12 February 2003
the nose knows
Think twice before buying a loved one perfume, cologne
By Francesca Lyman
Feb. 12 — “The way to the heart is through the nose,”
asserts Haarmann & Reimer, a leading fragrance manufacturer.
But lovers may want to think twice about giving a bottle of cologne
or perfume for Valentines Day, say some health advocates. Certain
fragrances and their chemical constituents might trigger an allergic
— rather than aphrodisiac — response. And some perfumes
contain hidden ingredients that may pose longer-term hazards.
your love interest suffers from asthma, rhinitis, allergies, dermatitis
or a growing range of chemical sensitivities, that bottle of perfume
may very well repel more than attract. According to medical specialists,
fragrance sensitivity appears to be on the rise.
also a growing contributor to indoor pollution in the workplace,
says Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist for the New York
Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.
often joke about it, people wearing offensive perfumes,”
says Loewenherz. But it’s no laughing matter, she adds,
either for the allergy sufferers or the office managers trying
to manage a delicate problem.
Berg, director of the American Lung Association’s Washington
State office, agrees, noting that fragrance seems to be an
increasing irritant among people with asthma.
“We tend to not think of it as serious until we see
someone in acute distress,” says Berg.
enough to sniff?
The cosmetic industry insists its products are safe.
recent years it has become fashionable to criticize the use
of fragrances in our society, suggesting that this use is
associated with a variety of negative effects,” writes
Peter Cadby of the International Fragrance Association, in
a recent journal article. ”[But] an adequate review
and testing mechanism exists to assure the safety of fragrance
materials, and their combination in mixtures, for the consumers
of fragranced products.”
However, some health advocates point to growing evidence that
perfumes, hair gels and other fragranced products may contain
chemicals such as phthalates, which can disrupt hormones.
In addition, they point to other compounds that can affect
immunity, the nervous system, or play a role in cancer and
other health problems.
if the general population isn’t likely to suffer acute
effects from exposure to fragrances, there are long-term chronic
health effects connected to these chemicals that we don’t
fully understand yet,” says Loewenherz.
distilled simply from flower essences, perfumes today are
complex mixtures of natural (botanical or animal-derived)
materials and synthetic chemicals. More than 5,000 different
fragrances are used in perfumes and skin products in hundreds
of chemical combinations, according to the American Academy
because the chemical formulas of fragrances are considered
trade secrets, companies aren’t required to list their
ingredients. They need only label them as containing “fragrance.”
a problem for the medical profession when it comes to allergies,
says dermatologist Howard Maibach, a professor of dermatology
at the University of California at San Francisco. The large
quantity and variety of chemicals can make it difficult to
pinpoint causes of allergies or irritation.
Tips for people who are sensitive to fragrances or don't
want to offend co-workers or spouses:
to products with natural-based ingredients and less
synthetic additives may help.
out "The Safe Shopper's Bible: A consumer's guide
to nontoxic household products, cosmetics and food,"
by Dr. Samuel Epstein.
natural ingredients can also cause allergic reactions
in some people, there are many new products available
in health food stores and from small companies on the
Internet that offer some relief.
soaps and lotions made of pure materials, such as oatmeal
bars and alcohol-free hair sprays. A few recommendations:
Dr. Bronner's super mild Castille and unscented baby
and bar soaps, Clinique's unscented soaps and Aveda
for essential oils, they're purer but also potentially
allergenic. But a touch of lavender or lemon is okay.
buyer beware: Cosmetics labeled "hypoallergenic,"
according to the FDA, offer no guarantee that they won't
cause reactions in sensitive individuals. "Hypoallergenic"
means only that the manufacturer feels that the product
is less likely to cause an allergic reaction.
If you'd like to find products without phthalates, check
out EWG's list.
