by Katie E. Boyle, MPH
If your tween and adolescent kids wear perfumes or body sprays, they will not want you to read this post. I’ll start out by saying that I don't wear store-bought perfume. I want to; I am tempted by the appeal of the advertisements, the fame of the celebrities who back them and the fragrances themselves. Many of them smell so delicious as they float upwards from the page of the magazine. But I just can’t do it. Here’s why:
Unless noted otherwise, conventional perfumes contain synthetic chemicals under the name "fragrance" or "parfum.” That one word which may or may not be listed on the label actually represents a combination of a chemicals plus other things not listed, like stabilizers, mixing agents, dispersants and preservatives, all bundled into one ingredient: fragrance.(EWG) And we intentionally breathe this in and put this on our skin? Components of this mystery cocktail of chemicals act as hormones in our bodies, so we call them “endocrine disrupting" chemicals.
What are endocrine disruptors (EDCs)?
EDCs are chemicals that imitate natural hormones in the body; meaning the body treats them like hormones already in our endocrine system, allowing them to alter and damage cells. They can be present in the six-dollar or ninety-six-dollar bottles of perfume and are also in plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, baby care products, building materials, cleaning materials, air fresheners and insecticides. More details on EDCs and how they act in the body (e.g. the REAL sciency stuff) can be found at the National Science Foundation's page here.
Why should this matter to you?
EDCs are associated with increased breast cancer rates, abnormalities in reproductive function and anatomy (reduced sperm count, quality and motility) and neurodevelopmental delays in children (WHO). In a laboratory study, EDCs also assisted in the proliferation of breast cancer cells and inhibited the tumor-killing action of Tamoxifen used in treating the tumor (Kim, 2004). So not only did the EDCs help the cancer cells grow, they blocked the beneficial effect of the treatment used to combat the cancer = so f-ing scary!
Humans - babies, children, adolescents to adults - are exposed to EDCs via ingestion, inhalation of gases and particles in the air and absorption through the skin. The developing fetus is exposed via transfer through the placenta. Chemicals in perfume are (obviously) inhaled and absorbed through the skin, or go from mother to baby in placenta or breast milk.
A woman’s exposure during pregnancy is the most concerning, as hormones play a central role in the development of the fetus and negative health effects may not appear until much later in life. Young girls are getting their periods earlier, and exposure to these chemicals is a likely cause. Read more about the benefits a group of teens in a study at UC Berkeley experienced when they switched from conventional to natural cosmetics.
The Solution – Google It
Unfortunately, we are accustomed to smelling synthetic fragrances in everything from cleaning products to candles to cosmetics, but the chemicals in these products can and do hurt us! In reality, the only “safe” type of fragrance to use on our skin is the oil derived from fruits, plants and trees, such as lavender, cedarwood, ylang ylang, lemon, clove, geranium, vanilla and so many more. (But beware that any dermatologist will tell you about the risk for contact dermatitis or other skin reactions when using essential oils!)
After reading this, go ahead and Google “natural perfumes” and you’ll find a bunch of “Top 10” and “Best of” lists to comb through. Some of the natural brands out there have the same sexiness, allure and price tag of the celebrity-backed perfumes, but by supporting them, you’re making a statement that you support the use of natural, healthy, sustainable ingredients, and moreover, you back the companies who have those values built in. If purchases of conventional perfumes go down, those manufacturers (and celebrities) will hopefully take heed and nix the toxins in their formulas!
I say, if the alternatives I have to choose from come straight from the Earth with names like clove, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, vanilla, ylang ylang, geranium, rose, vetiver, wild orange.... why would I ever consider buying conventional perfume!? Natural fragrances are a million times better and can in some cases can have therapeutic benefits, like inducing relaxation, soothing tired muscles, boosting immunity, assisting with focus, reducing inflammation or stimulating the senses. Given the great benefits of going natural, I am a voice asking you and all consumers to stop buying conventional fragrances for yourselves and your daughters/sons. Natural fragrances are no more expensive than perfume, and with the added therapeutic benefits and comparable investment in sleek and sexy packaging like the others, they are a cool gift to receive and a total WIN-WIN!
Kim, 2004: Kim IY, Han SY, Moon A (2004a). Phthalates inhibit tamoxifen-induced apoptosis in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells. J Toxicol Environ Health, 67:2025-2035.
SixClasses: http://www.sixclasses.org/bisphenols-phthalates/ and