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What Doctors Don't Tell You

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October 2020 (Vol. 5 Issue 7)

The problem with perfume

About the author: 

The problem with perfume image

Perfumes have long been marketed as luxury beauty items that enhance our mood, attractiveness and sexuality

Perfumes have long been marketed as luxury beauty items that enhance our mood, attractiveness and sexuality. However, several weeks ago, this romantic image was somewhat tainted when the popular press reported that perfumes may be linked to infertility.

Professor Richard Sharpe, principal investigator at the Medical Research Council's Human Sciences Unit in Edinburgh, Scotland, found that the reproductive system of male rat fetuses could be damaged at eight weeks into gestation by chemicals like those found in perfumes and other cosmetics.

According to Sharpe, such damage could lead to future problems such as undescended testicles, low sperm counts and even testicular cancer.

Although more studies are needed, pregnant women were advised to avoid using perfumes and scented creams for the sake of their babies' health (Daily Telegraph, 31 August 2008).

The UK's Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association (CTPA) has been quick to respond, calling fears over perfume "unfounded". But this is not the first time that perfume has come under fire-and it's not the only research suggesting that perfume is potentially harmful to health.

Environmental health

In 2005, an investigation by the environmental group Greenpeace International sparked alarm when it found that many well-known perfumes use chemicals hazardous to both our health and the environment


On testing 36 brands of eau de toilette/parfum for phthalates and synthetic musks, results showed that these chemicals werepresent in virtually every brand tested.

The most prevalent phthalate was diethyl phthalate (DEP), used in cos-metics and personal-care products as a solvent and a vehicle for fragrances, and also as an alcohol denaturant (making the alcohol unfit to drink).

Although the EU's Scientific Com-mittee on Consumer Products (SCCP) considers DEP safe, clinical studies have linked DEP and other phthalates with adverse reproductive effects such as changes in hormone levels, sperm DNA damage, and genital abnormal-ities (Environ Health Perspect, 2006; 114: 270-

6; Hum Reprod, 2007; 22: 688-95; Environ Health Perspect, 2005; 113: 1056-61).

Although DEP doesn't appear to accumulate in tissues, as Greenpeace notes, "It is clear that when applied to the skin, DEP rapidly penetrates it and becomes widely distributed around the body following each exposure". Indeed, its metabolites have been detected at concentrations in human urine up to 32 times higher than for any other phthalate metabolites (Environ Health Perspect, 2003; 111: 1164-9). The highest levels are reported in women, possibly due to their more frequent use of such items as makeup, skin-care products and perfumes (Environ Health Perspect, 2004; 112: 331-8).

Although certain phthalates have now been banned from cosmetics in the EU because of toxicity, DEP is still being widely used.

The other hazardous chemicals uncovered by Greenpeace in almost all perfumes were synthetic musks. These man-made chemicals are used in per-fumes, aftershaves, cosmetics, skincare products, and even cleaning products and detergents. These chemicals do accumulate in the body in fatty tissue, and have been found in blood samples and even breast milk (Chemosphere, 2005; 59: 487-92; Chemosphere, 1996; 33: 2033-43).

Certain musks-including those commonly used in perfumes-can even interfere with the hormone-based communication systems of aquatic creatures (Environ Sci Technol, 2004; 38: 997-1002; Dietrich DR, Hitzfeld BC. Bioaccumulation and ecotoxicity of synthetic musks in the aquatic environment, in The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry. Berlin/ Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2004: 233-44), and significantly increased the growth of human breast cancer cells in test-tube studies (Arch Environ Contam Toxicol, 2002; 43: 257-64). What's more, they can worsen the effects of exposure to other toxic chemicals (Environ Health Perspect, 2005; 113: 17-24).

Other toxic chemical effects

Perfumes contain other ingredients (see box above)-mostly petroleum-based-such as benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and other known toxins and sensitizers capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and allergic and asthmatic reactions (see WDDTY vol 10 no 7). Indeed, there is ample evidence linking perfume exposure to both acute and chronic health effects.

Fragrances are respiratory irritants, and several studies show that they are a major trigger of asthmatic episodes. In one study, 72 per cent of asthma patients reacted badly to perfume (Am J Med, 1986; 80: 18-22), and more than 20 per cent had their symptoms made worse by sniffing magazine-advertising scent strips (Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol, 1995; 75: 429-33).

A study to determine whether it's the smell or the chemicals that cause the asthma-like symptoms concluded that the triggers were indeed the vola-tile chemicals (Allergy, 1996; 51: 434-9).

There's also evidence that perfume can even cause asthma (Hum Biol, 1996; 68: 405-14). Workers in the perfume industry have some of the highest rates of occupational asthma (Occup Med, 1998; 48: 481-5).

Dermatitis and eczema are also common reactions to perfumes. Indeed, in 2007, fragrances were named 'allergen of the year' by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (Pediatr Ann, 2008; 37: 102-3).

Even more worrying, inhaled fragrance chemicals, many of which are neurotoxic, can change brainwave patterns and blood circulation, leading to headaches, mental confusion, list-lessness, a lack of concentration, seizures, depression and sleepiness (Thomas P. Skin Deep: The Essential Guide to What's Really in the Toiletries and Cosmetics You Use. Rodale, 2008).

Animal studies show that perfume can be toxic to the lungs, liver and kidneys (Flavour Fragr J, 2002; 17: 361-71), and occupational studies suggest a link with cancer (J Occup Environ Med, 2000; 42: 517-25; Br J Ind Med, 1988; 45: 275-6).

Natural perfumes

It can be difficult to find a truly natural scent, as words like 'hypoallergenic', 'natural' and 'floral' don't necessarily mean you can trust the product behind the label. However, WDDTY's sister publication PROOF! found several safer brands (see box, page 20).

Another useful resource is the Environmental Working Group's cosmetic safety database Skin Deep (, which can tell you exactly what's in a product. But, as it's an American website, the product formulations may differ because of tighter EU restrictions.

Another option is to make your own unique scent using natural essential oils such as jasmine, lemon, sandal-wood and ylang-ylang. As few are safe to use neat on the skin, you have to mix them in a base oil (such as sweet almond, apricot kernel, safflower, hazelnut or even sunflower oil). Use no more than 1 drop of essential oil to1 mL of base oil.

Finally, choosing more natural alternatives and selecting 'fragrance-free' options can reduce our exposure to the nearly ubiquitous and harmful fragrance chemicals around us.

Joanna Evans

What's that smell?

A typical bottle of perfume can contain:

- acetone, on the 'hazardous waste' lists of several government agencies; a central nervous system (CNS) depressant; causes dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, slurred speech and drowsiness

- benzaldehyde, a local anaesthetic and CNS depressant; causes irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tract, and kidney damage

- benzyl acetate, environmental pollutant and potential carcinogen linked to pancreatic cancer; vapours irritate eyes and respiratory system; absorbed through the skin, causes system-wide effects

- camphor, a local irritant and CNS stimulant readily absorbed through body tissues; inhalation irritates eyes, nose and throat, and causes dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles and convulsions

- limonene, a carcinogen, skin and eye irritant, and allergen

- linalool, a narcotic; causes CNS disorders, fatal respiratory disturbances, poor muscle coordination, reduced spontaneous motor activity and depression; heart effects seen in animal studies

- alpha-pinene, a sensitizer; causes damage to the immune system

- gamma-terpinene, causes asthma and CNS disorders.

From Skin Deep by Pat Thomas (Rodale, 2008)

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