- Potenitally hazardous chemicals found in all of the commercial varieties of the essential oil tested
- One third of Australians have adverse health effects from fragrances
The status symbols of scent were once fashion house brands along with, at a stretch, certain "celebrity" brands.
The more of these scents you slapped on the more you embodied their supposed qualities; you were the very essence of femininity, you were sharing the fantasy and showing the power of cool. So you didn't just buy the perfume, but the shampoo, the body cream, talc, the shower gel, even the deodorant too.
Perfume … it doesn’t always leave a good smell.
Now, wellness is the new status symbol and many of the big-name brands have been relegated to the distinctly unglamorous aisles of discount chemists, where smells linger like the hangover from heady, synthetically-scented days of yore.
Consumers are instead shifting towards perfumes and perfumed products that contain substances labelled as plant-based oils and as natural or "organic".
Nielsen Consumer data for the past year shows that one third of Australians over the age of 14 prefer organic skin care/beauty products. Global data suggests this figure is even higher.
The trend is well intentioned, but what, if any, health basis is there for the trend towards "natural" scents?
The short answer is things labelled as natural fragrances may not be any better for our health.
Dr Anne Steinemann has spent decades researching environmental pollutants and health
Currently a professor at the University of Melbourne, Steinemann's research has found one in three Australians experience sickness (including breathing problems, migraine headaches, skin irritation and asthma attacks) as a result of exposure to everyday in fragranced products, such as air fresheners, cleaning supplies, and perfumes.
Interestingly, the "quality" of the fragranced product doesn't make a difference.
"I didn't find any clear difference between the expensive ones and the inexpensive ones … in
terms of their emissions of potentially hazardous chemicals," Steinemann says.
Whether or not the fragrance was labelled as natural or organic, or as an essential oil, didn't make a difference either.
"People may choose essential oils because they think they are more 'natural' or 'organic' or in some way 'healthier' but what we found is that there are potentially hazardous chemicals in all of the commercial varieties of the essential oils that we tested," Steinemann says.
One possible reason for this is that so-called all-natural, organic, pure essential oils are being extracted, diluted, or synthesised with petrochemicals. Consider that one teaspoon of natural rose oil costs about $300 whereas a kilo of synthetic rose fragrance costs about $200.
"Toluene [a potentially hazardous petrochemical] was found in more of the organic, natural essential oils than in the regular ones," she tells me. In her study, toluene was found in 12 of the 24 oils she tested.
Still, Steinemann stresses she is still investigating why fragranced products, including essential oils, are associated with adverse health effects.
Ian Musgrave is a molecular toxicologist who works at the University of Adelaide.
Like Steinemann, he doesn't believe there is a health basis for the trend towards essential oils and 'natural' perfumes and products (from a fragrance sense at least). "Absolutely none," he says, but he doesn't think the petrochemicals are necessarily the problem.
"For any fragrance to be a fragrance it has to be volatile – which means it has a low vapour pressure and evaporates rapidly, and the kinds of molecules that evaporate rapidly and are organic are typically the type of things that in a laboratory we would wear protective clothing around to try and avoid," Musgrave says.
That means both synthetic and concentrated natural fragrances (it takes about 242,000 rose petals to make 15ml of essential oil and nearly 3000 lemons to produce less than a kilo of oil) themselves can be problematic for some of us.
"What we tend to see as a result of any fragrance is that they can cause skin sensitisation, skin reactions, dermatitis, and allergic-type reactions," Musgrave adds.
"It would seem to me, from looking at toxicity data, that it would be unlikely that someone would be smelling enough toluene from these fragrances to cause significant respiratory issues compared to the fact that you're breathing in much higher concentrations of highly reactive aldehyde-type which are the fragrances … it's more likely to be the fragrances themselves."
Musgrave says the only "relevant difference" between natural and synthetic fragrance is that making synthetic scents is much cheaper and easier than extracting natural fragrances. "Synthetically we can make more of them so you can be exposed to higher concentrations of them," he explains. "Limonene, the lovely lemon fragrance from lemons, is also a very good skin sensitiser and allergen, it's just much easier to make it synthetically than it is to extract thousands and thousands and thousands of lemons."
He adds: "In terms of toxicity there's pretty much no difference between synthetic and natural fragrances.
"The issue is that these things are volatile compounds and the very chemical nature that makes them a fragrance allows them to react with proteins in our body that can result in immune responses. The major issue is – because we can make these things much more easily now – how much we're exposed to."
Some people are more susceptible than others. In a study published earlier this year, Steinemann found that multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) affects an estimated 1 million adult Australians, with chemical sensitivity (CS) affecting another 2 million. Of those with MCS or CS, 91.5 per cent report health problems, including migraines, from being around fragrances.
What can we do?
"Fragrance-free policies, especially in public places and work environments," Steinemann says. "People may think air fresheners somehow clean or purify or improve the air quality, but they just add potentially hazardous chemicals to the air we breathe and impose health risks."
There are other ways we could approach the problem air fresheners seeks to disguise, Musgrave agrees, like proper ventilation. We can also choose genuinely fragrance-free products (some unscented products contain a masking agent to disguise the scents).
But what about the perfumes our memories are made of?
"Scent is a very important human sense," he says. "Nonetheless, we could probably do with less scent."
What exactly is in your fragrance?
In Helen Grenville's literary exploration of perfumes, The Case Against Fragrance, she discovers that essential oils are not just the concentrated smell of rose or jasmine but a mixture of at least a hundred separate ingredients.
And what about your eau de toilette? Of the possible 2947 ingredients listed by International Fragrance Association (IFRA), fragrance mixtures typically contain several hundred chemicals, primarily synthetic.
IFRA states: "All of its ingredients and compounds are rigorously assessed for toxicity and allergens and IFRA works closely with regulators and stakeholders to issue and update comprehensive safety standards."
Keep in mind that no product containing a fragrance – whether it is organic or natural or not – is required to fully disclose the chemical ingredient list of the perfume part of the product.
In addition to this, individual chemicals are tested but there is "very little information on the toxicity of the mixtures".
This is all before you consider the other chemicals that may or may not be in your perfume; ones to block ultraviolet rays so it doesn't go rancid, colour stabilisers and antioxidants to prevent it reacting strangely with oxygen when it hits the air. Plus solvents and preservatives to mix and maintain the mix of ingredients.
For Grenville, however, the choice to go fragrance free is a "kind of risk management".
"Our lives are full of risks we don't have control over. But fragrance isn't one of them. It's not hard to make the choice to spend our days free of artificial fragrance and discover that civilised life is perfectly possible without it."
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