(By health writer, Lucy Bode.)
There are certain times in life where, undoubtedly, ignorance is bliss. When eating a TimTam for example, what you don’t know won’t hurt if you throw away the packaging. But care-free consumption of calories is one thing. Unknowingly exposing yourself to a whole tonne of toxins in a spritz of scent is another.
You see, despite being a health writer and pretty clued up about what products I use on my skin, until recently, I wasn’t aware how much damage my perfume addiction was doing. I had heard that commercial fragrances contained some not-so-nice ingredients. And sure, on more than one occasion I’d beelined for the beauty department only to head home with a headache 10 minutes later.
This, One Seed founder Liz Cook tells me, isn’t unusual. In a recent episode of the On-Concious podcast, we sat down to chat about transparency and why the fragrance industry needs to do more to educate consumers.
For those who have no idea why fragrance is bad for them… Can you tell us why we should care about what we’re applying to our skin?
Liz: Fragrance has an enormous impact on our health and it’s in everything – especially if you live in the city. You can’t go a day without being exposed to fragrance in multiple formats, be it when you wake up in the morning and put on your face cream or when you use the toilet spray in the bathroom. Even at work, it’s in the cleaning products and in shopping centres, scent branding is everywhere. If you were to actually take stock of every single exposure to fragrance - natural or not – that you have in the course of a day, there are layers and layers of it. It’s a constant barrage of toxic and potentially endocrine-disrupting chemicals on, in and around your body all day long. Almost from the time you wake up to the time you go to bed - and maybe even longer if you’re washing your sheets in scented detergent!
In terms of perfume, how harmful can a daily spritz or two really be? Is it one of those things we can look past if we’re having all this incidental exposure to synthetic fragrances?
Liz: We don’t have a lot of choice in many of the things we are exposed to, but we can choose what we buy, eat and spray on our body. It’s a matter of minimising our toxic exposure because we know from research that it’s the cumulative effect from a lot of these ingredients that’s most detrimental. And while some of them don’t stay in your system, many do. Take synthetic musks, for example, which are in around 90 to 100 per cent of perfumes and laundry powders (whether you can smell a musk tone or not!) Synthetic musks enter your bloodstream, lodge themselves in your fatty tissue (around the abdomen, breasts, organs, etc) and bioaccumulate.
Let’s say you do two sprays of your favourite perfume per day… it’s not two sprays and it disappears. It’s two sprays plus two sprays. It builds up, and it’s this repeated exposure that becomes problematic for the hormonal system and has a massive effect on the body.
It can be so hard to tell what exactly is in a perfume as there’s no transparency with the ingredients listed on the label. So how do we know what products are all-natural or not?
Liz: Part of the issue is that perfume is very personal. It requires a huge paradigm shift to actually do some investigating because we naturally want to stick with the things that bring us comfort and joy. With many of the classic perfume brands we love there’s no transparency because they’ve been doing the same thing for decades, even 100 years in some cases.
So where do you start once you’ve made the decision to dig a little deeper? The first thing you’ve got to do is look at the outer packaging. The actual bottle itself when you take your perfume out of the box won't tell you any information. (Essentially all you’re given is the name of the perfume and maybe the volume of the product.) The back of the perfume package will have some ingredients listed and although it’s a little more transparent now than it was 20 years ago, most of us would still have no idea what they are and whether they are safe. There are some things brands have to state (say, if the formula includes alcohol or if it needs an allergen declaration) but the word ‘fragrance’ can mean anything up to 200 ingredients and can encompass up to 30 per cent of that formula.
If you were concerned about your health, and you bought a tub of yogurt where only 50 per cent of the ingredients were listed, you would put it back on the shelf, right? But we accept it every time with fragrance. Somehow, we’ve been conditioned to just trust that what’s in there is probably fine because the government would do something about it if there was a problem.
But consumers have to realise that Trade Secret laws protect the intellectual property of fragrance companies. If a brand can show that the ingredients they are using are proprietary ingredients, or that the combination is proprietary, that’s all they need to do.
Why aren’t brands more willing to disclose their formulas – don’t they want to help the consumer?
Liz: Over the years, brands have been forced to remove certain ingredients that were proven to be cancer-causing, endocrine-disrupting or had other negative effects on health. It has happened many times with different classes of synthetic musks, for example, although in some cases it took more than 25 years of testing and convincing for the law to actually crack down. Meaning these ingredients had been used for a quarter of a century – and all the while scientists and brands knew they were doing harm - but they waited to get their fingers slapped really hard and essentially be commanded to stop using them. You see, it all comes down to money. While things are questionable or still being investigated, it’s often within the company's best interest in terms of financial gain to leave things as they are.
If we wanted to find out more about a brand and the ingredients they use, how should we go about asking this?
Liz: If you smell a rat, I recommend emailing as a consumer. Say something like, “Hello, just wondering if there are any synthetic ingredients used in your perfume because I have a few allergies [or] I have children and I want to be really careful.” The majority of the time you’ll either receive no response or you might get back a motherhood statement, which is basically just something copy and pasted that brands send to anyone that makes an inquiry. This should raise red flags.
There have been two instances where I've anonymously been in touch with companies that have been calling themselves natural or eco-friendly and they've said, “Oh, yes. We do use a couple of synthetics, but that's only because lavender can cause allergies, so where we might use lavender, we’ve used a synthetic alternative.” And while it was good that they were open about this when asked, if you look at all of their branding, marketing, website and ingredient list, it doesn’t suggest that at all.
At the end of the day, you have to assess if you’re happy with the information that’s out there and decide whether you are going to continue to support that brand. Do feel like there's enough transparency and that they've got your best interests at heart? Or are there enough unanswered questions that you want to start investigating and going elsewhere? That’s up to the consumer.