We all like things to smell good. Scent is a much more powerful sense than we realize. One whiff of a candle can take you right back to your childhood, baking cookies with Grandma. But not all scents are created equal. We don’t normally think to ask how products come to have the scent profiles we enjoy. Your favorite scent either comes from Essential Oils or Synthetic Fragrance.
Essential oils (EOs) are naturally occurring substances found in different parts of plants – the blossom, fruit, leaf, stem, bark, wood or resin. Pure plant extracts are not cut with a type of carrier oil. They are difficult to reproduce synthetically. That’s where synthetic fragrance oils come in.
Fragrance oils are created with a mix of aroma chemicals and natural ingredients like essential oils, extracts, and resins. These synthetically-made chemical scent compounds are found everywhere in modern life, such as personal care products, cleaning products, room fresheners, laundry soap, hand sanitizers, baby diapers, and tampons, not to mention food, drinks and candy, and so much more. They’re much simpler and cheaper to produce than EOs, because they are made up of chemicals, rather than found in nature.
That’s why many cosmetic companies choose to use synthetic fragrance when formulating their products. But while the scent from EOs can be replicated in a lab, the benefits of using EOs cannot. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that synthetic fragrances do more harm than good. The difference between using synthetic fragrance and essential oils is vast. Let’s look at some of the reasons to avoid synthetic fragrance.
Essential oils are composed of around 50-500 different naturally occurring chemicals found in the plant. Synthetic fragrance however, can contain over 3000 unique chemical ingredients to make the same scent. Of the 3000+ chemicals used to create synthetic fragrance, more than 1,200 of those have been flagged as “chemicals of concern” to some degree. Of these, seven are known carcinogens (cancer causing agents) Fifteen of these chemicals are prohibited from use in cosmetics in the EU. Of particular concern, many are Endocrine disruptors, which mimic human hormones and lead to abnormal cell reproduction. These can have effects in even the tiniest doses. More than 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. These chemicals include: benzene derivatives, phthalates, synthetic musks, and parabens. What the heck are those? Let’s take a closer look.
Benzene derivatives- a colorless, flammable liquid naturally present in coal tar and crude oil. Commonly found in paints, varnish, solvents, gasoline, furniture wax, detergents, and thinners. Also found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust, benzene is a known carcinogen, commonly linked to leukemia.
Phthalates- a class of chemicals that make plastic soft and flexible, found in hundreds of products. Also known by BBzP, DnBP, DEP, DBP, and DEHP, they have been connected to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, and have been shown to be endocrine disruptors. It is also thought by some scientists that fetal exposure to phthalates can be linked to autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders. These dangerous synthetics are already banned from cosmetics in the EU, Canada, South Korea, Japan, even China, but are still quite common in products produced and sold in the United States. Researchers found more than 75% of products listing the ingredient “fragrance” contain phthalates.
Synthetic Musks- Musks are a popular component to many fragrances. Traditional musks are harvested from animals, but today synthetic musks are more common for hygienic reasons. The most dangerous thing about synthetic musks is that they are bioaccumulative, meaning that particles build up in the body faster than the body can get rid of them. Studies have shown that several types of synthetic musks are endocrine disruptors, and that traces have been found in: breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood, and both fresh and marine water samples. Measurable levels of synthetic musks have been found in fish in the Great Lakes. Environment Canada has categorized several synthetic musks as persistent, and/or toxic, and others as human health priorities. In fact, these fragrances are becoming so pervasive in our world that a Norway study found synthetic musk fragrance compounds in outdoor air, even in a remote area.
Parabens- a commonly used synthetic preservatives in many fragrances, they can interfere with the production and release of hormones.
That’s a lot of worrying information to take in. “Why in the world don’t cosmetics companies disclose this?” you might ask. Put simply, it’s none of your business.
Most often, synthetic fragrance will only appear as Perfume, Fragrance Oil, Fragrance, or Parfum on a cosmetic label. The reason for this is a sneaky one. Manufacturers can legally hide hundreds of synthetic chemicals in the one word—“fragrance”—without revealing what those ingredients are. It’s referred to as a “trade secret” in the industry, meaning only those within the company know the entire formula.
