Is Your Perfume Poisoning Your Family?

If you’re a perfume wearer, can I be the one to tell you that it doesn’t smell good. I know you may love it. It may feel like your safety blanket, a second skin, part of your brand or identity or maybe makes you feel fancy. To anyone who doesn’t wear a conventional, chemical-based perfume, what you actually smell like is a chemical shit storm. It’s gross. I am not just saying that to stir the pot. If you are a perfume wearer, there is a good chance that I cringe at the thought of you coming over, or giving me or my kid a hug. I don’t ever want to hug you because I don’t want to have your fragrance on my clothes and in my hair all day. I don’t want you to hang your coat next to mine, as mine will pick up the smell.

Those chemicals are potent and persistent.

Perfumes and fragrances are extremely popular. I know there are many people who can’t even think about leaving the house without a little spritz. By 2025, the global fragrance market, which includes perfume, deodorant and antiperspirant, is predicted to be worth over USD$92 billion. Perfumes tend to draw on essential oils in their formulations, but also include a number of chemicals (many known and probable carcinogens) that are outright health hazards.

Fragrance is referred to as the new second-hand smoke. And for very good reason. This isn’t just about you and your preferences. Your perfume habit affects everyone around you – including children who are at the highest risk health-wise.

What is Perfume Made Of?

You may have seen a number of names for products, including perfume, eau de parfum, eau de toilette (you know this means toilet water, right?) and eau de cologne. They get these names by the concentrations of essences or oils the product contains. Perfume has the highest concentration of oils/essences, while eau de cologne has the least. Cologne is also typically associated with men, and perfumes with women.

It gets a little confusing when perfumes are also called fragrances. Fragrance, as a term, is used interchangeably with perfume to refer to the entire bottle or product, and fragrance is also an ingredient found in products. But it doesn’t quite end there – fragrance, in and of itself, is an umbrella ingredient that can include thousands of chemicals that are untested and potentially unsafe. Fragrance is listed instead of each individual ingredient so companies can protect their trade secrets or signature scents.

A study of 17 popular name brand fragrances found, on average, 14 secret ingredients per product that were not listed on the label but found through testing. You can read an extensive report on the risks of fragrance, including assessments of popular products, right here. The Canadian version is here.

Government Regulations for Perfume

The laws around perfumes and fragrances depend on where you live. The United States has a very relaxed approach to cosmetics, while Canadian and EU laws are more strident.

Hidden chemicals in perfumes

I’ve included some highlights below, but in general, the perfume industry is self-regulating. Countries like Canada and Europe, as well as the US, consult The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) for advice on safety standards. RIFM uses experts that aren’t affiliated commercially with perfume companies and publishes in peer-reviewed journals.

United States: Perfume Regulation Highlights

  • Cosmetic ingredients, except for colour additives, do not need FDA approval before going to market.
  • Fragrance, which can be a collection of natural and synthetic ingredients, is allowed to be listed only as ‘fragrance’ on the label in order to protect trade secrets.
  • The FDA prohibits misbranding (false labelling) or adulterating cosmetics, and will take companies to court if they violate this. You can read more about how the FDA defines misbranding and adulterating here.
  • According to the FDA: “Companies and individuals who manufacture or market cosmetics have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of their products. Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients. The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA.” (bolded emphasis mine)
  • The FDA doesn’t require allergen-friendly labelling for cosmetics. If citizens have a fragrance allergy or sensitivity, the government recommends choosing fragrance-free products, reading labels and calling companies for information. But if you have a fragrance allergy and the FDA doesn’t require all of the ingredients in fragrances to be listed to protect a company’s trade secrets, how can we know if a product is truly safe?

Basically, what we have going on is an honour system. If the government doesn’t require companies to show their products are safe or share their data, where is the accountability? If I gave you a math test without asking you to show the steps you used to get to the final answers and didn’t even ask you to hand in the test for review at all, how would I know you actually knew the math? Except, in this case, there is more at stake than numbers.

Canada: Perfume Regulation Highlights

  • Canada consults the IFRA and RIFM for safety data.
  • Cosmetic products sold in Canada must meet the requirements of the Food and Drugs Act and the Cosmetic Regulations. Ingredients must be disclosed and labelled.
  • Canada has a Cosmetics Ingredient Hotlist that lists all prohibited and restricted ingredients. Prohibited ingredients cannot be used at all, while restricted ingredients can only be used under certain conditions or concentrations.
  • If Health Canada finds a fragrance ingredient unsafe, it will prohibit use and put it on the hotlist. However, “components of a fragrance can be listed as individual ingredients or can be listed under the term ‘parfum’ “. You’ll still need to delve into labels and ask more questions if you see the word ‘parfum’, as parfum could be a compendium of more ingredients.
  • Health Canada regularly reviews ingredients and the scientific data around them to assess safety.

