Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Petroleum in Perfume and How to Avoid It

This companion post to my Gulf oil disaster series at Divorce Your Car! (the blog) tells a bit more about the petrochemical nature of perfume, as well as why and how to stop using it.

When we splash on scent or carefully apply cosmetics, few of us realize we are actually dowsing ourselves in petroleum products. In fact, however, cosmetics and fragrances expose us daily to huge numbers of toxic, hormone-disrupting and carcinogenic chemicals derived from crude oil.

As Randall Fitzgerald reports in his book The Hundred-Year Lie, FDA numbers show that every day, each person uses an average of nine body-care products containing 126 chemicals. In her book The Body Toxic, Nena Baker notes that the average U.S. adult uses or applies such products from twenty to twenty-five times per day. The vast majority of these products contain a slew of petrochemicals, including synthetic fragrance.

As I mentioned in the sister post to this one, 95% of the ingredients in fragrances are derived from petroleum. That statistic comes originally from the National Academy of Sciences, and via Louisa Williams’ excellent book Radical Medicine.

Petroleum-derived ingredients found in perfumes include highly toxic substances such as toluene, acetone, phthalates, derivatives of benzene, and as many as 50 to 100 other ingredients. These substances variously cause birth defects, cancer, and brain dysfunction; damage skin, eyes, liver, or kidneys; disrupt hormone function; and stimulate allergies and asthma. Certain chemicals in fragrance can be passed to children in utero and/or through breast milk, one reason a coalition of non-profits ran an ad featuring the image above to warn pregnant women away from perfume use.

Toluene is one ingredient found in all fragrance. It is flammable, nausea-inducing, and neurotoxic. As a 2005 article in The Ecologist noted, “Chronic or frequent inhalation [of toluene] can lead to irreversible brain damage.”

Phthalates lurk in virtually all fragrances as well. Used to make scents stronger and longer-lasting, these synthesized molecules can also cause cancer and mess with hormones, hastening puberty in girls and feminizing boys. Phthalates have also been correlated with abdominal obesity and insulin resistance in men.

In her fine book Not Just a Pretty Face, Stacy Malkan tells the story of some 2002 product tests that found phthalates in every single fragrance studied. The worst offender, weighing in with four different types of phthalates, was the aptly-named perfume from Christian Dior: Poison.

You can see how perfume affects the brain by viewing this SPECT (single photon emission computerized tomography) scan taken by a UCLA radiologist. The images show a patient’s brain before and after exposure to perfume; the after image indicates diminished blood flow and inflammation “consistent with exposure to neurotoxic substances.”

This is a brain on perfume. An inflamed brain not only loses function in the moment; both chronic inflammation and lower blood flow are linked to development of dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease.

If you don’t like taking such significant health risks, if you don’t want to walk around wafting or breathing petroleum byproducts, or both, you can make several simple changes. These suggestions also apply if you’re avoiding synthetic fragrances as a way to reduce petroleum use in the wake of the Gulf oil disaster, as suggested by Lynne McTaggart in her recent blog post “50 Ways to Leave Crude Oil.”

1) Read labels and, generally, don’t purchase products that list “fragrance” as an ingredient. This word is usually code for “toxic petroleum byproducts.” Manufacturers can include a number of toxicants in their products under the “fragrance” umbrella without naming them specifically. The law protects their trade secrets, but not your health.

2) There are some gray areas about guideline #1. Knowledgeable staff at our local natural foods source, the Keweenaw Co-op, recently told me that some companies now use the term “natural fragrance” in their ingredients list to mean essential oils (often following this term with a list of specific essential oils in parentheses). However, since the term has no legal definition, it does not guarantee the absence of synthetic compounds in the products. In cases like these, you can only be sure by contacting the manufacturer, by phone or online.

3) Check body care products again the Environmental Working Group’s excellent online database, Skin Deep. I suggest only using the products they rate as green.

4) Instead of scented products, use fragrance-free. As the number of people with perfume allergies has grown, the quantity of fragrance-free choices for body-care products and other consumer products such as household cleaners has increased. For household cleaners, I like the Free and Clear line made by Seventh Generation.

5) If you must use fragrance, use only true essential oils.

6) Don’t use air fresheners: they’re loaded with neurotoxic synthetics. In fact, I can’t think of another product with a more oxymoronic name. Air fresheners are some of the biggest polluters of indoor air around.

7) Consider feeding your face rather than crude-oiling it. By this I mean using food products as cosmetics. Somewhere I heard the maxim, “Don’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t eat,” and I think it’s a good idea. When it comes to fragrance, foods have gentle and natural scents that can serve as enough of a perfume. For instance, I use organic virgin coconut oil as a moisturizer, which leaves behind a very faint but lovely tropical aroma. The sheen it creates when first applied soaks in after a few minutes, leaving a slightly shiny, dewy look on skin.

Whether you quit perfume to reduce petroleum use or forego fragrance for health reasons, I hope the suggestions above will help. I invite you to add your own ideas in the comments section below. My thanks to the authors whose research I cited here.