Monday, 18 April 2016

Say no to nasties: Synthetic fragrance and 'parfum'

health, green, healthy living, ethics, additives
Exactly what's in your products?
Photo credit: Maya Picture at 

This is the third in my series that looks into common ingredients in everyday toiletries and cosmetics. I want to learn more about the risks I might be taking by regularly putting these additives on my face and body. I'll also showcase alternative brands that have moved away from using these synthetics - to provide a more natural and potentially healthier choice. This time I'm looking at synthetic fragrances and parfum.

You can read more about the other common additives Sodium Laurel Sulphate (SLS) and parabens.

What is 'fragrance' and 'parfum'?

While this one term might sound innocuous - it can actually describe an ingredient that could contain a cocktail made from thousands of chemicals. Many of these ingredients will not have been tested for safety individually - and some are known irritants and allergens that can cause reactions such as a runny nose, watery eyes, itching skin, headaches, dizziness and asthma. In fact, some people refer to fragrance in products as 'the new second-hand smoke'.

Typically, synthetic scents are made from petroleum- and coal-derived synthetic chemicals. As well as the chemicals used to provide the scent, products may also have fragrance ingredients that are designed to mask other smells from chemical ingredients - and enhance the performance of perfume itself (to give that 'lingering' effect for example). Some of the individual ingredients used both to create a smell, to mask another and to keep the scent present are associated with the disruption of hormones and the growth of cancer - although many of the links remain unproven. This includes Diethyl phthalate, or DEP. Again this is a common, cheap and versatile additive that has been linked in some studies to early puberty in girls and reduced sperm count, obesity and insulin resistance in men.

What's the alternative?

Unfortunately, synthetic fragrances exist in a wide range of products from toiletries to detergents, soaps, candles, medications, cosmetics and sunscreen. And the ingredients in fragrance are absorbed into the bloodstream directly though the skin. If you want to avoid synthetic fragrances, get checking the labels of the bottles, sprays and jars you regularly use - and avoid products that list the catch-all 'fragrance' in the ingredient list. You can also look for products that carry kite marks from independent certification bodies such as the Soil Association, Ecocert, Cosmos, NaTrue or USDA.

It's worth bearing in mind that not all labelling is clear cut though - don't assume because something is packaged to look and seem natural it actually is. For example, the Soil Association and Ecocert marks require that 95 per cent of the plant-based ingredients in the product are certified organic, but natural products or ingredients aren’t necessarily organic, as they can be grown using pesticides and fertilisers. Similarly, some products labelled 'unscented' and 'fragrance-free' may in fact use chemicals to mask scent. So avoid products  that list 'fragrance' in the ingredients, use an essential oil diluted in a carrier oil and shop for conscious brands.

healthy, health, eco-friendly, green, ethical
Always check the credentials of products
- and look for certification.

A great example

One brand I would recommend is Danish organic body care range Urtekam. All its body care products, which includes shampoos, conditioners, lotions, shower gels, soaps, scrubs, deodorants, hand creams and toothpastes,  reach the Cosmos-standard. The natural scents use herbs, flowers and oils. The range is also hypoallergenic, Vegan Society-approved and free from parabens, synthetic ingredients and artificial colours. It also carries specific no perfume and no perfume baby ranges. 

Once again, it's worth checking exactly what's in a product before you buy it. Who needs to be putting potentially damaging chemicals on their skin (and on their children's skin) when they are natural alternatives so readily available? Happy shopping!