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Perfumes and fragrances: A potential health hazard

A rose may be a rose, but that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely. It might well be concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer. Makers of popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays market their scents with terms like floral, exotic or musky, but they don’t disclose that many scents are actually a complex cocktail of natural essences and synthetic chemicals — often petrochemicals.
Products we put on our bodies should not contain chemicals that could damage our health. Over the last 20 years, fragrance contact allergy has become a major global health problem. Many scientists attribute this phenomenon to a steady increase in the use of fragrance in cosmetics and household products. Fragrance is now considered among the top five allergens in North America and European countries. Research confirms that many of the ingredients in fragrances are neurotoxins, meaning that they have poisonous effects on the brain and nervous system. Additional studies link other negative emotional, mental, and physical symptoms to various fragrance ingredients. Until recently, scientists believed that the brain was protected by an impermeable mechanism, known as the blood-brain barrier. This is only partly true. Recent studies show that this system allows many environmental toxins — including those found in perfumes and other scented products — access to the delicate brain. Once found in the brain, they can take decades to eliminate. Decades that can result in substantial damage in the form of inflammation and plaque build-up in the brain, two of the precursors to serious brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Some fragrance ingredients disrupt our natural hormonal balance, causing any number of possible emotional concerns. These include anxiety, mood swings, and depression. Feeling down? It could be the scent you’re wearing. Even if you can’t smell perfumes, you may be suffering ill effects from exposure.
Not all scented products are created equally. Commercial brands of perfumes and colognes primarily comprise synthetic chemicals. Even many natural products contain synthetic fragrance ingredients so it’s important to start reading labels on personal care products. If there’s no ingredient list, the manufacturer may have something to hide. Also, beware of “fragrance oils” masquerading as essential oils. The former is synthetic, while the latter are derived from flowers, leaves, and other natural substances.
There are over 500 potential chemicals that can be used under the single name “fragrance” found on the label of many products. These are not just perfumes and colognes. Fragrances are found in air fresheners, room deodorizers, cosmetics, fabric softeners, laundry detergents, candles, and more. Some of these chemicals cause irritability, mental vagueness, muscle pain, asthma, bloating, joint aches, sinus pain, fatigue, sore throat, eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, dizziness, swollen lymph nodes, spikes in blood pressure, coughing, and burning or itching skin irritations. Many of the scent chemicals used in fragrance formulations are unstable and tend to oxidize and break down when exposed to sunlight and air, during storage or when applied to human skin. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Acetaldehyde, a common ingredient in perfumes, is a probable human carcinogen. This means it may cause cancer in living tissue. In animal studies, it crosses the placenta to a fetus. The chemical industry’s own Toxic Data Safety Sheet lists headaches, tremors, convulsions, and even death as a possible effect of exposure to acetonitrile, another common fragrance ingredient. Bronchial spasms may be caused by perfume for those with asthma, according to groups like the American Lung Association and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergy sufferers can also develop other upper respiratory problems from exposure, a serious health risk. Hormonal reactions can occur from known and unknown chemicals in perfume. A study commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics revealed 12 hormone-disrupting chemicals in tested products. Some chemicals mimic the hormone estrogen (the female sex hormone) and others are associated with thyroid effects.
The National Cancer Institute finds lavender and tea tree oils, in particular, have effects similar to estrogen. They may also block or decrease the effect of androgens (male sex hormones). Long-term use is linked to breast enlargement in pre-pubescent boys. Cancer patients should consult a physician before using perfumes with ingredients that can cause interference with hormones.
Switching to products with natural-based ingredients and less synthetic additives may help.
“The way to the heart is through the nose,” says Haarmann & Reimer, a leading fragrance manufacturer. But we may want to think twice about giving a bottle of cologne or perfume to our loved ones.

— Muhammad Waqar Ashraf is professor of Environmental Chemistry at Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University.

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