April 4, 2014

That Stinks: Why Our Favorite Perfumes May Be Making Us Sick.


When I was a child, I loved nothing more to do than to go through my mom’s issues of Cosmo magazine and pull out the perfume strips that were tucked between the pages.

I would rub them all over my body and long for the day when I could wear “grown-up” perfume. My grandmother, whose signature scent was Chanel No. 5, loved perfume as well. She would allow me to sample the various bottles of scent that covered the top of her dresser. More often than not, I overdid it and ended up smelling like I had bathed in it. Still, as my grandmother put it, it was not a big deal or at least nothing that a little soap and water couldn’t take care of.

At least that is what we thought at the time.

As it turns out, the perfumes that I was dousing myself in may have had some long-term consequences that neither Grandma nor myself had anticipated.

Despite the fact that many perfumes smell like things found in nature, like flowers and spices, the vast majority use synthetic ingredients to mimic those natural fragrances.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences found that about 95 percent of these synthetic ingredients are derived from petroleum which is hardly environmentally friendly. Even worse is that many of these synthetics contain endocrine disruptors, which mimic hormones and have been linked to reproductive and development products in babies.

They are also suspected of causing liver and kidney damage and may be linked to reduced sperm counts in men.  Even worse is the fact that they tend to accumulate in body tissues which means that even small amounts of them may not be safe.

Unlike shampoos, body lotions, and other cosmetics, perfume manufacturers do not have to list everything that goes in their products. Scents are considered “trade secrets” and thus, “hundreds of ingredients can be lumped together under the heading of ‘fragrance.'”

And if you believe that each or at least the majority of these ingredients have been tested for human safety then I am sorry to say that you are mistaken. As Sarah Stacey and Josephine Fairley point out in their book, The Green Beauty Bible, the many thousands of these ingredients has never been tested for toxicity while those that have “may only have been [tested] for allergic potential or phototoxicity (interaction with the sun to trigger skin reaction).”

So, what’s a scent-loving girl or guy to do?

Fortunately, there are some options that will allow us to have our cake and eat (or perhaps more correctly, smell) it, too. There is a small, but growing market of certified organic perfumes that are available.

These can range anywhere from around $20  to several hundreds.

However, the selection isn’t going to be anywhere where near as vast as the local department store or drug store.

Another option that is mixing them at home using only pure essential oils and carrier oils.

However, while making one’s own perfume can be fun, it’s not as simple as it sounds and involves far more than just buying your favorite essential oils and mixing them all together. (Granted, you can do that but the results may  be less-than-desirable. The first time I tried it, I ended up with a mess.)

Luckily, there are books out there on DIY perfume.

One of the best introductions I have found is Nancy M. Booth’s Perfumes, Splashes & Colognes: Discovering and Crafting Your Personal Fragrances. (She also includes a handy quiz and information on how one can find their correct “fragrance profile”-i.e., romantic, sporty, dreamy, etc.)

If mixing your own isn’t an option and/or you cannot dream of parting with your signature perfume, then try to avoid wearing it every single day. (Consider taking a break on the weekends.) Also, refrain from touching up the scent throughout the day. This may not only save your health but the noses of those around you. (It’s well-documented that after awhile, we can stop smelling our perfume or it doesn’t appear as strong as it once was. However, that isn’t the case for those around us.)

In conclusion, smelling like a rose shouldn’t have to come as a sacrifice to our health. The right perfume can make us feel confident, sexy, and good. Luckily, we can have that without some of the potentially nasty consequences we never bargained for.

Hopefully, as more consumers become aware of the potentially hazardous ingredients lurking in their bottles of scent, cosmetics companies will take steps to reformulate their products. (This has already happened in European where the health and safety standards are much stricter there than they are in the US.)

Until then, we can let the mainstream cosmetic companies know that we shouldn’t have to choose between our health and smelling good by asking them to “green” their formulas and reminding them that contrary to popular belief, beauty shouldn’t have to hurt.


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!


Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Flickr

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Kimberly Lo  |  Contribution: 55,675