This post is part of my series, “Kickin’ It Old Skool: Why and How We Are Old-Fashioned” or KIOS for short. If you’re new to the series, please read my disclaimer before continuing on. I’m keeping a table of contents to this series here so you can see what I’ve already written about and what more there is to come.
Two months ago, a friend of mine (and reader of my blog) asked me to give her some resources related to why artificial fragrances are bad. At the time I told her I’d get back to her in a couple weeks and here we are, two months later. (Sorry, friend!)
This topic seems like an appropriate side discussion for the “KIOS: Grooming” section because so many of the products we use to take care of ourselves are laden with fragrances, both artificial and natural. This is also true for the the vast majority of cleaning products.
Before we started to change the way we lived, I had all kinds of different scented items. I’d always chosen an unscented laundry detergent and an unscented basic lotion. But I did love a certain scented hand lotion from Bath and Body Works (whose name I can’t even remember now), I used tangerine body soap from the Body Shop, I wore Liz Claiborne perfume, and I used Herbal Essences shampoo and conditioner. I also loved scented candles. Along with all the other things wrong with those products, I now know that they were laden with artificial fragrances.
Why is this a bad thing?
There is a “a significant loophole in the law [which] allows phthalates (and other chemicals) to be added to fragrances without disclosure to consumers.” (source) In other words, when you read the word “fragrance” in a list of ingredients, you should insert “i.e. all kinds of crazy, possibly toxic chemicals” to get the complete picture.
Most of the chemicals used to create artificial fragrances are actually petrochemicals (i.e. made from petroleum). These chemicals are usually toxic. In addition, most artificial fragrances also contain phthalates, which are known endocrine disruptors and also suspected carcinogens. (Endocrine disruptors are anything that interfere with hormonal functions in the body.)
Two other terms to be suspicious of are “fragrance-free” and “natural fragrance”. Although seemingly better than products with fragrances, both those terms can be misleading. Their use is not well-regulated and can still indicate the presence of undesirable chemicals, such as chemicals to mask the smells of the other ingredients in the lotion to make it “fragrance-free”.
So what do we do?
Simply put, we avoid fragrances. You won’t find anything scented in our house (except for sunscreen, more about that here), unless the scent is specifically identified in the ingredient list as “essential oil of _______”. This is the only way to be sure that there are not toxic chemicals lurking in the mix.
One consequence of having a household (and life) free from scents is that I easily get overloaded by scents when I am around them. In particular, I’m very sensitive to the smell of laundry products (detergent, fabric softener, etc). I know that my sensitivity to smells has greatly increased since I stopped bombarding my senses with smells all the time. I can hardly stand to walk down the soap/detergent aisle at the grocery store (and rarely do). I am thankful for this sensitivity actually. I’m sure I enjoy real scents more as a consequence! 🙂
There are two other categories of people to consider when making the decision about whether or not to use products with fragrance in them: children and those with chemical sensitivities.
Children: In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne discusses the need to simplify a child’s environment, include what they smell. He points out that kids’ noses are assaulted by scents all day long – from cleaning and personal care products to candles and air-fresheners.
The amygdala…is the area associated with olfaction, or smell. In a world that booms and buzzes, especially for children, you also have a cacophony of smells. Too many smells. All these competing, chemical perfumes get the amygdala firing, and cortisol and adrenalin pumping.
Simplify the smells and perfumes in your home, particularly in your child’s room. One of the things that quiet the amygdala and promote a sense of safety and well-being for a young child is their own, albeit very subtle and fine natural scent, and the smell of their mother and father. When we surround ourselves with chemical smells and perfumes, we miss out on an opportunity to calm and connect with our children. (emphasis added) (p. 91)
Those with chemical sensitivities: Many people are extremely sensitive to fragrances. They can often have allergy-like symptoms, including migraines and difficulty breathing. The excessive use of fragrance in society can be quite debilitating for these people. It’s practically impossible to avoid fragrances once you leave your home. For example, during the holiday season at Joann Fabrics, they have cinnamon-scented pine cones in the entryway and in the checkout aisle. I don’t have chemical sensitivities like this and I still feel sickened when walking by them. If I did, I would have to avoid Joann’s entirely in November/December, not a good thing for a sewing-obsessed person!
But Laura! I have a signature scent! How will I get by without wearing my perfume/cologne/scented lotion?
Ultimately, it’s your decision as to what you put onto your own body. Before you make the decision to stop (or continue) wearing your favorite perfume/cologne, I would recommend researching the ingredients in it. (This might be difficult. I just spent five minutes searching for the ingredients in Chanel No. 5 and couldn’t easily find a list.)
As for me, I did have a signature scent (the Liz Claiborne in the red, triangular bottle) but I stopped wearing it because I decided the scent wasn’t worth the toxins.
If you don’t want the toxins but do want to wear perfume (and are willing to change your signature scent), then you can either make your own perfume or purchase perfume made from essential oils. Search “organic perfume” and that should get you some options.
If you’re accustomed to using air fresheners and/or scented candles, here are a couple things to try to make your house smell good without chemicals:
1. Open all your windows and let a good amount of fresh air in, even when it’s really hot or cold outside. Just a few minutes of fresh air can go a long ways towards making your house smell good again.
2. Put a few citrus slices (orange, lemon, or lime) in a pan with a good amount of water and some whole spices (like cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, and cardamom pods). Put on low heat and let the delicious scent fill your house. Make sure to keep an eye on it so it doesn’t boil dry. Add water periodically as necessary.
3. Best of all, cook or bake something delicious to smell and to eat!
More about phthalates
More about endocrine disruptors
A list of chemicals to avoid, generally associated with fragrances
One university’s policy on the use of perfumes and scented products in order to make the work environment accommodating for all
More reading about chemical sensitivity