Fragrances a Chemical Cocktail

We are exposed to fragrances everywhere - in perfumes, colognes, soaps, cleaning products, air fresheners, laundry products, detergents, and paper tissues. They are not just in our homes but our offices, schools and public buildings, and on public transport. However, there is a price to pay for our beautifully perfumed world; over 3000 chemicals are commonly used in the manufacture of fragrances and these popular scented products contain a potpourri of potentially hazardous chemicals, many of which aren't listed on the packaging.

About 20 per cent of the population is allergic or sensitive to chemical fragrances that can cause skin rashes, hay fever, asthma, migraines, nausea, dizziness, fatigue or difficulty concentrating. Those affected usually develop symptoms soon after using the product. “Possible long term effects of chemicals in cosmetics have been linked to conditions like diabetes and certain cancers in humans (such as breast cancer)” says Dr Liz Hanna from the Australian National University.

Most of the 3000 or so chemicals used in fragrances in Australia have been in use since before the introduction of compulsory testing, about 12 years ago, so these fragrances don't have to be tested.

Dr Anne Steinemann from the University of Washington, recently looked at six common household cleaning and deodorising products and published the results online in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review. The study tested three common air fresheners (a solid deodoriser disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in timed spray), plus three laundry products that used chemical fragrances (a fabric softener, a detergent, and a dryer sheet, which is a scented tissue placed in a clothes dryer). All were top-selling brands made by US companies and sold internationally. The products were tested for concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – chemicals released by the products into the surrounding air. The six products together emitted nearly 100 different VOCs. Ten of these VOCs are regulated under US laws because they are toxic: chemicals such as ethanol, 1,4-dioxane, ethyl acetate, alpha-pinene, 2-butanone, acetaldehyde, and chloromethane. None of these chemicals were required to be listed on the product labels.

Plenty of research has shown that about 20 per cent of the population is allergic or sensitive to chemical fragrances – they may get a skin rash, hay fever, asthma, migraine, nausea, dizziness, or fatigue and difficulty concentrating. In those people who are known to have allergies the figure is higher, about 30 per cent. But there hasn't been much research that shows these chemicals cause serious long-term illnesses – such as cancer, birth defects or deficiencies of the immune system – in humans.

The manufacturers of these products therefore argue that their products are safe because chemical fragrances are used in low concentrations. They also say that fragrances are more obvious than other chemicals in the environment and so are unfairly blamed for hypersensitivity reactions, although they acknowledge that a percentage of people are hypersensitive to these chemicals, and these people should avoid exposure to them.

In the study, each product contained on average: 14 chemicals not listed on the label, 10 chemicals that have been linked with allergic reactions (headaches, wheezing, or asthma) and four compounds known to have the potential to disrupt the body's hormone system (including diethyl phthalate, a chemical linked to sperm damage in males). When it comes to perfumes and other scented products the manufacturers often don't have to list the actual fragrance – producing chemicals instead these are simply listed as 'fragrances' or ‘parfum’ on the label.

The US Food and Drug Administration, has not assessed the safety of the vast majority of the chemicals used in these products. In Australia manufacturers are only required to put 'fragrance' or 'perfume' on the label and are exempted from listing the individual ingredients.

Dr Liz Hanna is also national convenor of the Environmental Health Special Interest Group from the Public Health Association of Australia* and says that establishing the link between these chemicals and human disease is fraught with difficulty.

Historically, labeling legislation has protected manufacturers from having to list their ingredients for secrecy reasons, to prevent competitors from discovering their ingredients and copying them. But it has the effect of making it harder for consumers – and researchers and government regulators – to know what's in these products.

Until you can be certain the chemicals used scented products are 100% safe, particularly for babies and young children, avoid scented products.

It’s fairly easy to minimise your exposure; choose scent-free products: unscented toilet paper, washing powder, and purchase products (usually labeled as organic) that contain harmless ingredients. Avoid air fresheners –ventilate your home instead; fresh flowers and herbs are good ways to naturally scent your home.

If after reading this, you are concerned and would like more information, there are some excellent resources to look at on the Internet

The Environmental Working Group, is a non-profit environmental organisation in the United States, did a study of personal care products called Skin Deep. It found that one in three contained at least one chemical classified as a possible carcinogen, and one in a hundred contained chemicals that are probable carcinogens. Some contained chemicals linked to birth defects. This study also found that 90 per cent of the ingredients in personal care products have never been tested for safety in humans.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics a non-profit coalition effort launched in 2004 to protect the health of consumers and workers by securing the corporate, regulatory and legislative reforms necessary to eliminate dangerous chemicals from cosmetics and personal care products.  It is dedicated to getting chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems out of beauty products

Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry (New Society Publishers, October 2007), exposes the truth about the personal care products used daily by women, men, teenagers and children – and how activists are forcing the industry to clean up its act.

Fortunately, over the last few years these groups have been behind 'green chemistry' that has been growing and is and are supported by some manufacturers in the chemical and fragrance industries.