Common Toxic Ingredients in Perfume

Here are two charts shared in this report.

Perfume chemicals

Common Perfume and Cosmetic Ingredients That Can Impact Our Health:

I delve into the health risks of ingredients to avoid in personal care products in more detail here, and let’s talk about some fragrance/perfume specific risks below.

Health Risks of Perfume

Aside from the health risks of common ingredients in perfumes and other scented personal care products (fragrance, parabens, etc.), there is evidence that fragrances can cause or aggravate certain health conditions. Remember, this isn’t just about you but affects everyone who can smell you – your partner, children, co-workers, friends, that little old lady beside you on the bus.

These include:

  • Headaches: A study of 200 migraine sufferers and 200 participants with tension headaches found that odours from perfume can trigger migraines within minutes.
  • Contact Dermatitis: Fragrances are one of the most common causes of contact dermatitis and contact allergies. A number of studies that use patch tests show that physical exposure to perfumes and fragrance ingredients can cause contact dermatitisexacerbate eczema, and cause rashes. 
  • Asthma: One study of perfume strips showed that inhaling perfume can exacerbate symptoms and cause airway obstruction in asthma patients, while another found that perfume can instigate asthma-like respiratory symptoms. In a 19-year surveillance of workplace asthma in California, researchers discovered that fragrance used at work was commonly associated with work-related asthma (WRA), and that 242 of the recorded cases of WRA were linked to perfume or cologne. Finally, in a self-reported national survey of just over 1,100 people, 46.2% of asthmatics reported adverse effects after being near someone wearing a fragrance product – and 35.4% said they missed out on work or lost jobs due to workplace fragrance exposure.
  • Respiratory Issues: In a study that compared healthy volunteers to people with perfume-induced respiratory issues, blood tests showed an increase in histamine production in the group with respiratory issues. Histamine is part of our immune response to pathogens in our bodies and can cause inflammation. People with respiratory and lung issues also report being affected by scents and perfumes.
  • Endocrine Disruption: Many of the chemicals used in perfumes can alter the endocrine system. A study that tested a range of 213 household and personal products found a number of endocrine-disrupting chemicals including BPA, phthalates, parabens and fragrances. In an analysis of 5 different types of phthalates in 47 brands of perfumes, researchers said they found ‘considerable amounts’ of phthalates in all brands, and a few had phthalate amounts that were above threshold limits.
  • DNA Damage: In a follow-up study by the researchers who tested phthalates in 47 perfumes, they discovered that all the perfumes they tested induced DNA damage.

Better Alternatives to Conventional Perfume

What do you do if you love perfume, but not the health risks?

  • DIY Perfume. Make your own scents using high-quality essential oils. You can mix and match to suit your tastes and mood! Here is one to start off with.
  • Buy Non-Toxic Perfume. Read labels and source companies that use ingredients you trust. As you may already know, I am a huge fan of Living Libations*. Their perfumes and colognes use pure essential oils. They aren’t overpowering and don’t last forever after you apply them, and that’s OK.

Why Are We Using Perfume?

Interestingly, the FDA says, “If a product is intended to be applied to a person’s body to make the person more attractive, it’s a cosmetic under the law.” Fragrance falls under this category of products.

And hey, I know that we want to feel good about ourselves and look great, and how we smell is a part of that. Yet painting over foul smells with perfumes and fragrances isn’t going to resolve the source of that smell – so what is the underlying issue here? Is there a bigger health problem that needs to be addressed? As I’ve written before when talking about hair, skin, and beauty products, much of our success relies on what we do internally from the inside out.

Resolving body odor may be as simple as taking a shower, or the solution may involve a deeper dive into diet and lifestyle practices.

Creating a Fragrance-Free Work Environment

Depending on where you live there may or may not be policies in place restricting fragrances in the workplace. In recent years there has been an increased awareness about fragrance sensitivities, and you’ve probably seen signs posted in doctors’ offices, community centres, gyms, yoga studios, and schools requesting scent-free environments. If this is something you’d like to implement at your workplace, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has detailed tips about how to create a scent-free policy.

Further Reading on Fragrance and Personal Care Products

Adjusting our perfume habits can be challenging at first. Once you go unscented or use naturally scented options, it’s often hard to return to those conventional products! You’ll start to smell them for what they really are.

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