Perfume and cologne are everywhere. From sprays to lotions to cosmetics to roll on bottles, everything in the personal care market seems to have fragrance. And why not? Everyone loves to smell good and use products that smell good (at least everyone who I’ve ever met). But what exactly is in that fragrant “smell-good?”
What exactly is a fragrance?
That is a tricky question. According to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), fragrance may include any number of the industry’s 3,100 stock chemicals, none of which are required to be listed on labels. According to the FDA, federal law allows companies to leave some chemical ingredients off their product labels, including those considered to be trade secrets, components of fragrance, and nanomaterials. Data provided from the Environmental Working Group shows tests of fragrance ingredients have found an average of 14 hidden compounds per formulation, including ingredients linked to hormone disruption and sperm damage.
But don’t products need to be proven safe to be sold in stores?
The Food and Drug Administration has no authority to require companies to test cosmetics products for safety. In fact, in 1938 federal law decided to put the burden of proof on the FDA which doesn’t have the time or funding to test safety. The agency does not review or approve most products or ingredients before they go on the market. In fact, the FDA does not even have the authority to require recalls of harmful cosmetics! On top of that, manufacturers are not required to report cosmetics-related injuries to the agency. Instead, the FDA relies on companies to report injuries voluntarily (FDA 2005).
So, basically, perfume and cologne (along with anything labeled “fragrance”) can be any variety or combination of over 3,000 different chemicals. There are some safe perfumes and colognes, like those rated 1-3 on EWG’s Skin Deep Database. But the majority of what you will find on big box and department store shelves will likely not have a healthy ingredient list if they even list their ingredients.
Can fragrances cause health problems?
Some of the most common chemicals in perfumes are ethanol, acetaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, a-pinene, acetone, benzyl alcohol, ethyl acetate, linalool, a-terpinene, methylene chloride, styrene oxide, dimethyl sulfate, a-terpineol, and camphor.
Some of the above-mentioned chemicals cause irritability, mental vagueness, anxiety, depression, muscle pain, asthma, bloating, joint aches, arthritis, sinus pain, fatigue, sore throat, eye irritation, hormonal imbalances, gastrointestinal problems, cancer, laryngitis, headaches, dizziness, neurological issues, swollen lymph nodes, spikes in blood pressure, coughing, and burning or itching skin irritations.
Even if you can’t smell the fragrance, it can still affect you. If certain times you feel more nervous or irritable (or any of the above-mentioned side effects), think about what synthetic scents you may be wearing or in close proximity to.
Watch out for “fragrant oils.” Often marketing suggests fragrant oils or perfume-grade oils are essential oils. They are not. Perfume grade oils are most often a combination of synthetic fragrant chemicals, although some can include some natural compounds as well. Essential Oils are created by distilling or cold-pressing plant matter. Although essential oils can be used as a nontoxic perfume or cologne (which is what I use).
Switch To Using Safer Fragrance Options!
I’m a huge advocate for essential oils for several reasons. This is one. There are many essential oils and blends that make incredible perfumes and cologne.
Making your own cologne or perfume using essential oils is easy to do, completely customizable, and actually benefits your body all in one application! Smell good and feel better? Yes, please!
You can add a couple of drops onto a diffuser necklace or bracelet. You can add a couple of drops to a leather necklace or bracelet. You can dilute them and apply them directly to your skin (neck and wrists are popular locations). Or you can buy an atomizer (like this) and add 5 drops of essential oil to 5ml of water with a pinch of salt, shake and spray.
I love how there are no rules and you can do whatever you choose that fits your lifestyle. (bonus: no need for standing in the department store sniffing through to find a bottle of “smell goods” or dealing with the associated sneezing and headaches).
I like to pair woodsy scents with citrus scents. Sometimes I add flower scents. I choose whichever I gravitate to at that moment. Today, I’m wearing Black Spruce with Tangerine. It’s relaxing, calming, and uplifting.
How do you choose which essential oils to make a perfume or cologne with?
Make sure you do your research on oils before settling on a brand. There is a lot of dishonesty in the essential oils market that few people truly understand. I do have a blog post about understanding the dirty little secrets in the essential oil industry no one is talking about I encourage you to check it out.
And please: read your labels.
If a company doesn’t provide full ingredient disclosure, don’t buy their products.
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Nicole is a military-trained research analyst, homeschooling mom, healthy lifestyle coach, flexible business consultant, and writer for MotherhoodTruth.com and GracefullyAbundant.com. After living through and overcoming a season of homelessness and chronic health, Nicole developed a passion for helping others develop healthier habits using functional nutrition, herbalism, and renewing faith.