You’ve smelled it in baby shampoo and toys, you’ve smelled it in the laundry aisle, you’ve smelled it in your lotions, shampoos, makeup, deodorant, dog chews and even your trash bags. That candle store in the mall? Ten stores later you still smell the fragrance oils: Fragrance is everywhere! But are all scents bad, and how can you know?
Fragrance is an ingredient. It can be listed lots of ways, but the word “fragrance” is the one to watch. What’s in Fragrance? Well, that’s just none of your business – it’s a trade secret and it doesn’t have to be disclosed to consumers. Fragrance (sometimes listed as “parfum”) is like a nesting doll, an ingredient that can hide thousands of chemicals – from parabens to phthalates to artificial preservatives. And there’s no way to know which of over 3,000 different chemicals are nesting in there. It doesn’t matter if it’s synthetic fragrance, artificial fragrance, natural fragrance, nature-adjacent fragrance, or innocent sounding botanical fragrance oils, if it says “fragrance” you can’t know what it’s made of.
Oh you wanted your ingredients fully disclosed? Sorry, that’s none of your business.
- Artificial Fragrance = None of your business.
- Natural Fragrance = Still none of your business.
- Botanical Fragrance = Why do you think it’s your business?
- Fragrance oils = NOYB
- Nature-Identical Fragrance = None of your business.
When you buy natural products, make it your business to check for the F word!
The Problem with Fragrance
Scented doesn’t equal bad, and most people can’t tell an essential oil from a parfum (and even “unscented” products can have fragrance chemicals). Some people are sensitive to all scents, natural or not, but what many people are sensitive to is actually something quite different. Since the ingredient called fragrance can contain so many different chemicals, and manufacturers are not required to list them on the label (trade secret, remember?), you have no way of knowing what’s irritating you. Is it a phthalate, the chemical fixative that makes a scent last and last? Is it one of hundreds of toxic hidden preservatives? Guess what? That’s also none of your business.
The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that one-third of the substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic, and the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database agrees:
“The word "fragrance" or "parfum" on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.”
Hidden chemicals in fragrance can cause millions of people to suffer from skin and respiratory allergies, according to a report from Women’s Voices for the Earth. And it’s no surprise to hear about a rise in cases of eczema and contact dermatitis in sensitive babies and children, as well as adults. If you knew what was actually in a certain product you could identify the irritant, but since it’s none of your business, you are out of luck! Unless, of course, you choose products with full ingredient disclosure, and no Fragrance.
Your skin soaks it all in, and though our amazing bodies have brilliant filters (cue the lymphatic system!), we may prefer not to flood our organisms with unknown numbers of unknown chemicals.
Many pregnant women wouldn’t dream of drinking alcohol, eating sushi, or even dying their hair. But they may not give a second thought to using Fragrance-scented lotion, deodorant or dryer sheets. Same with breastfeeding women – they would never put a toxic chemical on their baby, but if they don’t know that “all natural cherry vanilla kiss” deodorant isn’t as natural as it claims, they may be adding a toxic stew of “Natural Fragrance” into their system. If a product has fragrance we just can’t know, because we CAN’T know. You know?
Organic Essential Oils
On the other side of the garden, far away from fragrance, you’ll find essential oils. Organic essential oils distill a plant’s vital energy into a highly concentrated form, and the benefits of the plant are concentrated as well. Pure essential oils just are what they are, no additives allowed. Different essential oils have different herbal uses and beneficial properties, and though they can be blended with other scents or oils, on a label they have to be listed very clearly. Buying organic assures there aren’t any pesticides or herbicides distilled into there too! (Spoiler alert: Earth Mama products contain organic essential oils that happen to smell good. They don’t contain Fragrance.)
How to Avoid Toxic Fragrance Chemicals
The solution should be simple enough: avoid the F word, fragrance. The problem is that fragrance chemicals are found absolutely everywhere (remember that “spring fresh” laundry detergent and those “citrus breeze” trash bags)! At least in the personal care aisle you have some tools you can use to identify the worrisome ingredients. You can avoid products that list the ingredient fragrance or parfum on the label. You can learn to read labels carefully and double-check ingredients in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database. And you can protect your pregnant self, your babies and your family from potentially dangerous fragrance chemicals by choosing safe, certified organic products made with organic essential oils.
Remember to look for the F word when buying natural products. Make it your business!