What is “Fragrance” and is fragrance harmful?

is fragrance harmful

We all enjoy a pleasant scent, especially when it triggers a memory and brings you back to a certain place in time or calms you at the end of a stressful day. Yet, fragrance is harmful and could be impacting your health.  

Have you ever flipped over your bottle of shampoo or lotion to look at the ingredients?  You may have noticed the term “fragrance” listed on several of your products.

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IS FRAGRANCE HARMFUL?  

The ingredient “fragrance” is actually a blend of ingredients and can contain up to 4,000 undisclosed ingredients, including harmful known toxins such as phthalates, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

These harmful fragrance ingredients are included in products such as scented candles that smell like vanilla, lavender-scented body lotions, and even your fresh spring laundry detergents. Fragrance also lurks in household items such as garbage bags and even in “unscented” products. 

Companies are required to list the ingredients they use in their products, under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967, but fragrances are exempt from this law because they are thought to be “trade secrets.”  These chemical cocktails are not required to be listed to protect their proprietary blend and from being copied by competitors.  

This poses a huge risk to consumers. 

I love a pleasant scent as much as you probably do, but consumers have a right to know exactly what ingredients they are buying when they purchase personal care products, cleaning products or laundry detergent. We should be given the opportunity to make safe choices when buying or applying these products to their bodies, especially if many of the chemicals used to make a fragrance are harmful and can cause endocrine disruption, asthma, and even cancer. 

HOW IT IMPACTS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY

The problem with fragrance hit our family smack in the face – literally – when our daughters were babies. Our middle and youngest daughters were extremely sensitive and allergic to fragrance as newborns, and my eyes were opened overnight to the toxins and allergens lurking in the products we were using in our home – and the products that our family and friends were using.  

We quickly started learned the benefits of clean living and changed the laundry detergents we were using to unscented versions and tried to buy more natural detergents and cleaning products. Yet, that wasn’t enough. When our infant daughters were held by family members at parties they would break out in a red, itchy rash on any exposed skin that touched the other person’s clothing. 

Imagine how embarrassing it is to ask someone to not use fabric softener or scented laundry detergent before coming over to your house, or if they could drape a blanket (provided by me) over their clothes before hold our daughters.

Yet, this is what our family and many other families have had to do to protect their children. 

Over the years, I have connected with mothers who have children with severe allergies and many families experience the same struggles. These families report that fragrance can also bring on symptoms including headaches, nausea, vomiting, respiratory distress, coughing, asthma attacks, flushing/redness, itching, tingling, body aches, brain fog, lip swelling, and even anaphylaxis. 

While it was comforting to connect with other mothers going through this too, no child (or adult) should have to endure this kind of health harm from fragrances in products being sold at every store.  Many of these families have to go to great lengths to avoid these scented products when they leave their homes. 

Yet, people with allergies and asthma are not the only ones being negatively impacted. Fragrance is harmful in other ways as well. Those toxic chemicals used to make scented products on the grocery store shelves cause endocrine disruption, asthma, and even cancer.

My friend, Tiffanny, was one of many people affected by the dreaded C word and began to wonder herself if fragrance was harmful.  After hearing her story, I knew it was one that many people could relate to since many of us are either impacted by cancer directly or have a loved one or friend battling this horrible disease.  

Tiffanny’s journey to eliminate fragrance and other toxins started in 2013 when she received her cancer diagnosis. She recounts, “After the initial shock, denial, and sadness, came searching. I would spend nights when I couldn’t sleep just searching, reading, and questioning how it happened. I never really knew what I was looking for, just reading support group posts and trying to come to terms with my new reality. I wasn’t going to have any more children. We knew we weren’t planning on any more, but to have the choice taken away from me was pretty rough. I needed to be in control. That control came in what I was putting in my body. We started eating better, becoming more aware of labels like organic and natural.”

