Synthetic fragrances are man-made chemicals used to scent products. They are most commonly represented on product ingredient lists as “fragrance” or “parfum” even though the ingredient that this term represents can be comprised of as many as 200 separate chemicals.
The chemicals hiding behind these descriptors have been linked to everything from skin irritation, hormone disruption, cancer and a range of environmental issues, but businesses continue to use artificial chemical fragrances because they are cheaper and easier to use in manufacturing than natural alternatives.
1. Lack of transparency
In North America, it is not mandatory for cleaning products to show a full list of ingredients. This means that cleaning products do not have to include a complete list of ingredients, despite the fact that many conventional cleaners contain chemicals that harm our health and damage the environment.
Even if ingredients are listed, proprietary laws protect fragrance formulas as a 'trade secret'. This means that the specific scent of a product is considered unique to the manufacturer and by law, doesn't have to be publicly disclosed.
2. The Fragrance Industry is Self-Regulated
According to a report by the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) on toxic fragrances, the problem with the North American flavour and fragrance market is a lack of regulation. This applies not only to product ingredient disclosure to customers and regulatory agencies, but also the disclosure of fragrance ingredients from suppliers to manufacturers, or the fragrance supply chain itself (e.g. raw material providers and fragrance houses).
This means that manufacturers of cleaning products that use synthetic fragrances may be denied access to some or all of the fragrance ingredient information of scents used in their products.
The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is the representative body of the fragrance industry and provides guidance on the safe use of fragrance based on the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials’ (RIFM) database of toxicology, literature and general information on fragrance. The IFRA list of chemicals in fragrances is more than 3000 chemicals long, 180 of which are prohibited or restricted. It is important to note that compliance with IFRA’s guidelines is voluntary and the BCPP report states that the majority of the research used is undertaken by the industry itself.
3. They Can Aggravate Allergies and Irritation
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an independent body that examines consumer products and their ingredients and investigates the impact they can have on our health and the environment. They consider fragrance formulas to be among the top five known allergens found in consumer products. Their ‘Guide to Healthy Cleaning’ lists over 1900 household cleaning products that contain fragrance as an ingredient.
Cleaners that contain fragrance formulas are even more detrimental to the respiratory health of cleaning professionals because of increased exposure. A study by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine found that using chemical cleaning products may harm female workers’ lungs as much as smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 10 to 20 years.
4. They Contain Parabens
Parabens are a group of chemicals commonly found in products as synthetic preservatives but are also found in fragrance formulas. This means that in scented products, hidden under that tricky little "fragrance" label, you can still find methyl paraben and ethyl paraben. Parabens are problematic for a variety of health reasons, including hormone disruption, interference with reproductive development and skin irritation. Studies have also shown that parabens can bioaccumulate inside our bodies.
5. They Contain Phthalates
Phthalates are a class of chemicals with a range of applications, including use as an ingredient in fragrance. Research into each type of phthalate is ongoing, but the results so far show that exposure to phthalates has been linked to cancer, birth defects, respiratory disease, chemical burns and hormone disruption.
The potential health risks of hormone disruptors alone are many. Our endocrine system consists of a network of glands that produce hormones, which our bodies use as chemical messengers control multiple functions throughout the body including growth, metabolism and development.
Chemicals that can mimic hormones are known as endocrine disruptors and have been linked to a multitude of issues including infertility, breast cancer, diabetes, metabolic issues and obesity.
What is even more worrisome is the developmental effect that phthalates can have on growth, particularly of children developing in the womb, as phthalate exposure is almost impossible to avoid.
6. Phthalates Pollute Our Air
Besides the negative consequences of using phthalates to your own health, these chemicals can also affect the health of those around you.
Phthalates are classified as volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). This qualification is given to chemicals that vaporize into our atmosphere, but don't disappear. They linger, build up, contribute to indoor air pollution, and pose a health risk to anyone exposed to them. Release of phthalates in the air is made easier through sprays, aerosols and air fresheners that include synthetic fragrances in their formulas.
7. Phthalates Pollute Our Waterways
Phthalates also persist in our waterways. In particular, diethyl phthalate (DEP) which is commonly used in synthetic fragrances is listed as a priority pollutant in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Water Act.
Phthalates can enter into our natural environment indirectly as by-products in manufacturing. However, laundry detergent and dishwashing detergents that contain synthetic fragrances release phthalates directly into the environment through wastewater.
8. They Are Persistent
What makes the release of phthalates even more problematic is that they have the potential to persist in our environment - and they aren’t the only ones. Synthetic fragrance chemicals such as galaxolide are used to create musks that scent air fresheners and cleaning sprays.
The EWG’s ‘Guide to Healthy Cleaning’ reports galaxolide as ‘very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects’. Research has also shown galaxolide to bioaccumulate and show in blood and breast milk samples.
9. Many Synthetic Fragrances Contain Petroleum-Derived Ingredients
A report by the EWG and SafeCosmetics.org state that many of the secret ingredients hidden in the ‘fragrance’ loophole are petroleum-derived. This means that they are sourced from the byproducts of crude oil extraction. These substances are from a non-renewable resource, and some have been linked to allergies, birth defects, endocrine disruptors or have been named as carcinogens.
10. There Are Natural Alternatives
Going natural and organic doesn't mean you can't smell great or keep your home clean. One of the best reasons for avoiding cleaning products with synthetic fragrances is that there are plenty of alternatives on the market.
The organic and natural movement has spread from our diets into the rest of our lives which means more brands are using botanicals and essential oils to naturally scent products.
The transition to natural cleaning products for consumers isn’t simple. This is because marketers are using weak regulation laws such as the “fragrance” ingredient loophole to greenwash consumers into using products that can still cause harm.
The best way to stay synthetic fragrance and chemical free is to use third-party guides such as EWG’s ‘Guide to Healthy Cleaning’ and independent certifications to help you make more informed choices.
Synthetic fragrances are a common ingredient in cosmetics, skincare, hair care, and household products. Taking precautionary steps to avoid synthetic chemical fragrances in cleaning products and their hidden ingredients can be difficult, but when you consider the potential health and environmental harm they may cause, the effort is worth it.
Choosing home cleaning products that forgo the misleading “fragrance” loophole, list all ingredients and avoid synthetic chemicals is an important step towards minimizing daily exposure to damaging toxins.
In the case of air fresheners, the best solution is to open a window and circulate fresh air if you can. If you enjoy a light scent with your cleaning products, opt for those scented with only pure organic essential oils and if you are happy to clean without fragrance or are particularly sensitive to scents, choose unscented products instead.
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