Don't Be Fooled: Just Because It Smells Clean, Doesn't Mean It Is

by Jennifer Morganti, ND

What is it that domestic and personal care products have in common? Their intention is to get and keep things clean. Unfortunately, most advertised products contain something that is not so clean. In fact, to many, it may be toxic: Added fragrance.

Added Fragrance

Whether it is "floral fresh" or merely "pine scented," most commercial fragrances are comprised of up to 100 synthetic chemicals, any or all of which can be quite noxious. Most don't realize how permeable the skin is, and topical applications of these chemicals often make their way into the bloodstream. Their smell may trigger respiratory reactions, while physical contact may result in skin irritation and disruptions.

Trade Secrets

If that is not disconcerting enough, manufacturers are under no obligation to disclose the chemicals used to create these man-made smells because regulations exist that allow them to be claimed as "trade secrets." (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] allows the generic term "fragrance" to be listed on the label and requires no elaboration.) Many ingredients are derived from petroleum or volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as being "emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids." Paints, varnishes, and wax all contain VOCs, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, degreasing, cosmetic, and hobby products. So much of what you use to protect your outdoor furniture is the same as what you use on your face or to disinfect your baby's changing table.

Petroleum-based fragrances can spark migraines, asthma, fatigue, hives, dermatitis, watery eyes, nausea, chest tightness, and hormone disruption. And to complicate matters, these responses may be delayed, thus creating confusion around the source of the reaction.

Although the FDA ignores the fact that fragrances can cause health problems, not all government agencies deny that the chemicals in fragrances may be making people sick. It seems that the U.S. Postal Service is most aware of this health problem. In the 1990s, this agency recognized that the perfume samples inserted in mail might be causing sensitive individuals negative health reactions. This led to a regulation stating that fragrance samples must be sealed so that sensitive individuals could better avoid them.

Benzyl Acetate

A chemical commonly used in the fragrance industry and often found in shampoo, laundry detergent, or lotion, is Benzyl acetate. Due to the aforementioned labeling loophole, you won't see it listed on the bottle. Contact the manufacturer, and it is likely that you may only learn that this ingredient is commonly used to make household products smell nice. One company that manufactures fragrances, Givaudan, describes Benzyl acetate as "having a fresh, light floral, jasmine character." Sounds harmless. Almost pleasant. Further research, specifically the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), which are considered the official datasheets of the chemical industry and list all the chemical hazards and safety issues for any ingredient, provide the following warnings on Benzyl acetate: "Hazardous in case of skin contact, eye contact, ingestion, and INHALATION…. This substance may be toxic to the central nervous system…. In case of skin contact, immediately flush with water…. Get medical attention."

Got my attention. These warnings really beg the question: "Is it wise to apply this toxic chemical to the skin? Even use it in your home, where you would breathe those 'fresh, light jasmine'-scented fumes all day?" This is only one example of the hundreds of toxic chemicals fused into products, while their toxic effects are compounded by multiple and cumulative exposures.

Fortunately, there are household and personal care products with natural ingredients, such as olive oil, coconut oil, soy protein, essential oils, citrus seed extract, and herbal extracts. Examples of "all-natural" brands include Aubrey Organics and Natur-Tyme. For those so sensitive that even natural fragrances can trigger a reaction, some companies offer completely unscented products with no fragrance. These brands include Carter's Soap Co., Nature Clean, Biokleen, and Green Mountain Soap Co.

With these natural, affordable, and readily available product options, you have a choice between just being "clean" smelling and creating a truly hygienic and unpolluted clean.