I’ve been paying a bit of attention to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database as part of my ongoing attempt to streamline, declutter, and use simpler, more natural products. One ingredient that comes up again and again as potentially problematic is “fragrance.” This takes me back to a time several years ago when I arrived at a new doctor’s office. The staff handed me the standard intake paperwork and told me never to wear any perfumes or colognes to my appointments there, explaining that there were embryos on the premises and that the fragrances were harmful to them. My first thought was, “Shouldn’t they be tucked away somewhere safe, where the latest variation on Circus Fantasy can’t get to them?” My second thought was, “Are perfumes bad for me?”
The EWG has this to say regarding “fragrance”:
This catch-all term can include hundreds of chemicals and trigger allergic reactions. Skip products that use the term “fragrance” in the list of ingredients and instead opt for those that list each fragrance ingredient. Ingredients can have harmful contaminants: Many common ingredients can contain impurities linked to cancer and other health concerns.
Hmmm, pretty vague. Scary, but vague. Going a bit further, EWG’s concerns with “fragrance” include “Ecotoxicology, Allergies/immunotoxicity, Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs), Miscellaneous, Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive).”
So, on the one hand, there was the suggestion that fragrance may be bad for embryos, and possibly therefore the reproductive system, by extension. On the other hand, there’s a concern about non-reproductive organ toxicity. I also read discussions on several other blogs I follow about the dangers of undisclosed fragrance ingredients in common beauty products.
In the interest of full scientific analysis, I decided that the best thing to do with confusing information was buy something. I settled on several samples from Strange Invisible Perfumes, which uses only natural botanical essences in its perfumes and gives them beautiful and vaguely pretentious literary-inspired names. What better antidote could there be to Circus Fantasy than Fair Verona or Tosca?
I told my husband of my purchase, both 1) as a start to a discussion and 2) to minimize the impact when the bill came in.
“Aren’t all high-end perfumes made from only natural fragrances?” He asked.
Good question. It turns out, they aren’t. According to this New York Times article by Chandler Burr, “not only do all Chanel perfumes contain synthetic molecules, but also every great scent, from Armani to Gaultier to Lauren, is built on them.” The article goes on to praise the use of synthetics in perfumes and imply that good modern perfumes would be impossible without them. Anecdotally, while the Strange Invisible Perfumes I ordered are quite nice, and do feel incredibly luxe and natural, they were outrageously expensive, and, in my opinion, don’t quite measure up to my classic old synthetic perfumes.
What to do? How bad are fragrances, really, from a health standpoint? Is it possible that this is one area in which synthetics actually are preferable? It’s admittedly hard for me to wrap my mind around an imitation of something great being better than an original. Perhaps not all categories are created equal, though.