When your favourite fragrance makes you anxious (Part 3 - phthalates and musks)

Posted by Liz Cook on

(Continued from Part 2)

Phthalate use in fragrance

In perfume, there are several forms of phthalates utilised, the most common being DEP (diethyl phthalate), used as a denaturing agent for alcohol, and as a fixative to hold scent on the skin for longer. 

The use of DEP in the perfume industry is not restricted because it has been claimed that it “does not pose any known health risks for humans” . However, contrary to that claim, there is extensive research to show that DEP is highly toxic to humans, especially to the developing foetus.

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that exposure to DEP applied to the skin has been shown to induce developmental effects, including changes in brain weight, red blood cell health and other organ systems.

Data supports the conclusion that DEP can be considered “toxic” both following short and long-term exposures.

Although there has been some action taken in some countries to reduce the extensive use of phthalates (mainly in relation to children’s products), they are still used widely, and continue to pose a serious risk to our health.

In a  2016 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research International looked at 47 brand name perfumes, examining them for levels of 5 different phthalates, and discovered that, in spite of its prohibition by the EU, seven out of 28 perfumes manufactured in European countries had DEHP (diethyl hexyl phthalate) levels above the threshold limit of 1 ppm, and that three brands were above the threshold limit of 0.1 ppm for DBP (dibutyl phthalate), which has also been banned. All were manufactured in European countries. The conclusion of this report was that “phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that have not been yet proven to be safe for any use, including cosmetics.” 

Synthetic musks

Synthetic musks are widely used in all forms of fragrance, including perfumes, washing detergent and home fragrance, even in those that are not delectably musky. These musks are long-lasting and enable the aroma to linger longer on the skin and fabric.

Synthetic musks are considered xenoestrogens (artificial oestrogens) and are toxic to humans, animals and our environment. Studies have shown these compounds can disrupt cell functioning and hormone systems, altering feedback loops in the endocrine system by mimicking the effects of oestrogen and triggering their specific receptors, or by binding to hormone receptors and blocking the action of natural hormones.

The resulting impact on mental health can include mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks and depression (as well as a host of other symptoms).

Synthetic musks are highly stable and bioaccumulate in the environment, and have been detected in human breast milk, body fat, blood, and umbilical cords. Due to their ubiquity and potential to accumulate, synthetic musks are pervasive in peoples’ bodies, and have been found typically at concerning high levels in children.

Some musks (such as nitro musks) have been banned for use in fragrances that come into contact with the skin because of evidence showing neurological damage in animal studies. However, other musks (such as musk xylene) continue to be used in detergents, fabric softener, household cleaning products and other fragrant non-cosmetic products despite evidence demonstrating their significant health risks. These musks escape restriction simply because the products do not come in direct contact with skin. However, exposure to musks via inhalation or contact with household dust (which typically contains a significant amount of the compound) poses a significant health risk which is not being acknowledged by the governing bodies.

The need for serious change

There are more than 3,000 chemicals on perfume’s “governing” (not really) body International Fragrance Association (IFRA)’s Transparency List of chemicals used in the industry, which currently includes 186 banned or restricted substances on the “safety standards” list. However, in addition to failing to set safety criteria for such chemicals as phthalates, musks and various carcinogens, these safety standards are voluntary. Little to no compliance verification is required from fragrance manufacturers to follow IFRA Standards, and there is no evidence that the panel has reviewed the safety of several of the most controversial fragrance ingredients in the last 30 to 40 years. (Side note: RIFM, the body responsible for determining the safety of fragrances, is governed by a Board of Directors made up of the world’s largest fragrance sellers. They have a vested financial interest in making sure that fragrances are deemed “safe”.

Unfortunately the fragrance industry is largely self (or un-) regulated, and governments pretty much never step in despite the extensive use of ingredients of serious health and environmental concern.

So what can you do?

While more than 50 percent of the population would prefer fragrance-free workplaces, hotels, airplanes, health care facilities and public spaces, and almost 33% of us are suffering obvious symptoms because of the health impacts of synthetic scent, businesses and governments are not listening. 

The evidence that synthetic fragrance has a strong impact on our health is clear. The best way forward is to avoid the use of synthetic fragrance in all of its forms - from perfumes to candles, washing powders to car scents and perfume, and to discuss the alternatives with your workplace if you are exposed to synthetic scent there too.

You may choose to either go completely fragrance free, or you may choose to find an alternative natural product for each of these. 

If you are ready to make the switch and start the journey to feeling great, you may like download our guide, Five Step Synthetic Scent Detox.

The best you can do is to educate yourself so you can make an informed choice.

If you would like to do a deeper dive on any of the data discussed in this post, you will find all of the references here.

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