The answer is a nuanced no. Much of the concern centres around a vague idea of ‘chemicals’. Everything is a chemical, and chemicals are not harmful in and of themselves. Perfume toxicity largely depends on;
- The concentration, frequency and length of long-term exposure;
- The chemicals in question, which each have unique properties and different concentrations in different scents;
- Whether the science of perfume toxicity shows causation, or just correlation;
- Whether the perfume was bought from a reputable trader;
- Perfume regulation in your region, recommending major change in the US to the current FDA system;
- Your perception and understanding of perfume ingredients.
Why Are People Scared of Wearing Perfume?
In recent years, the fragrance industry has come under increasing fire for ingredient safety concerns.
Common side effects of wearing perfume can include rashes, nausea and headache. Reported long-term side effects include neurotoxicity, asthma, hormonal disruptions, and cancer.
Perfume ingredients are poorly explained by the perfume industry and poorly understood by the public. In some regions, like the US, fragrance ingredients remain unclear.
The public is also being exposed to online misinformation- touted by influencers and reinforced in forums and closed groups. In certain spaces, scepticism has escalated into chemophobia.
This is confused by legitimate but emerging early-stage studies, correlating fragrance ingredients with a harmful effect on public health.
No international consensus exists on how to define and regulate a safe perfume, reducing freedom of global perfume trade.
What is Perfume Chemophobia?
Chemophobia is an irrational fear of chemicals, often a panic response to news reports or scientific studies marking chemical contaminants as a threat to public health.
Is Perfume Chemophobia warranted? A Nuanced Look at Whether Perfume is Toxic
It depends on the effectiveness of the scientific study and the credibility of the media source and fact-checking.
While certain perfumes have the potential to be harmful to humans, it’s important to remember that this is generally only the case at certain dosage levels or over long periods of time.
Chemophobia has aided the rise of the natural perfume movement, generally prizing essential oils over synthetics. However, ‘natural’ is poorly defined and used as a brand positioning tool by perfume brands to raise prices.
Synthetic perfume oils are actually less chemically complex than essential oils, generally containing fewer irritants and allergens. Toxins naturally exist in the wild so essential oils aren’t safer just by dent of being natural.
For example, in Stans’ Lexicon I had to reduce the amount of bay essential oil during compliance. This was due to the presence of methyl eugenol, a known carcinogen. Proper Yorkshire was heavily flagged, largely by essential oils.
Not all ‘chemicals’ are created equal. Elements and molecules can exhibit unique chemical behaviour even when part of a molecular family. Methyl Eugenol is a very different ‘toxin’ to Citral for example, which can merely irritate or sensitize skin.
The chemical names of fragrance ingredients can be long and intimidating to read without a background in chemistry or biology. This is all about perception, partly due to IUPAC nomenclature (a universal chemical naming standard). The nature of chemical naming means that benign ingredients can have misnomers, or similar names to other molecules with a more sinister reputation.
In some cases, such as phthalates, more long-term study may be needed. Scientific papers and peer review remain a credible source of information but peer review is not an infallible process. It’s important to read studies in full, with the understanding that correlation is not the same as causation.
When buying perfume it’s important to check whether your perfume is from a trustworthy source. Look at 1-3 star reviews, transparent product information, and whether your seller is knowledgeable about and invested in the perfume world. For smaller perfume stores, reach out directly with concerns.
How are perfumes regulated?
Cosmetics legislation controls which ingredients are allowed in your perfume, in what amounts an ingredient is allowed, and ingredient transparency (via labelling and reporting) and legal liability.
Cosmetics regulations differ widely across the globe, and so the toxic perfume debate can differ widely depending where you are. It’s not hard to find complaints about overregulation in the UK and EU, or fears about child safety in the US.
Here’s how perfume is regulated in these regions and more generally.
Before approval for public sale, each perfume formulation must be independently assessed then reported into the CPNP (Cosmetic Products Notification Portal). This is due to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 (Article 13).
The assessment must be done by a licensed chemist, who performs a perfume safety assessment and provides a CPSR (Cosmetic Product Safety Report). If any banned or restricted ingredients exist for EU/UK sale, the assessor will require a reformulation before the scent can be sold.
Perfumes must designate a responsible person, who is liable for CPNP submissions and ensuring each perfume remains in compliance with the regulation.
The (shortsighted, entitled, neocolonialist) Brexit vote resulted in reduced freedom of trade and the creation of the OPSS. A similar compliance framework exists to the EU.
In the US, perfumes are regulated by the FDA but can go on the market without FDA approval.
The individual or company who made the scent is responsible for safe use according to labelling or social convention.
In my opinion, this is a flawed approach and a legitimate basis for perfume chemophobia. The FDA lacks a clear definition or reference to a safe perfume.
This could incentivise brands to drive production costs down in the short-term, at the expense of long-term public health. It could also lead less experienced perfumers into serious mistakes with dire legal and health consequences.
IFRA is more of a chartership, not a regulatory body, but one respected by both perfumers and legitimate regulatory bodies. This is to the point that a CPSR will accept an IFRA certificate in place of a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).
IFRA offer a banned and restricted list for thousands of perfume ingredients, and have influenced many scent designs and the reformulation of legacy scents.
Membership is open to perfumers who commit to their standards (and pay the fees) in a legally binding contract. Most perfumers, including myself, use IFRA’s research for safer scent design and in the perfume compliance process.
What More Could Be Done to Make Perfume Safe?
To end the toxic perfume debate, once and for all, I believe that we need:
- More stringent checks on peer research and better fact checking from reporters;
- An independent, international standard of fragrance safety regulation;
- Increased and simplified public to perfume regulation and perfume ingredients properties.
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