Perfumes and Colognes, are they bad for you?

Perfumes and Colognes are a necessity in today’s world, but could they actually be harmful? The author of this article firmly believes so saying:

“The National Academy of Sciences reports that 95% of the chemicals used in fragrances today are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, including known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.”

“Many chemicals used in scents (many designated as hazardous waste disposal chemicals) cause allergies and irritation, as well as cancer, nerve damage, and birth defects.”

So is the threat real or am I just being paranoid?

Does he mention things like Deoderant or Axe?

The author states that all Fragrances are potentially dangerous, which would include axe and deodorant. Even on the axe cover there is a warning label saying “avoid excessive inhalation”.

Why are they necessary?

I wear antiperspirant when I go out in public, but keep the pits clean shaven and well washed…but I do sweat and prefer not to let teh little microbes make a stench between showers…but I dont wear scents otherwise. I use a plain castile soap that is essentially fat and lye and no scent, and use the same soap as shampoo. I just don’t like a lot of contrasting perfumes, and prefer to keep my assorted chemicals to a minimum.

And no, I dont have problems with split ends…

June Russel, the author of that piece looks to be a crank. In another part of her website, she states:

Which is frankly complete bullshit.

The whole site is complete shite.

It is a marketing strategy to get you to buy their ‘natural’ products.

First, it does not matter if an ingredient is from a plant or mineral source when looking at toxicity. An ingredient derived from a plant can be more of an irritant than one from a mineral source.

Second, the concentrations of irritant ingregients are so small and the duration of exposure so low, that the risk if harm is not significant.

The whole site is full of marketing speak to put consumers in fear of other products so they may sell more of their own stuff. When you see something like “Anti-inflammatory properties of these oils help the skin to detoxify and rejuvenate” your BS meter should be peaking.

Hey, some of their products have borax in them - that is used to kill cockroaches!

Of course that doesn’t imply that there’s nothing to be concerned about with the proliferation of scented products.
Here’s the Canada Safety Council on Perfume in the Workplace, and their advice on a Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace.

IMHO, I’d like to see the more common perfumes found in shampoos, detergents, dryer sheets etc. listed on the label by their correct chemical names. It is not possible to assess risk for these things without knowing what is in them.

Theory is* that volatile constituents of perfumed cosmetics together with off-gassing furniture and fittings react with hydroxl radicals to form irritants that lead to indoor pollution. This can be a problem where the concentration of people is great and the ventilation is poor.

The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off by the perfumes and also by people themselves are natural. The odorants are mainly from natural essential oils e.g. terpenes.

  • article in New Scientist a few years ago

IMHO That CCOHS policy template seems over the top to me.

Of course, if you combine the products in the wrong combinations, you’ll die with a hideous grin on your face and the Joker will continue his reign of terror.

On a more serious note, the US and the EU treat cosmetic safety very differently from a regulatory perspective. From an LA Times article here:

"The “biggest single difference” [from a product safety perspective] between EU and U.S. policy is in the regulation of cosmetics, said Alastair Iles, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. Cosmetics sold in Europe cannot contain about 600 substances that are allowed in U.S. products, including, as of last September, any compound linked to cancer, genetic mutations and reproductive effects.

Driving EU policy is a "better safe than sorry" philosophy called the precautionary principle. Following that guideline, which is codified into EU law, European regulators have taken action against chemicals even when their dangers remain largely uncertain. 

Across the Atlantic, by contrast, U.S. regulators are reluctant to move against a product already in use unless a clear danger can be shown. A chemical, they say, is innocent until proven guilty. "

Even if there were truth behind her claims about synthetic scents (something I doubt given her position on other issues) it would be useful to put them in perspective by comparison with the natural products. Natural essential oils are, at very least, common sources of skin irritation and allergic responses to cosmetics; it seems that any strongly-smelling chemical, whether from petroleum or lavendar flowers picked by virgins under a full moon, has the potential to hurt you. I also wouldn’t be surprised to learn, either, that if individual chemicals were distilled from essential oils and lab rats were exposed to them at absurdly high concentrations (the way artificial chemicals are tested) they might also pose a risk for cancer. Natural products are not necessarily safer, and when it comes to cosmetics, they’re not generally particularly natural either.

Browsing through the site, I notice that it’s hard to find ingredients lists for most products - that sends up a red flag. My experience as a shopper at natural food stores has taught be that a glance at ingredients lists is usually eye-opening. Many such products use chemicals that are - while ultimately derived from natural sources - highly processed (and that come from the same chemical supply companies that supply the ‘unnatural’ brands.) Glancing through one of the product lines linked on the page, I see she sells sunscreens that use PABA which is of course associated with allergies (though it’s natural) and doesn’t afford full-spectrum UV protection. The website also recommends that you sunbathe - just not during hours of peak sun intensity. That’s terrible advice, and it makes me even more suspicious.

The cleansers sold on the site actually to appear to be pretty natural, as far as I can tell. For instance, you can cleanse your teeth without detergents or fluoride, which is a great way to experience natural dental hygiene as our ancestors did. Their teeth fell out early. The facial and body cleansers use soap, which is natural but tends to be basic in pH - most soaps will irritate the skin slightly and encourage overgrowth of bacteria, even if they’re superfatted.

Bottom line? I wouldn’t buy the products, and seeing what the website is selling makes me pretty disinclined to trust the advice it gives. Sorry about my long tangent here, but I tend to find it pretty illuminating to explore the world of the all-natural-fetishists. ‘Natural’ is not usually a very meaningful word in consumer products, and the human lifespan in industrialized countries is more than double what it was during the tens of thousands of years we spent closer to the earth, communing with nature.

If she has any understanding of the basic fact that chemicals that are harmful in high concentrations aren’t necessarily harmful in low concentrations, that website doesn’t show it.

And her assertion that:

made me laugh. And she has extensively tested all of her “natural” ingredients? I don’t think so.

This DermNet NZ site lists essential oils as something that can cause fragrance allergy. And certainly poison ivy oil is natural, but causes allergic reactions in most people.

Just because something is “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it is better or less potentially harmful than something that is synthetic.