When your favourite fragrance makes you anxious (Part 1)

Posted by Liz Cook on

Ever considered that the synthetic scents you love - your perfume, candles, diffusers - could be contributing to your mental health challenges?⁠

Research shows that some of the chemicals used in synthetic fragrance can negatively impact your nervous system, hormones and cortisol, leading to (or exacerbating) feelings of anxiety, heart palpitations, and even depression.

Let's take a deeper dive into this topic, pulling back the curtain on some of the factors you may not have even considered.

If you’re one of 2.71 million Aussies currently suffering from anxiety, you’ll know what it’s like to search for answers to this often debilitating condition. 

Twenty-six percent of us will experience an anxiety condition in our lifetime, and one in seven will experience depression.

These mental health disorders can be crippling, and affect more of the population than most well-funded and highly publicised health conditions such as breast cancer (13%) and cardiovascular disease (5.6%). While we have come some way in the past few years to increasing public awareness of mental health issues and opening the conversation with organisations like Lifeline, events such as R U OK Day, and a greater focus on self-care, there is very little being done in addressing the root causes or factors contributing anxiety and depression, including diet, lifestyle and environment. 

Anxiety is not just a state of mind, or state of brain. For some people there may be more obvious root causes such as trauma or excessive stress, but for others anxiety can come out of the blue, and may last just for short episodes, seemingly not triggered by any particular event or circumstance. If you seek help from a doctor or psychiatrist you may be prescribed medication which works by increasing the concentration of neurotransmitters in your brain, but the root causes are likely not to be considered.

Research shows there could be environmental triggers that are exacerbating, contributing to, or even causing you to feel anxious. Or even depressed. One of these factors may be your exposure to the chemicals used in synthetic scent. 

Studies have shown that fragranced consumer products can be primary sources of human exposure to potentially hazardous compounds in both indoor and outdoor air. In fact, fragrance is now considered to be as problematic an environmental pollutant as cars on the road.

In August 2016, veteran fragrance chemical researcher Anne Steinemann, PhD, published several reports describing the scope of how scented products impact our daily lives. Dr Steinmann’s research in Australia, UK, USA and Sweden study found that 32.2% of the adult population report adverse health effects from synthetic fragrance, experiencing a myriad of symptoms, including respiratory problems (18%), mucosal symptoms (16%), migraine headaches (15%), skin problems (10%), asthma attacks (8%), neurological problems (7%), cognitive issues (5%), gastrointestinal symtoms (5%), cardiovascular problems (4%), immune system problems (4%), musculoskeletal problems (3%),  and “other” problems (1%).

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long admitted that poor air quality, poisoned by chemicals, does contribute to neurological ailments including fatigue, dizziness, migraines, and forgetfulness, and research by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics links the chemicals in perfume to short term memory loss, central nervous system disorders, and even severe depression due to an alteration the brain’s biochemistry.

In some countries fragrance sensitivity is so widely acknowledged that it is now considered a disabling health condition that is covered under disability legislation, affecting approximately 9.5% of the population. Further, Dr Steinmann’s research reports that 9.0% of the population have lost workdays or lost a job in the past year due to illness from synthetically-fragranced product exposure in the workplace. Personal estimated costs due to these lost workdays and lost jobs, across the four countries exceed $146 billion (USD) annually.

Anxiety triggered by synthetic scent could be caused directly by the impact of these toxic chemicals on body systems, or indirectly by distress from other health conditions caused by these ingredients (as described above). 

So what is fragrance, anyway?

‘Fragrance’ is a term given to any number of chemicals used to create an aroma. These could be natural or lab-created synthetics. When you see the word ‘fragrance’ on any consumer product (from perfume to candles to scratch-and-sniff stickers), it simply means a combination of ingredients that create a scent. These are almost always 100% synthetic (unless specifically stated on the label as 100% natural fragrance), and frequently manufactured from petrochemicals.

Fragrance is not just one thing - it usually consists of around 50-200 different chemicals from a possible list of over 3000 ingredients. But Trade Secret legislation permits companies not to disclose these ingredients, allowing them simply group them as ‘fragrance’, so consumers have no idea what is actually in the bottle.

Fragrances can enter your body through direct exposure to the skin, or through your upper airway, where they permeate the olfactory system before continuing on to the lungs. (Perfumes enter the body both through the skin and airway, so can be potentially even more hazardous). In both cases, the chemicals eventually find their way to the limbic section of the brain. That’s how fragrances begin to affect your nervous system.

Toxic chemicals in perfume

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics discovered that the average commercial perfume (from Brittany Spears Curious to Chanel Coco Mademoiselle) contains fourteen secret chemicals not disclosed on the ingredients label, including those associated with hormone disruption, and those than can accumulate in human fatty tissue including breast milk, as well as as some which have been shown to have a significant impact on mental health.

As many as 75% of these chemicals have not been assessed for safety in personal care products, so we as yet have no idea what their impact could be on our health.

Some of the toxic chemicals commonly used in perfumes include:

  • diethyl phthalate (DEP) - used as a denaturing agent and also to increase longevity of wear. A known hormone disruptor.
  • synthetic musks  - found in almost all perfumes and laundry products. They bioaccumulate in humans, animals and the environment, and cause hormone disruption.
  • Acetaldehyde - smells like green apples but is a reproductive toxin.
  • Benzophenone - acts as a UV filter but is an endocrine disruptor.

(You can download a more detailed list here). 

The list of health implications from synthetic scent is long and complex. For this can of worms we are going to focus on a couple of major endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs): phthalates and synthetic musks - how they impact your mental health, and how to avoid them.

In our next post, we will continue the discussion by looking at the body system most impacted by exposure to these fragrance chemicals.

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