Thursday, September 11, 2008

What Is Fragrance Anyway?

A crisp morning with fog in the low spots.

Ah, that lovely fragrance - spring lilacs, fresh apples, and newly picked basil. Fragrance according to the dictionary is any sweet or pleasant odor. The key word is pleasant since it really doesn't have to be sweet. Pleasant is in the eye of the beholder, but we all know unpleasant (I don't have to list) which makes it no longer a fragrance, we call it plain old smell. Fragrance can go on to be intertwined with perfume or cologne (of which some stink) but the point is that fragrance is a very loose term.

Before test tubes, folks wanting fragrance around or on them, did it the old fashion way - using the smells from nature, a practice going back thousands of years. Who wouldn't want to capture some of the delightful smells of flowers and spices to cover the "never take a bath" human smell. Most of us take baths now, obsessed with not "smelling" and, more than ever, obsessed with pleasant smells.

Fragrance is now everywhere, just read labels, usually listed near the end of ingredients. Its small size is not without a powerful punch. So what's wrong with wanting things to smell nice? It's the source that's the problem, its the source.

The fragrances listed on all those ingredients do not come from happy farmers reaping their aromatic harvest. The typical fragrance now a days comes from a test tube that chemists have concocted using one or more of any four thousand chemicals (yes that was 4,000). These are not natural smells from nature but made up chemical potions to imitate not only nature but basically anything you want. They make smells for hamburgers and french fries to enhance your dining experience. So what's the big deal? It comes down to the chemicals that are being used.

Phthalates is the common and most dangerous chemical used in fragrances. They are derived from petroleum and are used to soften plastic but also to make fragrances last longer. Unless the product you are scrutinizing says phthalate free, assume it has phthalates in them. Phthaltes have deservedly received mountains of attention because of studies showing their link to cancer, hormone disruption and other serious health issues. Phthaltes are being phased out of products all over the world but the oil industry is fighting it all the way with lobbyists, misinformation and fraudulent websites that create skeptics. Ingredients are required to be listed but fragrance is exempt. Buyer beware.

Many other academic scientists ( I'll go with academic scientists over paid-for industrial folks any day) are doing ongoing research and have published results, concerns and alarms. I won't repeat them here but I urge you to click through to them for the details. My point here is there are dangerous chemicals in them sweet smelling fragrances and the consumer needs to be educated so they can make the safest choice - just read the ingredients.

Fragrance is totally unregulated in our country but becoming partially regulated in Australia, Canada and the EU (and maybe California) as they slowly omit (not totally omitted, just reduced to a very low level, they call it a compromise with the big oil guns) the most egregious chemicals in products. Did you know that some leading personal care companies have 2 different formulas for the same product? The safer formula goes to Europe and the US gets... the other. There are excellent investigative books devoted to this subject: Exposed by Mark Shapiro and Not Just A Pretty Face.Com

So for now, check the label - fragrance is everywhere. The worst offenders are air fresheners, sprays, candles and dryer sheets (you shouldn't need dryer sheets since you are using a drying rack, right?) - you know Air Wick, Glade plug-Ins, Yankee Candle and Febreze. How on earth can you concoct "Clean Cotton" without using a test tube? But most important, they are bad for you. We can actually make our indoor air quality worse by using these products.

Fragrance is a touchy subject for now, both in the industry and in daily life. Because of these health concerns and some down right odoriferous products, "Fragrance Free" zones have started to pop up. (loath the 7th grade boy wearing too much Old Spice). But the message today is think - think about what goes into making products and the chemistry behind them. Ask yourself, how does Yankee Candle get Lilac Blossom when lilac essential oils basically don't exist. Think about that smell being small bits of petroleum by-products floating in the air and yes, they are a health concern.

If you must attempt to enhance the smell of yourself or your surroundings, try the old fashion way - use natural potpourri (not enhanced with fragrance) or the many natural safe sprays, essential oils and candles (soy and beeswax) on the market. (that's another blog for sure) Artificial fragrances are just that, artificial, test tube made from any number of 4,000 chemicals that have not been tested for safety. Too small to matter? Not according to continued research. So if precautionary is your style, become an informed consumer. Our world is complicated and its time sit back and smell some real roses.

1 comment:

lu-n-am said...

What an interesting post, I posted a similar entry recently on all of the dangerous chemicals we use in our daily beauty routines. It's quite sickening that some of the products are on the market.

Lu n' Am