This excuse to not label fragrance ingredients is a holdover from a time when their secret formulas were still made from flowers and oils. But those days are long gone, and today manufacturers use this as a loophole to cut corners and keep secrets regarding the 3,000+ chemicals under the ambiguous term “fragrance” that are being absorbed, inhaled, and ingested daily.
Additionally, the fragrance industry regulates itself, so that safety testing does not have to be confirmed by regulators before products are sold to consumers. They can set their own safety standards and don't even need to be sure their secret ingredients are safe!
The problem is, the U.S. government demands such a high level of proof of harm that it’s going to take a lot of time and testing to see any change. And the red tape involved means our governments are slow to respond. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website also states the agency cannot legally require companies to warn about allergens in cosmetics like they do with food.
In other words, they can put whatever they want in it, not test it for safety, and the government can’t make them disclose potential risks.
Don’t be fooled by products labeled with “natural fragrance” either, because there is no standard criteria for what these words mean. Many skincare products, soaps and candles, even those labeled "natural" often contain fragrance oils. It is also common for a soap label to say "contains essential oils." However, such a label can be deceiving -- such products may also contain synthetic fragrance oils. These can be just as unsafe as fragrances not described this way. Even products labeled “unscented” might still use synthetic fragrance to mask the chemical scent of other ingredients.
Fragrances are one of the top five allergens in the world. Allergic reactions include headaches and migraines, difficulty breathing and sinus irritation, just to name a few. It is thought that 1-2% of people suffer an allergic reaction in response to a synthetic fragrance. Fragrance mixtures also commonly trigger contact dermatitis, a type of allergic skin reaction. More than 50 percent of the population would prefer fragrance-free workplaces, health care facilities and professionals, hotels and airplanes.
Essential oils aren’t a perfect solution; there are a few reasons manufacturers might prefer synthetics. Cost is a huge part of the equation. For example, between 1,500-10,000kg of rose petals are required to extract just 1kg of Rose Essential Oil. Synthetic fragrance made in a lab would cost a fraction of what pure EO would. Essential oils are limited to a natural scent range, so you’re never going to find bubblegum essential oil. They also may not be as strong as synthetic fragrances, and may not last as long. Certain great smelling oils that are toxic for the skin can be imitated synthetically, making them “safe” to use as perfume.
But EOs have other benefits that synthetics don’t. For example, a huge benefit lies in seeing exactly what you get with an essential oil blend. Rather than one catch-all term such as Parfum, each oil will be listed in the ingredients, such as Lavandula angustifolia oil, the lavender essential oil found in several Upfront Cosmetics shampoo bars.
For those of us who are conscious of the environment, essential oils provide another huge benefit. The production of the petrochemicals used in synthetic fragrance is hard on our earth. Rather than contributing to pollution and environmental destruction, essential oils use only natural sources and sustainable methods. Synthetic fragrances can use more than 200 unlabeled chemicals in a single scent, while essential oils are derived from a single natural source. And while the scent profile of EOs can be replicated, the range of physical and mental health benefits cannot. These oils, rich in all sorts of nutrients, can provide medicinal, moisturizing, antibacterial, and antiseptic properties, and can be used in aromatherapy.
Industry-wide change isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to see it, and manufacturers aren’t going to give up synthetics without a fight. To them, the pros still outweigh the cons: Synthetic fragrance is longer lasting and cheaper to produce, and at the moment they have little incentive to be honest about the chemicals they use.
But hope is not lost. As more information becomes available about the dangers of synthetic fragrance, many companies are taking advantage of consumers' desire for safer, more natural scents. Right now, the responsibility is ours to research the products in our homes and choose to support brands that have consumers' safety in mind when scenting their products.If you have a favorite product that still uses synthetic fragrance, you could always write a letter to them, asking them to be more, ahem, Upfront in their packaging. You deserve to know what’s in the products you use every day, so that you can make choices that suit your lifestyle and keep you, and our planet, as healthy as we can be.