Fragrance Chemicals: The New Secondhand Smoke

Fragrance Chemicals: The New Secondhand Smoke
Did you ever dream that we’d come to a place in our “progressive” society where fragrance chemicals are rivaling cigarette smoke? Well folks, we’re there.
Fragrance Chemicals: The New Secondhand Smoke

Did you ever dream we'd come to a place in our “progressive” society where fragrance chemicals are rivaling cigarette smoke?  Well folks, we're there.

The only difference between secondhand smoke and fragrance chemicals is that they're not always secondhand! Parents unintentionally create firsthand exposure when bathing their children, applying lotion or hair care products, and dressing them in clothing coated in fragrance chemicals from toxic dryer sheets.

Marilee Nelson aptly describes this upsetting issue in her insightful article:

Today’s synthetic fragrances are a far cry from the healing balms treasured so much by the ancient world that some were worth more than gold.   Instead of being medicinal, today’s fragranced products are associated with diabetes, obesity, autism, ADD/ADHD and hormone disruption.. Sadly not only the one wearing the fragrance is affected, but also the indoor air quality and those sharing the space are impacted. From pure to perverse, it is twisted irony that the word  fragrance has now gained infamy as the new secondhand smoke when the etymology of the word perfume comes from the Latin phrase, “per” meaning “through” and “fumus” meaning “smoke”.

Soaking Up Scents, Literally

Johnson and Johnson's recent ad in a popular parenting magazine spells out the problem more clearly than we ever could.

She's soaking up new sounds and scents. Because your baby is the biggest sponge of all.

Yes, your baby literally IS a sponge, so she's soaking up those “scents” and they're most likely adding to her body burden.  But Johnson and Johnson isn't the only problem here.  So are many other skin care brands who claim to be “natural” and “non-toxic” while continuing to add a combination of up to 3,000 chemicals that are allowed to be hidden under the single term “fragrance” (it's a trade secret, don't you know?!).

Growing children are very susceptible to endocrine-disrupting, cancer-causing chemicals.  And yet, that little pink bottle is the first thing you'll receive at the hospital after giving birth!

Johnson and Johnson's Ad in Pregnancy and Newborn April 2015

Natural Scents vs Synthetic Scents

Most products today are made with fragrance oils which may be 100% synthetic, or a combination of essential oils and synthetic aroma chemicals.  So stay away from skin care products with “fragrance” or “parfum” on the label. The safest option is to choose products scented naturally with essential oils.  Melinda Olson, nurse, herbalist, and founder of Earth Mama, explains why:

Essential oils distill a plant’s vital energy into a highly concentrated form, and the benefits of the plant are concentrated as well. Fragrance oils are a combination of synthetic ingredients that have no relationship to the plant they are pretending to be, and as an added olfactory insult they can contain some pretty toxic ingredients too! If organic essential oils are a rose, fragrance oils are the cheap plastic imitation with the toxic glue “dew drop” and that artificially scented rose doesn’t smell so sweet.

Keep in mind that because essential oils are super concentrated, any toxic pesticides sprayed on the plants can be present after processing as well.  That's why it's always best to choose certified organic essential oils whenever possible (and it also ensures that no harsh solvents have been used in the process).

What About Unscented Products?

If you think the solution is to go with fragrance-free, think again.  A product labeled as “unscented” may still be made with fragrances. It’s just that the purpose of the fragrance is to mask the natural odor of other ingredients, instead of giving off a detectable scent.

This means that those irritating chemicals can still be present and able to cause problems for those sensitive to them.

fragrance-free ≠ non-toxic

How to Choose Safer Products

Let's be honest: we have to live in the real world, so 100% of your haircare and skincare products most likely won't be be scented with organic essential oils. So learn to read labels very carefully, go with trustworthy manufacturers, and double-check products against the Skin Deep Database and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics list of synthetic musks and dangerous phthalates to help you navigate around those toxic fragrance pitfalls.

