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Are synthetic fragrances the new secondhand smoke?


Even if you don’t smoke cigarettes, you can’t avoid inhaling chemicals that are harmful to your health. Synthetic fragrances pollute our indoor spaces, thanks to their widespread use in products from shampoo and sunscreen to laundry detergent and cleaning sprays. These days, even garbage bags are scented.

While smelling a hint of lemon or lavender while you’re cleaning the house is nice, it shouldn’t come at the cost of your wellbeing. But unless you specifically search for products that exclusively contain natural ingredients, you expose your lungs and skin to the chemical soup that companies call “fragrance.”

Defining “Fragrance”

Look on the back of your favorite perfume bottle or room freshener and scan the label. There’s a good chance you’ll see the word “fragrance,” “aroma,” or “parfum” listed without any specific breakdown of the ingredients used to manufacture that particular scent.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires companies to list ingredients under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the organization allows a major exception: “This law is not allowed to be used to force a company to tell ‘trade secrets.’ Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be ‘trade secrets.’”

This loophole allows companies to keep secret not only their signature scents, but also the potentially harmful chemicals used to make them. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes that there are thousands of different ingredients used in fragrance compounds, and that many of these undisclosed ingredients “have evidence linking them to health effects including cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.”

You should also be wary of the terms “fragrance-free” and “unscented” on packaging. Rather than being more natural than their scented counterparts, many of these products actually contain scent-masking chemicals, which can have the same detrimental effects.

Your Body on Synthetic Fragrances

Whether you’ve purchased a synthetically scented product for your home or are exposed to unwanted fragrances at work (think air fresheners and bathroom cleaners), the chemicals in these items can enter your body through inhalation or skin absorption. “Either way, many of these chemicals can accumulate in the body,”  note the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in a 2010 report. “As a result, the bodies of most Americans are polluted with multiple cosmetics ingredients. This pollution begins in the womb and continues through life.”

The long-term effects of such chemicals in the body is still being studied, but there’s clear evidence that synthetic fragrances can spur unwanted health symptoms even in the short term. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says fragrances are the No. 1 cause of contact dermatitis (a.k.a. itchy rashes and skin inflammation) in the United States, and that this fragrance sensitivity is growing worldwide. When inhaled, synthetic fragrances can also trigger or worsen asthma and seasonal allergy symptoms, studies show. And of course, you’re probably no stranger to the headaches that fragrances can provoke.

Going Synthetic Fragrance-Free

Like secondhand smoke, it’s difficult to entirely avoid synthetic fragrances, but there are some precautions you can take. For one, if your workplace doesn’t already have a fragrance-free policy, lobby for one. Using this sample policy from the American Lung Association, you can work with your boss or human resources department to safeguard employee health.

When it comes to household and personal-care products, start doing your research to select ones that use natural scents. As an example, Dropps uses plant-derived essential oils rather than synthetic chemicals to give laundry detergent pods and dishwasher detergent pods refreshing scents. You can also search for better-for-you products by identifying the EPA Safer Choice Fragrance-Free label, which ensures the product doesn’t contain any scent-masking chemicals.

If you like scenting rooms in your home, invest in an essential oil diffuser to do so naturally. Another way to add safe fragrance to your space is with fresh flowers or homemade potpourri. No need to scan a label for unsafe ingredients when you go DIY with items found in nature!

Photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash

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