What's that smell?
You can't watch TV today without catching commercials peddling fragranced products. In theory that's not such a bad thing. After all, cultures throughout history perfumed their homes and persons, if only out of necessity given the state of their hygiene and sanitation systems. Think of the potpourris, sachets, and nosegays so much in favor not all that long ago. Perhaps we all have an innate desire to smell like a breath of spring, and what harm could there be in that?
Well, none until you industrialize the process
. Before the early 20th century, the fragrances in high demand were derived directly from plants or animals, but after World War II, companies turned to petrochemicals as the source of manufactured scents and expanded the uses of fragrances exponentially
. Natural fragrance preparations still exist, of course, but synthetic scents have taken over the marketplace, with sales topping $18 billion annually.
With our spritzed, sprayed, and slathered-on 21st century barely underway, virtually every conventional cleaning and body care product on the market contains chemically manufactured fragrances.
Obvious products include perfumes, deodorants, soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents, candles, and cleaning products. The not-so-obvious range from shirts to sports drinks. And new products keep coming. Japanese filmgoers get a nose full of fragrance while watching movies, as special machines pump out scents synchronized to certain scenes. And several companies recently announced plans to chemically scent the packaging for products: Cookie boxes, fruit containers, and drink caps will soon emit synthetic scents. And last year, more than one thousand new air fresheners appeared on US stores shelves. This phenomenon means more exposure for everyone. Unfortunately, most of the companies behind these marketing schemes never consider the dangers lurking in their fragranced products, and we consumers have little choice about whether or not we'll be exposed to them—short of never venturing into a supermarket or department store again.Mystery ingredients
...products containing synthetic fragrances are not regulated by any government agency. Fragrance formulas are considered "trade secrets," a designation that gives companies the legal right not to disclose product ingredients, even to the FDA.
If a company provides an ingredient label, it only need list the catchall term fragrance, even though hundreds of chemicals may make up one formulation. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reports that "95 percent of the ingredients used to create fragrances today are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, including benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxins and sensitizers. Many of these substances have been linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and allergic reactions.
" NAS targets fragrances as one of six categories of chemicals that should be tested for neurotoxicity
. This puts synthetic fragrances in the company of insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives, and air pollutants.Is your body polluted?
According to the Environmental Health Coalition of Western Massachusetts, approximately 20 percent of the population reacts adversely to synthetic fragrance, with anywhere from 3.5 to 6 percent experiencing debilitating or even life-threatening reactions. Infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.
"Even for people who have lost their sense of smell," Bridges points out, "symptoms still appear when they are around synthetic fragrances, since it's not the smell but the toxicants comprising the scent that are dangerous." She further explains that while an allergic reaction might cause congestion or sneezing, reactions to synthetic fragrances often consist of a poisoning response, which may include migraines, difficulty breathing, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, and digestive problems.
"But sensitive people," Bridges emphasizes, "aren't the only ones affected by synthetic scents." Fragrances pose a health issue for everyone. Although most people believe small amounts of chemicals are harmless, studies show that the adage "the dose makes the poison" no longer holds true. Researchers have shown that even low-level exposure causes serious health effects, as our bodies absorb and accumulate the chemicals we get exposed to daily.
The Environmental Working Group also found troubling results after studying the impact of cumulative chemical exposures termed "the body burden" (http://www.ewg.org/bodyburden
). And the Environmental Protection Agency discovered that indoor air contains two to five times more toxic chemicals than outdoor air, with fragrance chemicals contributing heavily.You might be wondering, somewhat skeptically, "Why do I feel fine after years of applying lotions and perfumes?"
Most people who now feel sick around fragrance chemicals had many prior exposures and appeared immune to the dangers, until their bodies broke down
. Fragrance toxins silently add stress to our natural detoxification systems, and the impact might take longer to show up in a healthy adult or may manifest in a seemingly unrelated condition like reproductive problems or cancer
. Our bodily defenses didn't evolve to process and store petrochemicals, and wrestling with these toxins keeps our bodies from doing their real jobs. Furthermore, people may not even realize a product causes their symptoms
. They may suffer chronic headaches or hives, completely unaware of the connection to their perfume or their favorite detergent's aroma.