Don't forget about cleaning products that may be off-gassing into your home, like dishwashing detergents, bleach, all purpose cleaners and dryer sheets.  Most cleaning products cannot be certified organic, so go with one of the companies who have joined the No Secrets Pledge with Women's Voice for the Earth.

And last but not least, learn how to create safe scents for your home while removing toxic fragrance chemicals from secondhand clothes and used electronics.

Be sure to check out our brand new Safe Shampoo and Conditioner Guide too!

29 Safest Brands of Shampoo and Conditioner

  1. Fantastic article ,Alica! Its time for fragrance to be the next second hand smoke. Pretty disgusting for Johnson & Johnson to admit that babies are like sponges and soak up all those scents ,yet they still continue to make baby products with toxic fragrance chemicals in them.

  2. What an important post, the title framing the topic perfectly. I am SO sensitive to scents with immediate dizziness and headaches! So glad that they got such an edge-y narrator for the movie; it should really help give it some added buzz and hopefully consumer response! Pinned.

  3. Our family developed severe multiple chemical sensitivity in 2009 which meant any exposure to small amounts of synthetic fragrance did us in. My kids would get nosebleeds with the slightest exposure. Thankfully the severe reactivity is better, but we’ll never go back to chemicals. It’s amazing how much better natural products feel and smell!

  4. I am quite sensitive to scents and fragrances, especially synthetic! Thanks for a great article! Pinned.

  5. It just makes me sick. I am so sensitive to fragrance chemicals, but it has become even stronger for me after mold exposure. I choose non-toxic, natural products for my family. Great post!

  6. The topic of fabric softeners drives me nuts. Kudos to the author for naming it as a second hand smoke since it truly is that! Anything you use will affect another person, and vise-versa, and so we are all connected with what we consume.

    Here are my main gripes:

    1. I’m dying from second hand smoke from my neighbor! I can smell the dryer sheet fragrance wafting through the breeze between our houses.

    2. We don’t use any fabric softeners/dryer sheets but I can smell it in my clothing. Here’s how it happens: people use these products on their clothing and when they come to work and the smell gets absorbed in our meeting room and common area chairs and transfers to my clothing. My rear end (of my pants/dresses) literally smells like perfume when I get home! Just do a sniff test on your own clothing after work and you will understand what I mean!

    3. Ditto for the kids at school. Kids parents use softener on clothing + my kids clothing = stinky, perfume-y kids’ clothing comes home…yuck!

    If the one thing I could convince people not to use, it would be those horrible dryer sheets and fabric softeners!

  7. I am looking forward to this movie coming out. Synergistic effects – it is what has been getting the frogs and sadly what I think is getting us. All this stuff adds up and our bodies are not reacting well in the long run.

  8. I just saw that Johnson & Johnson ad and it made me cringe. Thanks for telling it like it is!

  9. I love how you give options and alternatives instead of just telling us we’re dying from fragrance. That’s what I love about your writing Alicia! Thx for sharing and this movie is so important!

  10. Well said! Thank you so much for this article. I’m going to share it with my friends, so many don’t know what we’re really dealing with in today’s world.

  11. Great post. Since I was young some fragrances have made me sick to my stomach. I always just thought I was sensitive to certain smells. Maybe it’s more!

  12. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront. We haven’t used any sort of cleaning chemicals in about a decade and find that as soon as my kids bring a friend into the house, we can all immediately pick up on the Tide (or other laundry chemical) that was used to wash his clothes. It’s terrible and I always feel for the child who’s walking around inhaling and absorbing these ‘scents’ AKA chemicals like a sponge.

  13. Alicia, I totally agree with your alternatives and as another comment-er noted, you have a great way of telling the facts! It is amazing how many folks do not realize what they are being exposed to in everyday life!

  14. Great post, hope you make one about all the fumes from cars soon they also effect us all 🙂

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