The Darker Side of Perfumes

Why you might want to take a second look at what you're spritzing

Whether it's a Friday night party or Monday morning class, perfumes might be your routine go to if you're looking to feel extra fancy, or if you're running late and haven't had a chance to freshen up. With a million and one choices to choose from, you really can't go wrong - or can you? Government oversight on cosmetics is fairly lax, and they tend to take the approach of it's safe until we learn it isn't, so we're here to help you become a pro on picking perfumes that are both full of personality and free of unnecessary chemicals.

What sort of regulations do we have in place right now?

In the U.S., the news is a bit disheartening. The global cosmetics industry is enormous ($265B in revenue to be precise) while the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Office of Cosmetics and Colors, which regulates cosmetics including perfume is super tiny (a measly $13M). With such little money and manpower, it's difficult to ensure the strictest of safety standards for all cosmetic products being released (1). Furthermore, the Office of Cosmetics and Colors also has very limited authority to do anything since there is no legal requirement for cosmetic companies to collect or report on adverse products/events or even register marketed products (1). This is because the FDA follows general guidelines that ingredients in personal care products are safe unless proven unsafe (2). Even though this means more freedom, if the products are never tested for safety, we'll never know what we are putting on our bodies. It could be totally fine, or it could be full of chemicals that cause health problems. Without testing, we will never know. Luckily, there are many independent groups other than the government that carry out testing of personal care products!

Here's the evidence from independent research

Breast Cancer Prevention Partners conducted a study on 25 personal care and cleaning products, of the top 10 most hazardous ones, 5 were popular perfumes which all happened to be endorsed by celebrities. Each of these perfumes contained between 11 and 18 chemicals linked to chronic health concerns, like disrupting how your hormones should work, respiratory irritation and diseases, and cancer (3). In another study published in June, the scientists looked at Victoria Secret's Bombshell perfume and Ivanka Trump's line of perfume and found the same chemicals that are used in DEET (insect repellent). Even though DEET is fairly safe for repelling bugs, it just goes to show that sometimes random ingredients pop up in our products that really don't belong there (4)! One final study looked at the esters (chemicals that give perfumes their smells) of 47 perfumes and found that these esters don't only mess up how hormones in your body work, they are also genotoxic, meaning they mess up your DNA, which can lead to lots of health problems down the road! The amount of esters used in each of these perfumes was also much higher than safety levels set by Greenpeace (5). Not all perfumes are made equal, and all this research on the safety of perfumes has prompted many companies to start producing less toxic perfumes. Tips on how to jump on that trend right coming right up.

Here's our recommendations for perfume usage

  1. Try switching over to using perfumes scented with essential oils: Essential oils are made by using plant of flower extracts and are a step up from using synthetically produced perfumes (6). However, remember that everyone responds differently to products, so if you're trying out a new essential oil, definitely carry out a few skin tests to ensure that your skin doesn't freak out with a specific essential oil (6). You should also know that there are some essential oils that should be avoided or used sparingly. If essential oils are calling your name, we've written up a guide to help you pick the safest ones!
  2. Look for alcohol-based perfumes and perfumes that are free of parabens, phthalates and ingredients labeled as "fragrance." Fragrance is just another word for synthetic (a.k.a chemical-filled) scents (7).
  3. Choose products with bases of coconut oil, almond oil or beeswax if you're interested in perfume balms (6).
  4. Stay away from scents that seem like they weren't derived from plants or flowers (i.e. a perfume that smells like a mixture of cotton candy and roses probably isn't the most non-toxic).
  5. Save perfume usage for special days, and on those days, spray them on your clothing instead of directly on your skin to prevent your skin from coming into contact with the chemicals in your perfume.
  6. Time your sprays accordingly. Your skin absorbs a greater amount of chemicals when it is fully hydrated, than when it is dry. What this means is that you probably don't want to spritz yourself right after a shower or applying moisturizer (8).

The whole point of perfume is that it helps you feel more awesome. That shouldn't just be about how you smell, but about what you put on your body. So, do a little digging and pick the best perfume overall - not just one that TSwift lent her name to. While smelling like Taylor might seem like living your best life, being covered in toxic chemicals probably isn't the best (it also won't help you dance like Britney in Toxic any better either - we know from experience).



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Want an easy way to live healthier?
Sign up for our newsletter! Curated environmental health news delivered to your inbox every three weeks.
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