Perfume Problems

Sometime in your life you have probably passed someone in a hallway and wondered what scent he or she was wearing. That can be delightful. Conversely, you could have been trapped in an elevator with someone who smelled like dryer sheets and by the time you arrived at your floor, you had a headache developing. A pleasant smell for one person can trigger an asthma attack in someone else.

An Unregulated Fragrance Industry

Imagine that you are a perfume maker in 1910. Your signature scent is the only thing you have to sell – so you keep it a secret. You ask for, and receive, a patent for your perfume without telling the patent office the ingredients you used to create this olfactory miracle.

Flash forward to today when 40% of the personal-care products and 90% of shampoos have fragrance added. These fragrances are not the lemon, lavender or jasmine of the past. Today’s fragrances can contain known carcinogens such as styrene, pyridine or benzophenone. And it’s sad to say – we still don’t know exactly what combination of ingredients make up the fragrance because it is still protected by the old laws that protected the 1910 perfume maker. Even the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) cannot ask companies about their fragrance chemicals.

Along came the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) to the (partial) rescue. In 2000 they released a report that tested people for the presence of phthalates, which is a common class of chemicals that are in many synthetic fragrances. More than three-fourths of the people had phthalates in the urine.
Shortly after the CDC released its report, the Environmental Working Group sent 72 personal care products to an independent lab to test for the presence of chemicals. Their report, “Not Too Pretty” confirmed the presence of phthalates in 52 of the 72 products. Among other things, they found phthalate was linked to abnormal development of baby boys and sperm damage in men.

If someone leaves a room and you can still smell his or her fragrance, it probably has phthalates in it.

A 2010 report, “Not Too Sexy,” tested
and ranked popular perfumes.

The worst fragrance offenders were

  • American Eagle Seventy-Seven
  • Chanel Coco
  • Britney Spears Curious
  • Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio for men
Why Fragrances Matter

Some of the chemicals in fragrances are called “sensitizers.” These can be the triggers for an allergic reaction. Up to 11% of people are now sensitive or allergic to fragrance.
For some, this could mean a headache. For others, it could trigger a migraine or an asthma attack. For still others, it can damage their immune system.
Signs that you may be allergic
to a fragrance chemical:
  • Headache or nausea when you encounter a heavy fragrance on a person or in a space.
  • Wheezing and sneezing in the presence of strong scents.
  • Rash when using certain soaps or laundry products.
When someone is allergic they can begin to experience an “inflammatory cascade” within the body. This is when repeated exposures lead to chronic inflammation or other health problems.

How to limit exposure to dangerous
fragrance chemicals:
  • Avoid exposure. Clear all synthetically scented products from your home. If it doesn’t say “contains no synthetic fragrance,” it probably does. Many products are now labeled as unscented.
  • Clean up your diet. Eating well gives your body a chance to detoxify at its maximum potential.
  • Clean the air. You can buy a small air purifier for your office or desk – or invest in a vacuum that has a HEPA filter.
  • Clear the air. If a co-worker is heavily scented, say something. If you’re uncomfortable doing so, talk to your supervisor or manager about it.
If you are so inclined, aromatherapy is just fine. In those instances, essential oils are used. Essential oils are as different from synthetic fragrances as whole food is from processed food.


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