Although most people associate fragrances with smell, the chemical components don't merely enter the body through the nose. Wearing scented products or even being near others who use them leads to the absorption of fragrance chemicals through the skin (a direct link to the bloodstream), the respiratory system, digestive system, and the eyes. Modern fragrances are also extremely persistent, designed to cling for a long time to fabric, hair, walls, whatever. Some fragrance constituents, like those in softener sheets, can never be fully removed from clothes. And like plug-ins and perfumes, dryer sheets contain nerve-deadening chemicals, narcotics, and known carcinogens.
If you'd like to find out whether or not synthetic scents affect you, consider conducting an experiment to see how you feel away from direct exposure. Write down all of your symptoms (headache, hoarse voice, rash, etc.), then switch entirely to fragrance-free products for at least one month (and put your old ones out of the house). Note if your symptoms have decreased or disappeared.And before you spritz fragrance, consider that others are at the mercy of your product choices.
The fragrance-intolerant often find it awkward to ask for consideration. But without our awareness and compassion, these people are prevented from going to work and school, socializing, or being active in their communities. With experts estimating that 60 percent of the population will suffer from sensitivities by 2020, isn't it about time we cleared the air?Safe Alternatives to:Dryer Sheets
. Try Nellie's Dryer Balls or safe, reusable cloths by Static Eliminator. Or use an aluminum foil ball in the dryer, a 1/2 to 1 cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle, or separate your synthetics and cottons when drying.Laundry Detergents
. For safer detergents and softeners, use fragrance-free versions from Seventh Generation, Ecos, and Mountain Green. Or try the Oxy Ball or 1/2 cup of baking soda per load instead of detergent.Air Fresheners
. Instead of masking odors, identify and remove the source. Take shoes off at the door, empty the trash often. Try natural mineral zeolite, baking soda, or Borax. Use cedar blocks, or simmer cinnamon sticks, cloves, or allspice. If you need to spray, try Citra-Solv's AirScents, which uses real citrus scents—or make your own with distilled water and essential oils.Filtration
. Air filters can also help improve indoor air quality, but not all purifiers are the same. Get a filter that contains no plastics or other materials that off-gas. Reputable companies include Allerair, Aireox, IQ Air, and Austin Air.Essential Oils, Candles, and Incense
. A good alternative to synthetic scents, essential oils can be placed around the house, worn as perfume, or used in cleaning and body products. For candles, try soy or beeswax alternatives, unscented or with essential oils. Don't assume all incense is safe; it has combustible materials, may include contaminants, and may feature artificial fragrances.Cleaning Products
. The most inexpensive, safe cleansers are baking soda and water (for deodorizing), white vinegar (for cleaning when mixed with water and a little soap), Bon Ami (for scrubbing), and hydrogen peroxide (for disinfecting). Try Dr. Bronner's Sal Suds and Seventh Generation's cleansers.Bodycare Products
• Soap: Sappo Hill Unscented, Kiss My Face Olive Oil, Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild, Tom's of Maine Unscented Natural Glycerin Soap, Terressentials Unscented
• Deodorant: Kiss My Face Active Enzyme Unscented, Tom's of Maine Unscented, Jason Aloe Vera, Lafe's Natural Crystal Stick
• Shaving Lotion: Kiss My Face Unscented Shaving Gel
• Shampoo/Conditioner: Earth Science Pure Essentials Fragrance-Free, Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild, Magick Botanicals, Tijeras Unscented
• Hair Gel: Aubrey B5 Design Gel, Magick Botanicals, Kiss My Face
• Moisturizer: Organic oils (jojoba, sesame, apricot), Kiss My Face, Magick Botanicals, Jason, MyChelle Dermaceuticals
• Sunblock: Aubrey, Vanicream, Jason Chemical- and Fragrance-free