Perfume and Cologne
Your favorite perfume or cologne may boast luscious, natural scents, like honeysuckle, grapefruit, chocolate, and clove, but the ingredients your nose probably won't detect include a potpourri of petro-based synthetic chemicals—benzyl acetate, ethyl acetate, and benzaldehyde, to name just a few. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that a whopping 95 percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are petroleum-derived and can lead to a slew of health repercussions. Smelling good also results in some environmental ills, including pollution that comes with petroleum production and threats to indoor air quality.
Perfume contains 70 to 85 percent alcohol, which is formed from crude oil, an unsustainable resource that poses various environmental dangers during production and transport.
Another problem: the estimated 5,000 man-made fragrances used in perfume and personal care products that make their way into ecosystems during production and after disposal. In fact, fragrances have shown up in some unlikely places—including in the fatty tissues of fish and shellfish. A 1999 review of literature by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that aquatic wildlife host measurable amounts of slow-to-break-down synthetic musk compounds in their tissues; these compounds are considered persistent organic pollutants or POPs. Traces of synthetic musk have also been found in sediment from the Great Lakes and in the milk of breastfeeding mothers. Historically, musk fragrances were extracted from the glands of the Asia-dwelling male musk deer but are now primarily synthetic-based as these animals are nearly extinct in some regions. An estimated 8,000 tons of synthetic musk are produced annually and are added to a wide variety of personal care products, such as perfume, shampoo, soaps, and detergents.
Related health issues
Some 5.72 million Americans have skin allergies related to fragrances, including those in perfume and cologne, while about 72 percent of people suffering from asthma claim their condition can be triggered by breathing in synthetic fragrances. These fragrances—a mix of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—enter the atmosphere with each spray, splash, or spritz. According to the California Air Resources Board, around 265 tons of VOCs are emitted into the air in California daily due to the use of consumer products.
Like secondhand tobacco smoke, the negative effect of fragrances on indoor air quality has been a growing concern in many communities. The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington has asked students and faculty to go scent-free, while the entire city of Halifax, Nova Scotia has instituted a "No-Scent" awareness program. Allergy-prone magazine readers affected by the fragrance-inserts that come in their favorite periodicals can even request to be put on a special no-scent subscription list.
Synthetic perfumes and colognes also contain other toxins—many of them found in tobacco smoke—that can lead to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, migraines, and sinus problems. In addition, they contain phthalates, widely used industrial chemicals that are estrogenic or anti-androgenic. Studies conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health reveal a link between monoethyl phthalate, a chemical used to preserve scent in perfumes and colognes, and sperm damage.
Fragrances and other cosmetics are loosely regulated and do not require stringent pre-testing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though phthalates are banned from use in perfumes by the European Union (EU). Additionally, due to secrecy laws, fragrance companies aren't required to list ingredients on product packaging. From Jan. 1, 1999 to Dec. 31, 2001, 20 percent of the 690 cosmetic-related consumer complaints filed with the FDA were complaints about skin allergies, neurological disorders, and respiratory issues related to perfumes and colognes. Rigorous ecological and safety testing within the fragrance industry is overseen by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). Click here for a breakdown of the leading chemicals found in fragrance products and their related health effects.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings, and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- persistent organic pollutants: POPs are toxic chemicals that were, and in some instances still are, used in agriculture for pest and disease control and crop production. Although many POPs have been banned, they remain in the environment and global food chain, easily traveling via wind and water.
- phthalates: Additives that are widely used in plastics and other materials, mainly to make them soft and flexible. They have applications in industry, in medicine, and in consumer products.
- The Fragrance Foundation
- Perfume Posse
- Style Will Save Us - Scents And Sensibility
- YouTube - Ask EWG: What is "fragrance"?
- New York Times - Synthetic No. 5
- Adbusters - The Scent of Fear: Where a perfume meets a sneeze, we catch a glimpse of science’s edge
- Plenty Magazine - Green in Perfume: How to build a better rose From fragrance critic and New York Times columnist, Chandler Burr.
- Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database - Fragrance See where your favorite scent ranks on the hazard scale.
- wiseGEEK.com - What is the Difference Between Perfume and Eau De Toilette? An ages-old question, answered.
- Medical News Today - Chemical Sensitivities and Perfume
- Environmental Science & Technology Online News - Perfume, perfume everywhere
- Health Care Without Harm - Phthalates/DEHP
- US National Institute of Building Sciences - IEQ Indoor Environmental Quality Project: Fragrances
- Dherbs - The Dangers of Perfume and Cologne
- MSNBC.com - What the nose knows
- Mindfully.org - Synthetic Musk Linked to Environmental Risks
- Fragranced Products Information Network - Fragrances by Design
- Fragranced Products Information Network - Fragrance: Emerging Health and Environmental Concerns
- Fragranced Products Information Network - Regulation