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Perfume, the most deadly poison?

August 24, 2014

I have written before about my own skin struggles, the eczema, acne, irritations and sun-induced blotches.  I expect that at least some of my problems are made worse by perfume and by perfume I don’t just mean the Chanel No. 5 eau de parfum drops of aromatic magic. I mean the wide and varied olfactory assailants that invade my every waking moment – Scented toilet roll, shampoo, conditioner (but of course), soap,  sanitary products, dish washing liquids (or tablets), fabric softener, dustbin liners,  floor cleaner, room spray, candles, stationary, draw liners, socks and undies (yes socks and scratch and sniff underpants!)  and even kids dolls!

Scratch and sniff undies

We are perfumed into what seems like oblivion at times and while we can choose to opt out of much of this in our own personal space  there is no escaping the fact that our world is full of un-natural smells.

But hang on,  I caught myself using the word ‘un-natural’ which begs the question ‘are there any really natural perfumes out there?

I am not of the opinion that it is completely natural to wonder through a field of lavender oil.  A field of lavender, yes.  inhaling the sweet blend of floral and green herbal notes with every step thanks to the heat of the summer sun and the movement of our footsteps but pure, 100% lavender oil no.

And that goes for any essential oil really given that there doesn’t appear to exist a single aromatic flower, herb, leaf or root that gives its sent up entirely effortlessly. Well, not in any volume anyhow.

I have heard the ‘perfume is poison that contains hundreds of synthetic aroma chemicals’ line from many a small brand owner and while I sympathise and agree that yes it is possible to make say a Rose perfume that has never seen daylight let alone a rose in its life my years of working with perfumers also taught me that perfumers are curious creatures who will try to extract smell from ANYTHING that looks interesting.  Unless the perfumer  (or nose) is very odd indeed  natural materials are usually a lot more interesting than your average aromatic chemicals weekly catalogue (unless you either a) pay the bills,  b) do the purchasing or c) are about to be caught in the EU legislation trap).

In short the words ‘perfume’, ‘parfum’, ‘fragrance’ or ‘aroma’ on a cosmetic label doesn’t give you much information as to what is in the product and whether it is naturally derived or not.  It is possible to create perfumes from 100% natural materials,  100% synthetics and everything in-between.  Logic would tell you that the ‘everything in-between’ probably covers all but the cheapest of fragrance options and that is certainly my experience.

So to summarise – perfumes from nature (essential oils) are not exactly a natural thing to spritz all over your skin.

And perfume from nature + the laboratory in whatever ratio is hardly natural either.

So are there any truly natural perfumes?

Well I guess if you think about the things around us that require very little processing but that smell we do have a few things – honey smells nice, fruit mostly smells OK (Durian anyone?), some veggies are quite pleasant, flowers (when they aren’t force grown) are nice and yes, that includes our lavender, beeswax smells good and I can think or a thousand great herbs and spices……..  But in nature these easy-to-come-by aromas are much more subtle and short-lived than our modern expectations can handle.  They might not be easy to incorporate in a commercial cosmetic in this form, may be unpleasant to wear staining clothes or feeling heavy or rough on the skin.

Get the picture? 

The world we are currently living in is perfumed to a level that is far from natural and there are questions being asked about how safe all of this is and whether there is a link between this and the many skin allergies that present at dermatology clinics year after year.  It seems logical that there could be a link, especially given the wide variety of exposures we face daily to an unknown quantity of chemicals.

Perfumery and the law. 

The fact that ‘perfume’ on a label doesn’t tell you much is not entirely helpful either.  Perfumery is still viewed as an art (even though there is more chemistry in perfumery than in your average cosmetic chemist formula) and recipes are closely guarded secrets although I’m not sure that they will stay that way forever given changes in the European laws.  I started work in the cosmetics industry in 1997, the year that it became mandatory to disclose cosmetic ingredients to the market in a uniform way – using INCI names.  I have been avidly reading labels ever since as have many of you given the interest there is on the subject but given that a perfume formulary is usually much more complex and long-winded than a cosmetic formula I do wonder if knowing what is making that smell would actually make anyones life better.

At present the European Union have made it law to label allergens (well, any of the 26 fragrance allergens in annex III) if they exceed 0.001% in a leave on and 0.01% in a rinse-off product.  I am not sure of how effective listing these allergens has been and whether people with eczema or other allergic skin conditions have been screened for and can now avoid their trigger allergens.  I have been searching for data but am yet to find it!  That said it makes sense that if these 26 allergens are out and proud it should go some way to being helpful for people.  However, there is now gathering momentum for the number of fragrance allergens that are listable to rise from that 26 to over 80, over a quarter of which are naturally occurring (present in essential oils).   I am starting to imagine cosmetics of the future being sold with their own 100 page user manual…..  A good review of the proposed laws is available here. 