Like many people, she never gave a second thought to the personal products she bought prior to her cancer diagnosis except whether or not it worked well or was on sale. Tiffanny explained, “The main reason I looked for unscented was because strong smells would give me a migraine headache. I would get them constantly, blinding migraines that would knock me out for a day or two at a time. I thought I was being sensitive. I never thought that the reason I was getting a headache was because the fragrance was truly bad for me. My body was revolting.

So as a natural progression, she started looking more at labels. “All of them,” she says. “I became an obsessive label reader. If I didn’t know what something was, I looked it up. When I started coming across fragrance and parfum more and more often, I started questioning and seeking out more fragrance-free or unscented items.”

HOW TO READ LABELS

Reading labels became an important step in Tiffanny’s journey to live a cleaner lifestyle and to avoid buying products with harmful ingredients, such as fragrance. 

Even if your health hasn’t been personally impacted yet, you may want to be proactive and preventative. 

I would bet that you may have received lotion or scented candles at some point in your life from well-intentioned friends and family. In fact, several Christmases in a row, my husband has even been given the gift of scented candles from vendors that he works with as an architect. So men are not excluded from this discussion! 

You may have been given a gift that looks similar to this.

lotion with harmful ingredients

While it looks pretty and has a pleasant scent, I urge you to turn over the bottle and take a hard look at the ingredients before putting them on your body or your children. 

lotion with harmful fragrance ingredients

What are all of these ingredients?  How do you know if they are harmful or if this lotion is safe to use on yourself and your family? 

To start, avoid any product that lists fragrance, parfum, perfume, aroma, or essential oil blend on the label.  All of these are veils for the proprietary blend of chemicals that companies do not need to disclose under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1967. 

The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has published a list of ingredients that are found in fragrance blends. Several of these ingredients have evidence linking them to harmful health effects. 

Phthalates are one such ingredient found in fragrances and have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm count, and cause reproductive malformations, according to the EWG. 

Additionally, acetaldehyde and benzophenone/oxybenzone are linked to studies that label them as potential human carcinogens, in other words, these chemicals may cause cancer. 

Parabens are also commonly found in products that contain fragrance since it is used as a preservative to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold. While this sounds like a good thing, parabens should be avoided because they are rapidly absorbed by the skin and enter your bloodstream. According to the EWG, “Parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupt the normal function of hormone systems affecting male and female reproductive system functioning, reproductive development, fertility and birth outcomes. Parabens can also interfere with the production of hormones.”

To find out more about all the thousands of ingredients that could be included in fragrances and for a complete list, visit the IFRA website

CAN YOU AVOID FRAGRANCE?

Here’s the good news! Yes, you can avoid fragrance and our family has been doing so for about 7 years. 

There are several resources that you can use to help guide your decisions when buying personal care and cleaning products. 

  • Consult the Environmental Working Group website for their Skin Deep database. The EWG also offers a Healthy Living app for your iPhone or Android phone and a Guide to Healthy Cleaning.
  • Shop for products that disclose their fragrance ingredients on the label. Products that have the EWG Verified mark on the label have the strictest fragrance ingredient transparency. 
  • Shop for fragrance-free products and support companies that are transparent in their labeling of ingredients. 

WHAT PRODUCTS ARE SAFE?

There are clean, safe options – that also smell amazing – on the market.  

I have been testing and trying safer products for the past 10 years and have learned a lot over that time. I am more than happy to share some of these hard lessons with you so that you can avoid making some of these same mistakes and will be on a faster path to protecting your health. 

1. Use caution when purchasing a product that is labeled natural (or even unscented) on the front of the bottle or box. 

Companies can make claims that their products are “natural” or “safe” without much regulation. This is called greenwashing and is the process of providing misleading information and claims that a company’s products are more natural or environmentally safe. It is imperative that you use the information and tools above to make informed choices for yourself. 

