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Essential vs Fragrance Oils: The Hazards of Scents

By: Klaus Ferlow
Source: HANS e-News - August 15, 2008

What is a fragrance oil? Fragrance oils are combinations of synthetically manufactured chemicals designed to "mimic" the aroma of natural materials. Far from "natural", 95% of the chemicals found in these oils are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, and include chemicals such as benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and others capable causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders (CNS) and allergic reactions.

Today, fragrances are marketed to an unsuspecting public who think that these scents are natural. Even unscented and fragrance-free products can contain masking scents to mask the smell of other ingredients. Despite the widespread and constant exposure to fragrance chemicals in thousands of products, there is minimal government regulation and monitoring on their safety.

With 1,000 new synthetic chemicals added yearly to the already 80,000 to 100,000 in use today, most of which have not be tested individually or in combination for their effects on human health, it's not surprising that one in five people experience health problems when exposed.

Fragrance chemicals do not have to be listed on the product label. Trade secret laws keep toxicity testing and ingredient identification from being accurately disclosed, in an industry which is largely self-regulating!

Hormone-disrupting effects

A study by Greenpeace in 2005, discovered that 36 well-known perfume brands contained two toxic, man-made chemicals, phthalate esters and synthetic musk, as in the "old" days the perfumes were derived 100% from botanical plants.

Phthalates are known estrogen and testosterone hormone disrupters and effect DNA, male sperm and restricts lung function in men, while synthetic musk can attack living tissues. Phthalates have been associated with thyroid disorders, premature breast development in baby girls, and abnormal sexual development in male fetus and infants. They are also found in the blood of pregnant women, in breast milk, and can cross the placenta. Diethyl phthalate, commonly used in fragrances and other personal care products, damages the DNA of sperm which can lead to infertility in adult men.

Phthalates can change peoples mood and behaviour, and as they can disguise unpleasant odours, are often found in cleaning products, in hospitals (seems today one of the most dangerous place on earth) and nursing homes. Some fragrance chemicals can alter the skin's surface tension, facilitating the absorption of other chemicals into the skin.

Fragrances can lead to allergies, eczema, psoriasis, contact dermatitis and other skin conditions. It is estimated that 1 to 2% of the North America population may have a skin allergy to fragrances as these can easily volatilize. And, as manufacturers use long lasting fragrance chemicals and invent new powerful potent ones, they can linger in the air, settling and sticking to skin, hair, clothes, furnishings, everything! Fragranced laundry products provide constant exposure, infants' skin being especially susceptible to absorbing chemicals directly from diapers. Fragrance chemicals can also accumulate in fabrics and are very difficult to remove. Laundry will even absorb fragrances if other people have used fragrance detergents in their wash.

Neurological effects

Fragrance chemicals affect brain and the central nervous system, with some effects being immediate and transistory, while others are chronic and long lasting. Fragrances can modify brain blood flow, alter blood pressure, pulse and mood, and trigger migraine headaches. When inhaled, some have potent sedative effects and some like AETT and musk ambrette are neurotoxic. Specially formulated fragrances are used to control public behaviour.

Respiratory effects

Fragrance chemicals can induce or worsen respiratory problems, and lower airway irritation occurs in 15% of people. These respiratory irritants, which cause inflammation and increase mucus production, make the airways more susceptible to injury and allergens, as well as trigger and exacerbate such conditions as asthma, allergies, sinus problems and other respiratory disorders. In school aged children, fragrances can trigger asthma, a chronic illness afflicting nine million American children. Among adults, asthma rates have doubled since 1980, with one in fourteen suffers from asthma, and with 72% of asthmatics citing fragrance as a trigger.

Environmental effects

Fragrances are volatile compounds. The widespread use (and they are banned already in some clinics, hospitals and other public buildings) and vast numbers of fragranced products used cause extensive indoor and outdoor pollution. Many people find it difficult to enter public buildings, attend public events, stand near people or walk outdoors due to fragrances released in the air. A Norwegian study even found synthetic musk compounds in outdoor air in a remote area.

Fragrances are dispensed through ventilation systems in many buildings. They are designed to add a "pleasant" scent to the air (for example, using food smells in shopping malls and floral scents in stores to increase sales). Scents can cover up poor air quality due to odours from cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, pesticides, mould and chemical off-gassing from furniture, carpet, glues, cleaning products, etc. They can also cover up insufficient fresh air ventilation present in many offices, restaurants, hotels, airports etc. An estimated 292 million Americans regularly wash and dry their clothes using fragranced laundry products!

Waste water treatment facilities do not remove fragrance chemicals, many of which are persistent and accumulate in the environment. The documented presence of fragrance chemicals in even drinking water, in streams and in lakes could adversely affect the health of people, animal and plant life.

For more information on the hazards of synthetic scents, refer to: www.ourlittleplace.com/perfume.html, www.herc.org/news/perfume/risks.htm

A variety of fragrance-free natural products are available in the marketplace, just make the effort and carefully read all the labels. If you can't pronounce the ingredients, don't buy it!

Klaus Ferlow, traditional herbalist, innovator, lecturer, writer, founder, President and co-owner of FERLOW BOTANICALS, Div. of Ferlow Brothers Ltd, Vancouver, BC. Manufacturing/distributing organic toxin-free herbal medicinal and personal care products to professional health & wellness practitioners and selected stores with holistic practitioners on staff in Canada and parts of USA since 1993. www.ferlowbotanicals.com