The Dangers of Synthetic fragrances
By Hanna Oltmanns - April 3, 2023
We’ve all experienced it already, this one smell that takes you back to a wonderful childhood memory. There might be this one person you pass on the street and their perfume reminds you of your great aunt or the smell of a candle can take you right back to a memory you have of being in your grandma’s kitchen. Scent is a very powerful sense and it has the ability to bring memories back to life!
However, not all scents are created equally. They either come from essential oils or from synthetic fragrances. Just because a product smells good, doesn’t mean it really is good for you. So let’s take a look at what scent is all about and what you need to be aware of when it comes to synthetic fragrances.
“Just because a product smells good, doesn’t mean it really is good for you !”
First of all, there are essential oils. Those can give a wonderful scent and they are naturally occurring substances. Essential oils are found in different parts of a plant, whether it’s the blossom, leaf, stem, bark, wood or resin. They’re pure plant extracts and are not cut with a type of carrier oil. However, they are not easy to produce and can be very expensive to manufacture. Plus, the vast majority of essential oils contain allergens which can be irritating for sensitive skin.
Then there are synthetic fragrances. The official definition of synthetic scent is: “A combination of chemicals used to give a product its specific scent.” Synthetic fragrances are created with a mix of aroma chemicals and natural ingredients, like essential oils, extracts, and resins. They are found everywhere, in personal care products, cleaning products, room fresheners, laundry soap, hand sanitizers, diapers, tampons, food, drinks, candy, candles, etc. The list is pretty much endless. Synthetic fragrances are much simpler and cheaper to produce then essential oils because they’re made up of chemicals rather than natural substances.
What is the issue with synthetic fragrances in the beauty industry?
Fragrances are one of the top five allergens in the world. Allergic reactions can reach from headaches and migraines to skin irritation and difficulty breathing. It’s thought that 1-2 % of people suffer an allergic reaction in response to a synthetic fragrance. Scent mixtures also trigger contact dermatitis, which is a type of allergic skin reaction, and experts say more then 50% of shampoos, conditioners, and styling products contain “fragrance” as an ingredient. The EWG found an average of fourteen chemicals in seventeen known brands, always listed only as “fragrance”. Whether it’s a cleaning product, deodorant, shampoo, or laundry detergent, fragrance chemicals don’t make your product perform better – they’re just giving you the perception. We’ve been trained to think that natural/good cosmetics come with a strong scent, when in truth, that is not the case!
“Fragrance” or “perfume” in the ingredient list should be at the top of our “not to buy” list and here is why:
The scent of essential oils can be replicated in a lab, but those oils also carry benefits that no lab can mimic! The difference between essential oils and synthetic fragrances is vast and it’s worth noting that synthetic scents do a lot more harm than good.
“We’ve been trained to think that clean cosmetics come with a strong scent, when in truth, that is not necessarily the case!”
Why should you avoid synthetic fragrances?
Essential oils are composed of around 50-500 different naturally present chemicals found in a plant. Synthetic fragrances on the other hand can contain over 3000 unique chemical ingredient to produce the same scent. Of those 3000 chemicals used to create a fragrance, more than 1,200 have been flagged as “chemicals of concern”. Of these 1,200, seven are known to be cancer causing agents and fiveteen are prohibited from the use in cosmetics in the EU. Particularly concerning are endocrine disruptors which mimic human hormones and lead to abnormal cell reproduction. These can have an effect in the tiniest of doses. More than 95% of chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. Those include: benzene, drivaties, phthalates, synthetic musks, and parabens.
Not sure what they are? Let’s change that!
Benzene Derivaties are coloreless, flammable liquids which are naturally present in coal tar and crude oil. They’re often found in paints, varnish, solvents, gasoline, furniture wax, detergents, and thinners. They’re also a part of cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes. Benzene is a known cancer causing component which is often linked to leukemia. Not really something you’d want as a part of your skincare right?
Phthalates are a group of chemicals that make plastic soft and flexible. They’re found in hundreds of products, and are most commonly listed as BBzP, DnBP, DEP, DBP, and DEHP. This chemical group is connected to liver and breast cancer and can also cause diabetes and obesity, as they are known endocrine disruptors. Some scientits have even linked fetal exposures to phthalates to autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders. The good news is that phthalates have already been banned from use in cosmetics in the EU, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and even China. However, they can still quite often be found in products produced and sold in the US.
Synthetic Musks are a popular component in many fragrances. Traditional musks are harvested from animals, synthetic musks on the other hand are more common due to hygiene reasons. They are bioaccumulative which means that particles build up in the body much faster than the body can get rid of them. They are types of endocrine disruptors and traces of synthetic musks have been found in breast mild, body fat, umbilical cord blood, as well as in fresh and marine water samples. Canada has already categorized several synthetic musks as persistent and/or toxic, however these chemicals seem to be so pervasive that a Norway study found synthetic musk fragrance compounds in outdoor air, even in a remote area. We find that highly alarming!
We have covered Parabens in quite a few of our articles already, e.g. in 11 Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid. Especially in synthetic fracgrances they are used as preservatives. Don’t be lurked into buying a product because of a long shelf life. Parabens can interfere with the production and release of hormones and are certainly not a chemical you want to joke around with.