To see if your current cosmetics contain phthalates,
you can also visit EWG's
Dr. Samuel Epstein, University of Illinois in Chicago;
Daliya Robison, Nirvana Safe Haven, Environmental Working
rising tide of fragrances in myriad products, from skin lotions
and tissues to cleaning products and candles, is adding to the problem,
says Loewenherz. Because some 95 percent of perfume ingredients
are synthesized from petrochemicals, they give off volatile organic
compounds, known as VOCs, which are also found in vapors emitted
from toxic products like solvents, wood preservatives, paint strippers
and dry cleaning chemicals.
ingredients in perfume
are known to produce eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as
headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, liver damage, and harm
to the kidneys and central nervous system, according to the Environmental
Protection Agency. Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals and are
suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.
while adverse health effects from VOCs typically occur at far higher
doses than what would be found in fragrances, they nevertheless
can be potentially dangerous in tight indoor spaces, Loewenherz
Bridges, director of the Fragrance Products Information Network,
says that some 72 percent of asthmatics react adversely to perfumes
and at least 35 million Americans are afflicted with allergies.
Bridges supported the Environmental Health Network of California
when it commissioned an independent laboratory to test Calvin Klein’s
Eternity, one of several fragrances most problematic for fragrance
sufferers. Tests revealed that the perfume contained more than 40
compounds, among them diethyl phthalate, an irritant and suspected
hormone disruptor that is absorbed through the skin. The lab that
conducted the tests, Huber Chemicals of Switzerland, found the chemical
made up about 10 percent of the fragrance portion of the perfume,
says Bridges. The fragrance also included synthetic musks, which
are suspected animal carcinogens and may stimulate human cancer
Bridges says that while searching the chemical data sheets for compounds
in the fragrance, the researchers often found the individual chemicals
carried this phrase: “The chemical, physical, and toxicological
properties have not been thoroughly investigated.”
presence of these chemicals ought to be more than simply a concern
for the chemically sensitive since fragrances are so ubiquitous
in our society, says Bridges.
voice her concerns, Bridges signed a May 1999 petition filed with
the Food and Drug Administration, asking for the perfume to be labeled
as “untested for safety.”
Brand Products Tested
Bridges and EHN aren’t the only ones concerned about the safety
of perfume. Last May, a group of environmental and public health
organizations, led by the Environmental Working Group, commissioned
a national laboratory to test 72 name brand beauty products for
the presence of phthalates, a large family of industrial chemicals
that have been linked to birth defects.
Their report, "Not
Too Pretty," revealed phthalates in about 75 percent of
the products tested (52 out of 72 products), including hair gels,
deodorants, hair sprays, mousses, body lotions, and in all of the
17 fragrances tested.
have also been targeted for concern by the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention. In releasing its second
national “human exposure” study, the CDC found that
phthalates were among the chemicals found to accumulate in body
Pirkle, deputy director of science for the environmental health
lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that
the agency was “surprised” to find such a high evidence
of exposure to phthalates from personal care products in children,
makes us want to do more studies to see if the levels they’re
exposed to are comparable to the levels causing problems in animals,”
which are estrogenic or anti-androgenic, are of concern, said Pirkle,
who added that more health studies are needed to determine whether
Americans are getting overdosed with these chemicals.
were heightened in November when Harvard University School of Public
Health investigators found a link
between sperm damage and monoethyl phthalate, a compound used
to maintain the color and scent in many cosmetic items such as perfumes,
colognes and hair spray. But Marian Stanley, manager of the Phthalate
Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council, a chemical trade
group, says the study results, while worth taking seriously, were
at variance with many other animal studies.
question remains: if there is a significant health risk posed by
fragrances, shouldn’t the government be regulating them? Because
cosmetics are legally defined as products not intended to affect
the body’s functions as drugs are, the FDA does not require
any pre-market safety testing of cosmetics or fragrances to the
extent that the agency would a drug.
drugs are pre-tested,” says an FDA spokesperson. “Cosmetics
are treated less strictly.”
protection lies in the hands of the fragrance industry. Glenn Roberts,
spokesperson for the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials,
an industry-sponsored group that does voluntary testing of chemicals,
says safety is insured in a four-step process.
we have a long history of cosmetics ingredients use to go on;
additionally, EPA requires safety testing for any new chemicals;
RIFM does it’s own safety testing of chemicals; and many fragrance
and cosmetics companies do their own testing,” says Roberts.
addition, the FDA collects complaints from consumers, “and
from their records, that’s less than 1 complaint per million
users,” adds Roberts.
Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and author of “Inside
the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998). She writes
column on MSNBC.