The Reckless Self-Interest of the Fragrance Industry

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The Cancer Prevention Coalition has warned that people must be protected from exposure to fragrance ingredients that may cause cancer or fetal, hormonal or reproductive toxicity. But federal agencies are not regulating these ingredients, leaving the public at risk.

Perfumes and fragrances are the single largest category of cosmetic and personal care products. They are also extensively used in a wide range of household cleaning products.

According to World Wire:

"The FDA has direct authority under the terms of the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act to regulate toxic ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products. However, seven decades later, it has still failed to do so. Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has also still failed to regulate these toxic ingredients in household cleaning products."

The policies and practices of the cosmetics and personal care products industries are determined by its International Fragrance Association (IFRA). The primary objective of IFRA is to protect the self-regulatory practices and policies of the industry -- including maintaining the "trade secret" status of perfume and fragrance ingredients, and preventing labeling and safety initiatives.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

If you, or someone you know, suffer from chemical sensitivities, you know just how debilitating this can be. Someone I was very close to was debilitated with this illness, so I have had some first-hand experience with this health problem.

Vast arrays of products are scented today, from toiletries to cleaning products to upholstery, and all of these can be a potential trigger. There's even an emerging trend called "full sensory branding," which employs scents to evoke and attach emotions to a brand to boost sales.

But one of the absolute worst culprits is probably perfume (and cologne for men).

World Wire reports:

"Perfumes and fragrances are the single largest category of cosmetic and personal care products, especially products used on the hair, face, and eyes.

These products represent nearly 50 percent of all prestige beauty dollars now spent in the United States."

Have you ever gotten a headache because someone sitting next to you is doused in perfume?

Or felt dizzy, nauseous, irritable, confused or fatigued due to fragrances worn by coworkers at the office?

These are signs that you likely have a chemical sensitivity to fragrance, and it's more common than you might think. For a complete list of symptoms that may be caused by a chemical sensitivity to fragrance, see this previous article.

The problem is extremely common; we actually have a no-scent policy at my Natural Health Center and require patients to be scent-free during their office visits.

How Safe is it to Allow Industry to Self-Regulate Toxic Ingredients?

I caution against wearing any synthetic perfume or cologne, as they're almost always loaded with synthetic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and more. And although the US FDA actually has direct authority to regulate harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, it doesn't…

Safety and labeling of cosmetics fall under the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, which also includes prescription and over-the-counter drugs, medical devices, blood and tissue products, and the entire food supply except for meat and poultry.

So if the FDA isn't doing the job of investigating the safety of these ingredients, who does?

As discussed in the article above, the fragrance industry is allowed to regulate itself, through a trade association known as the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This association is responsible for conducting safety tests to determine the ingredients safe for use for their own industry.

However, the fragrance industry uses more than 5,000 different ingredients, and only about 1,300 have actually been tested and evaluated so far.

Making matters worse, there are serious questions about whether the industry's research institute is really as "independent" as IFRA claims it to be.

Dr. Samuel Epstein, M.D., chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, and author of Toxic Beauty, warns:

"This testing is minimal and restricted to local effects on human skin, and short-term toxicity tests in rodents."

World Wire also writes:

"Evaluation of ingredient safety is then made by a board of toxicologists, pharmacologists, and dermatologists, identified by the institute as "independent" without disclosure of their qualifications, let alone conflicts of interest."

With everything I've written about the dangers created by conflicts of interest in the past few months, this should make your warning bells go off.

It Smells Good, but What's in it, Really?

Unfortunately, determining what's actually in any given fragrance can be virtually impossible. Thousands of different fragrance chemicals can be used to produce different aromas, and each branded scent is protected as a trade secret, so the full list of ingredients does not need to be listed on the label.

Among them are the endocrine-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, and synthetic musk.

The effects of phthalates on your endocrine system, particularly during pregnancy, breastfeeding and childhood, are very disturbing. For instance, animal studies on certain phthalates have shown these chemicals may cause:

  • Reproductive and developmental harm
  • Organ damage
  • Immune suppression
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Cancer

Artificial fragrances are also among the top five known allergens, and can cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks.

Both phthalates and synthetic polycyclic musk fragrances have been found in the breast milk of American mothers, which has raised increasing concerns about their safety.

Synthetic musk fragrances can be particularly tricky, because they're frequently not listed on the label. But chances are very good if a product smells good, it may contain a synthetic musk.

Among the harmful musk chemicals detected in samples of breast milk were:

  • Xylene
  • Ketone
  • HHCB
  • HHCB-lactone (the oxidation product of HHCB)
  • AHTN

Tonalide is another common synthetic musk, which the Environmental Working Group lists as a suspected endocrine disruptor. There's also some emerging evidence that it's a persistent, bioaccumulative toxin.

Healthier Alternatives to Toxic Fragrances

Many people believe perfume and cologne will make them more attractive to the opposite sex, but are unaware that a significant percentage of people are like "chemical canaries," and that wearing perfume or cologne can actually sicken those around them.

Perhaps it's worth paying heed to the latest research showing that your natural scent is more seductive than perfume.

Sexual attraction and desire are driven, at least partially, by subconscious cues, including scent. Researchers have found that simply sniffing the t-shirt of an ovulating woman is enough to significantly raise a man's testosterone levels.

Testosterone levels in men are linked with increased sexual arousal, and the research suggests men may be able to sense the time a woman is most fertile based on her natural scent. This "scent," however, may be one that is working on your senses at an unconscious level via pheromones – small organic molecules known as the "secret seducers" that influence biological processes to stimulate your sex drive.

Still, many may not be satisfied with that au-natural option. If this applies to you, I strongly suggest you consider avoiding all artificial fragrances – to protect yourself and others -- and switching to natural scents made from essential oils instead.

It's important to note, however, that essential oils are not the same thing as fragrance oils.

Essential oils come from plants, while fragrance oils are artificial and often contain synthetic chemicals. While they may smell good and are typically less expensive, they will not give you the therapeutic benefits of organic essential oils, and might not be a whole lot safer than your regular perfume.

So, please be sure that the essential oil you use is of the highest quality and 100 percent pure.

Also note that essential oils should be used with caution, especially during pregnancy, as they can produce potent changes in tiny amounts. It's a good idea to consult someone knowledgeable in aromatherapy before experimenting with these oils.

For those afflicted with allergies or chemical sensitivities, avoiding all fragrances is the only real solution.

Dr. Epstein also advises that Senator Frank Lautenberg's Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 would offer significant consumer protection if passed, stating that:

"This bill requires manufacturers to provide information on "chemicals of concern" in consumer products."

+ Sources and References