The Issue with Fragrances in the Beauty Industry
Mostly, synthetic fragrances will only appear as “Perfume”, “Fragrance Oil”, or “Fragrance” on the label of your cosmetic products. Manufacturers can legally hide hundreds of synthetic chemicals in the one word “fragrance”. They don’t have to reveal what those ingredients are, as this is referred to as a “trade secret”. Such a permission to keep fragrance ingredients secret comes from a time when people still made their scents with oils and flowers. However, those days are long gone and this permission has now become a loophole for manufacturers to hide 3.000 + chemicals in the one term: “Fragrance”
Once these chemicals have found their way into your cosmetics they are then being absorbed, inhalted, and ingested on a daily basis.
“Manufacturers can legally hide hundreds of synthetic chemicals in the one word FRAGRANCE”.
An additional issue is that the fragrance industry regulates itself, meaning that safety testings don’t have to be done by regulators before the products are being sold to the end customer. Cosmetic companies can set their own standard of safety and don’t even need to ensure that their “secret recipes” are safe for people!
Health Risks Associated with Synthetic Fragrances
There are three main pathways how synthetic fragrances components enter our system:
- Skin absorption after applying body moisturizers, sunscreens and facial creams
- Ingestion through food and water containing synthetic fragrance chemicals
- Inhalation due to polluted air, e.g. when spraying perfume and/or deodorant
Health risks are reaching from mild to severe. Synthetic fragrance components have been linked to cancer, particularly hormone related, such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. They’re know to cause respiratory problems, such as asthma and several allergic reactions. Scientists have made the connection between synthetic fragrance chemicals and neurological problems, such as autism, headaches, dizziness, and brain fog, especially when exposed to such compontents at a young age. Through hormone disrupting ingredients, chemical fragrances can lead to reproductive toxicity, increase the risk of birth defects and decrease sperm count. Additionally, fragrance chemicals can pass from the skin into the blood.
Fragrance ingredients are linked to so many profound health risks, that avoiding them is probably the number 1 change you can make to reduce your own and your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals.
How to Avoid Synthetic Fragrances
→ Read the labels in detail! Don’t buy products that state “fragrance” or “perfume”.
→ Double check organic products. While they are less likely to include synthetic scent ingredients, it is still possible that some do.
→ Find alternatives to your favorite scented product. Replace candles and air fresheners with for example a diffuser of essential oils, plants that fill your home with a scent that naturally competes with a typical fragrance (Jasmine, Lavender, Orchids, Eucalyptus), put up freshly cut herbs or potted plants to fill the room with beautiful natural scents.
→ Look for plant based aromas. They don’t contain harmful chemicals and can have uplifting and energizing effects, such as enhancing your focus or evoking a sense of calm.
→ Always buy from a trusted source. Look for smaller brands that you can trust and research their philosophy before you purchase a product.
→ Never go past an ingredient you don’t know. There’s plenty of tools out there that will help you to check an ingredient list carefully before you decide to buy a product. Apps like “Think Dirty” or “Yuka” are only a few examples.
→ Don’t be fooled by labels stating things like “natural fragrance”. There is no standard criteria for what these words mean, so be sure to still check the ingredient list.
→ Don’t fall for a product saying it “contains essential oils”. This doesn’t mean the product might not also include additional synthetic fragrances.
→ Watch out for labels stating “unscented”. This can still mean that the manufacturer used synthetic fragrances to hide the chemical scent of other product ingredients.
Essential oils are a better yet not perfect solution
With an essential oil blend, you know exactly what you get. Rather then being listed as a one term such as “perfume”, essential oils will be listed in the ingredient list individually. While the production of petrochemicals which is used in synthetic fragrances is hard on the planet, essential oils use only natural sources and usually have sustainable production methods. Synthetic fragrances can combine more than 200 unlabeled chemicals in a single scent. Essential oils are derived from one single natural source.
However, money matters, and it’s not a secret that essential oils costs quite a bit. For example for just 1kg of Rose essential oil, you need between 1.500 – 10.000 kg of rose petals. Synthetic fragrances produced in a lab cost a fraction of pure essential oils and this is an obvious reason why synthetic fragrances are so common in almost every industry today. However, change is on the way! Good things take time, but as people are becoming more and more aware of the risks and dangers that synthetic fragrances pose, manufactures are forced to find different solutions to create safe products for both human health and the health of our planet.
We at Suntribe never add any synthetic fragrances to any of our products! Our complete range is 100% natural and the majority of scent in our products comes from the natural smell of organic butters and waxes. If we add a scent, we make sure it comes either from essential oils or from a completely natural source, such as the fruit of the vanilla planifolia orchid for a sweet and natural vanilla scent in our Baby & Kids and SPF 30 sunscreen.
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about the author
Hej, I’m Hanna. I love the outdoors and I am the first one to enjoy every beam of sunshine possible. Through traveling several countries over the past few years, I have become more and more aware of the great need for sustainability in every aspect of our daily life. Through working with Suntribe I am joining the movement of sustainable production of organic cosmetic and help to raise awareness about the issue of harmful chemicals in personal care products for humans and nature alike.