The hidden dangers of fragrance

The hidden dangers of fragrance

My first job was at the counter of one of the world's biggest skincare brands. As one of the youngest sales representatives at 16 years old I was always excited to paint my face with immaculate precision with the staff discounted makeup, spray copious amounts of the staff discounted perfume and head off to my shift after school or on the weekends. The moment I’d enter the beauty section of the department store, the competing fragrance profiles in the air would hit my nose and I felt I had just stepped into cosmetic heaven. 

Fast forward 24 years and I now swiftly walk past those counters blocking my nose in the hope that the impending headaches won’t hit. Why the change? What do I know now that has made these suffocating fragrance halls so different?

‘Fragrance’ and ‘Parfum’ are terms that are seemingly innocent and associated with the ingredients that make a product smell nice. But these ingredients are far from innocent and harbour a loophole in cosmetics regulation that allows harmful chemicals to hide in plain sight, posing risks to our health.

Understanding fragrance and parfum

The use of the term "fragrance" or "parfum" in ingredient lists is a regulatory blind spot in the beauty industry. These terms are catch-alls that can encompass up to hundreds of different chemicals, none of which need to be disclosed on the product's packaging. This practice is legal and widely utilised due to loopholes in regulations that govern cosmetics. For instance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees cosmetic safety, does not require the disclosure of individual fragrance components as they are considered trade secrets. Similar policies exist in many other countries, creating a global issue of non-transparency.

The problem with hidden chemicals

The primary issue with the non-disclosure of fragrance ingredients is that many of these hidden chemicals can be harmful. Common constituents of synthetic fragrances include phthalates (used to prolong the longevity of the aroma), which have been linked to hormone disruption and reproductive issues. Other frequent additives are aldehydes, which can cause respiratory issues, and synthetic musks, which can accumulate in the human body and have been associated with endocrine disruption.

A comprehensive study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives highlighted that exposure to phthalates could lead to significant health risks, particularly in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and children. Moreover, a report by the Environmental Working Group found that many fragrance chemicals have not been assessed for safety by the industry’s own safety panel, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which raises concerns about the potential unknown impacts of these chemicals.

Health concerns linked to fragrance

The health problems associated with fragrances in skincare and beauty products are significant. Consumers have reported a range of adverse effects, from mild to severe, including:

  • Allergic reactions: Fragrances are among the top five allergens in the world. They can trigger allergic reactions, dermatitis, and other skin irritations.

  • Respiratory issues: Ingredients in fragrances can irritate the respiratory tract, leading to problems such as asthma attacks, wheezing, and breathing difficulties.

  • Neurological symptoms: Some people report headaches, dizziness, and nausea after exposure to synthetic fragrances.

  • Hormonal disruption: Certain chemicals in fragrances, like phthalates, are known endocrine disruptors that can interfere with hormone balance, potentially leading to reproductive issues and other long-term health problems.

The way forward: transparency and regulation

To protect consumers, increased transparency and stricter regulations are essential. Advocating for the disclosure of all ingredients used in any product, including those hidden under the "fragrance" or "parfum" umbrella, is a critical step forward. This transparency would not only help consumers make more informed choices but also encourage companies to use safer, more sustainable ingredients.

In response to consumer demand and increasing regulatory pressure, some companies are leading the way in transparency. 

Skin Botanist commits to fragrance-free products and only uses natural essential oils with disclosed components, providing consumers with safer alternatives.

While the industry has a significant way to go, there’s still a lot you can do:

  1. Read labels carefully: Always check product labels for the terms "fragrance" or "parfum." These terms can indicate the presence of potentially harmful, undisclosed chemicals.

  2. Seek transparency: Opt for brands that disclose all their ingredients, including the specific components of their fragrances (they will proudly disclose if the fragrance is derived from natural sources), or that explicitly state "fragrance-free" on their products.

  3. Understand terminology: Be aware that "unscented" does not necessarily mean fragrance-free. Sometimes products labelled as unscented may still contain fragrances to mask other odours.

  4. Educate yourself on common irritants: Learn about common fragrance ingredients that might cause allergies or irritations, such as limonene, linalool, and cinnamal.

  5. Use apps and resources: Utilise apps and websites that analyse and report on cosmetic ingredients. Examples include EWG’s Skin Deep database, and Think Dirty, which can help you understand product formulations better.

  6. Patch test products: Before using a new product extensively, apply a small amount on a patch of skin to check for any adverse reactions, particularly when trying a product that contains fragrances.

  7. Support transparent brands: Support brands that are known for their commitment to non-toxic and fragrance-free products. Supporting these companies can also encourage more brands to adopt similar practices.

You’ve read this article because you are demanding more from your skincare. Together, we can make lack of transparency in skincare a deal-breaker. 

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