In fact, in the past, I have bought lotion from a popular natural health store that I trusted to only sell safe, clean products and the product itself claimed to be 97% natural.

natural lotion

Yet, after I learned more about reading labels I went back to check this lotion and was surprised to find fragrance (parfum) on the label. Although I know better now, I was even more surprised because this lotion did not have any noticeable scent. I considered it unscented, in fact.

harmful fragrance in lotion

So lesson learned, even “unscented” products can contain fragrance. Never assume – always double-check!

2. Purchase from trusted brands.  

Look for Certified B Corporations, such as Beautycounter, when making decisions about which brands to buy from. Beautycounter does more than just manufacture safe, gorgeous products. As a Certified B Corporation, Beautycounter is a business that uses its platform to solve social and environmental problems and meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance and public transparency. They are also lobbying for more health-protective laws. So that in the future you can walk into ANY store, pick up ANY product, and know that every ingredient in that product is safe for your body.

3. Switch to fragrance-free and chemical-free cleaning products. 

One of the best decisions I have made was swapping out all my cleaning products and learning about ways to clean naturally.  Now, I clean my entire house with just water and microfiber cloths (except for my toilet bowl, because who wants to stick their hand in their toilet bowl?)

My favorite company is Norwex because their global mission is to improve quality of life by radically reducing chemicals in our homes.  They have been creating healthier homes for over 25 years and drastically reduce toxic chemicals that can take a toll on your family’s health, while also working to protect the environment by reducing plastic whenever they can. 

4. Make DIY homemade beauty products.    

There’s no better way to ensure that the ingredients in your products are safe than by making them yourself! Shop for ingredients that are safe, clean and free from synthetic fragrances. 

One of my favorite recipes is a basic one that I adapted the Wellness Mama. I like adding lavender as a safe fragrance option, but it’s completely optional and can be omitted if essential oils are not well tolerated by you or your family. 

DIY Lavender Foaming Hand Soap

lavender essential oils

Ingredients:

Instructions:

  • Fill the soap dispenser with the water to about 1 inch of the top (leaving room for the bulky foaming pump and other ingredients).
  • Add 2 tablespoons of liquid castile soap to the water mixture (Don’t add the soap first or it will create bubbles when the water is added.)
  • Add the oil (optional but it helps preserve the life of the dispenser) and any essential oils, if you are using them.
  • Close and gently swirl to mix ingredients together. 
  • Voila! Use and wash as usual.

BE THE VOICE

You and your loved ones are worth it! Buying clean, safe products not only protects your health but it also sends an important message to companies that our health matters. 

Stop buying from companies that falsely advertise natural, safe ingredients and support the companies that are transparent and advocating for safer products for everyone! 

Another way to make your desire for safer products known is to support bills and laws that will protect ALL consumers, such as the Safer Fragrance Bill (SB 574) that is going up for a vote soon in California.  If you live in California, you can support this bill easily by texting SAFERSCENT to 52886. If you do not live in California, pass this information on to people you know that do live in California.  

Even if the Safer Fragrance Bill passes in California, it will help all of us in the U.S. since it will have a ripple effect. Most companies will change their ingredients for all consumers, not only in California. So by default, all states will benefit from this protective health law. 

If you live outside of the United States and within the countries in the European Union, then you will benefit from the EU fragrance allergen labeling laws.  

In the end, protecting ourselves and our families from these harmful fragrance ingredients is important and easily avoidable. Protect your health and the health of your loved ones by switching to safer, clean products. 

I urge you to start taking a look at ALL labels and making more informed choices as a consumer.  Vote with your dollars and spread the word! 

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P.S. – Do you want to eliminate harmful chemicals in your home? Start by reading The 5 Benefits of Clean Living and sign up to receive my Ultimate Guide to Shopping without Chemicals! Plus, I’ll share easy-to-implement, weekly tips for living a healthy and eco-friendly lifestyle. I’ve found that many busy moms struggle with just trying to keep up with life’s daily demands and that they don’t have enough time to focus on making healthier choices for their families. I am passionate about helping women find simple ways to make healthy changes. 

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