I love the smell of hot apple cider or egg nog, gingerbread baking in the oven and fresh cedar this time of year. Smell is such a strong trigger for memories and emotions. To me, these smells remind me of my mom making Christmas dinner and taking a walk in the wet Pacific Northwest woods afterwards.
These are all authentic smells of real life and for me, all good. But scents are used in other ways as well and they’re not always real. In fact many scents are artificial and made with somewhat dubious chemicals.
It wasn’t until I discarded my perfumes and scented laundry products and switched over to essential oils that I started to notice how astringent artificial fragrances are. To me, they smell noxious.
I was reminded of this just a couple weeks ago when I had picked up a bottle of “non-toxic” shampoo and body wash for my daughter but missed the word “fragrance” on the ingredient list. When I poured a bit in my hands I was hit with a sweet sickly scent and it took hours before I was finally able to get the smell off my skin. That’s right, I’m not infallible people!
For some, artificial fragrances can immediately cause rashes, breathing difficulty, headaches and migraines. But why is this?
The FDA allows companies to hide chemicals in “fragrances”. It’s a loophole that manufacturers use under the guise of being a trade-secret formula, which are exempt from labeling laws. It’s not enough to choose products that are unscented however because the company can use chemicals to mask the product’s actual scent.
Fragrances can be concocted from roughly 3,000 stock chemical ingredients. Many of these are not tested for safety and can have harmful health effects.
A single perfume, body or cleaning product can have anywhere from 12 to 50 different toxic chemicals hidden in the term “fragrance”. Examples include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, which concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk and has been linked to cancer. Phthalates are also common in fragrances and are endocrine disrupting.
Women tend to have higher concentrations of toxins accumulated due to the higher amount of personal care products used (12 to 16 each day). This might be higher for women who use multiple hair products, dyes and straighteners.
So, how do you make sure to avoid these nasty chemicals? Look for cleaning, laundry and personal care products that don’t have the word “fragrance” on the ingredient list. Especially look out for fragrance in your laundry soaps as these cling to the fabric and then are absorbed by your skin all day long. Instead of a synthetic perfume, look for an essential oil blends or make your own by adding your favorite essential oils to sweet almond oil in a small roll on bottle. You can still have your signature scent, but it won’t be so overpowering or harmful to you and those around you.
Environmental Working Group has also developed two of the most useful databases that can help you search for less toxic alternatives to what you normally use. Their Skin Deep database is all about personal care products and their Cleaning guide that assesses over 2,000 different cleaners.
So time to discard your artificial fragrances and make room for the yummy and natural fragrances of the holidays.
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