So is perfume a deadly poison?

You would think so by what is going on in Europe and if we do end up having to label the eighty plus potential allergens there will be a few hundred more ‘this chemical gives you cancer’ blog posts to digest!

I am not convinced that the problem sits entirely with perfume ingredients natural or synthetic.  I have three theories that I feel have some merit although I don’t know as I haven’t tested them but here they are anyway.

Theory 1: Over-exposure.

We simply use too much scent in our lives and often expose ourselves to perfumes without even realising it.  As all of these perfumes are somewhat un-natural it makes sense that over time we might become sensitive to at least some parts of them.  In this over-exposure I also class over-washing  (our selves and our clothes) and over-preening (shaving, waxing, plucking, lasering, rubbing-all-overing,  using peeling products, sun tanning etc).  We push our skin barrier to the limit then cover it with smelly stuff and wonder why we are itchier than ever before?

Eczema behind the knees

Theory 2: Under-educated perfumer putting us at more risk.

There are lots of micro, mini and small brands around today that then grow to become relatively sizeable and very few people in those companies have any formal cosmetic chemistry or perfumery education.  I see it myself where people dose up their products with 2, 3 even 7% essential oil in a product to ‘naturally fragrance it’ and have often wondered if this is also leading to our demise.  Of course it is not just essential oils that are splashed around this way,  synthetic perfume use in these smaller and niche brands is also a potential area for over-exposure.   That said it isn’t always small brands that are to blame,  it is sad to see how few cosmetic chemists and perfumers are employed in companies these days with what few there are being pulled into production, QC of ingredients and general formulation work rather than looking at perfecting ingredient safety.  I think that budget went into marketing but marketing will probably blame sales…..

Theory 3: Perfume isn’t a problem at all, we are just getting weaker.

OK so this is a bit ‘out there’ but I also do wonder about us as people.  I stated that I do have issues with perfume and to be honest, when I look at myself I know that lots of my issues stem from my guts.  I don’t always eat to help myself.  I do wonder if our poor quality gut bacteria is throwing our immune systems all out of whack.  Now whether perfume use (aroma chemicals in the water ways) are causing the gut flora degradation or whether the gut flora degradation is making us more delicate is something that I don’t know but again, I would be interested in finding out more.

So what can we do?

You will never hear me say ‘perfume is poison’, in fact I will most likely cry if the planned changes to the perfumery regulations go through and Chanel No 5 loses it’s iconic mossy base notes.  However, I do believe that we are living in an over-perfumed world and that when we are sensitive to something we need to know and act to remove it from our lives.  I believe that my brand owning customers need to know that those essential oils that are being smeared liberally onto the skin can increase skin penetration and can often degrade in air, water or UV light to produce less skin-friendly by-products that can create skin hell.  I believe that this is one area that needs more education, scientific investigation and careful analysis via a holistic approach rather than a ‘pick it apart and see’ mentality.  You can’t expect us to survive without Rose and Citrus oils can you? And do you REALLY believe that you can take one aroma chemical out of a complex mixture and rank it for safety without considering its neighbours?  That’s like trying to evaluate a painting one paint pot at a time or critiquing a comedy by taking the script and getting a computer to count how many times the word ‘laugh’ appears – the more the better of course!

We can take a good look at our own lives, at how we interact with fragrance (any fragrance) on a daily basis and then sit back and work out what feels right and natural for us either with or without the help of a dermatologist and/or an allergen chart.

We, as cosmetic industry participants can also encourage a more holistic look at evaluating fragrances – bringing the aromatherapists together with the aroma chemists to get a more realistic and better rounded view of what risks are real when we indulge in a little aromatic magic.

It doesn’t pay to over-simplify these things

Amanda x




One Comment leave one →
  1. August 25, 2014 12:47 am

    I really enjoyed this post. As a person who suffers allergic reactions to fragrances in the form of itchy legs and migraines, I am also glad that you brought up essential oils. Too often, people will say that it’s ok because it’s natural (I’m a big hippie, so I lean that direction) but even some of those ‘natural’ EOs will give me a headache. Chemical fragrances are the WORST, though. Here in the US, I’m not sure how it is in your part of the world, but it seems like EVERYTHING has to be scented. Even Dr offices have those nasty plug-in room scent things, which are terrible, and I’ve read about how they make the air around us toxic.
    You made me think in a different fashion about the EOs I do use (mostly just for making my own toothpaste).
    Concerning the itchy legs, I’m trying to take your approach of changing mindset that I don’t need to be an itchy person, and I’m trying to be really vigilant about using plain shea butter every day or every other day, as coconut oil didn’t seem to help much. Haven’t used chemical based moisturizers or lotions for a couple of years now, and that made a great improvement.

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