly used in fragrance products is diethyl phthalate, or DEP. DEP does not pose known risks for human health as it is currently used in cosmetics and fragrances”.  Are you starting to see the discrepancies? 

The safeguard is in the careful phrasing of as it is currently used. We would argue, however, that if a chemical or ingredient poses any risk to our health it should not be allowed in consumer products. Period. DEP aside, judging toxicity by single products in isolation is dangerous because we use a number of products in any given day. Chemicals will inevitably compound and accumulate in amounts that exceed quantities deemed safe in individual products. 

We want to emphasize again that the danger of fragrance is not limited to traditional perfume and cologne. Numerous products used daily contain fragrance and therefore, mask hidden potentially volatile ingredients. Look closely at your shampoos, lotions, bath products, cleaning sprays, air fresheners, laundry and dishwashing detergents, candles, and so forth. 

The conclusion is that consumer safety in the US as well as in Canada, has been compromised somewhere along the line. The apparent laxity in allowing the use of carcinogens, hormone disruptors, allergens, and the like, mean that consumers need to be self-regulating.  The good news is that the information is out there so do your own research and get savvy.  With the help of ethical companies committed to transparency, setting higher standards, and finding natural scent alternatives, there are many beautifully scented safe products on the market. Your job is simply to seek brands like Essentialist whose modus operandi is creating safe, clean, non-toxic products.  

(Photo by cottonbro from Pexels.)