Smelling good is big business right now — the global fragrance industry is expected to reach a value of $38,813.9 million by the end of 2017. However, perfume brands been under scrutiny in recent years, with some health experts raising concerns about the rampant use of petroleum derivatives like phthalates that could possibly mess with your hormones, exaggerate the symptoms of PMS, and have even been linked with cancer. Yep, seriously.
Open your bathroom vanity and check the ingredient list on your perfume. Does it say fragrance on there? if so, you can’t be sure whether these potential nasties are in your own bottles because, while the FDA requires an ingredient declaration on cosmetic products sold in stores across the United States, the law doesn’t apply to anything deemed “fragrance.” Essentially, to fend off potential copycats, the FDA can’t force brands to release the exact materials that make up their signature scent. It’s why you might be noticing the term “fragrance” right now, rather than a detailed breakdown of the exact chemicals included. (The same law applies to the term “flavor” on food, FYI).
So, why should you care whether your perfume lists all ingredients? One word: Phthalates. One of the most divisive ingredients in cosmetics (and toys, detergents, and more household products!), phthalates are being largely phased-out of the beauty industry, particularly hair sprays and nail polish. However the FDA says that the type often found in fragrance, diethylphthalate (DEP), is still commonly used.
To be clear; the FDA is cool with the use of DEP and believes that it does not pose known risks for human health “as it is currently used in cosmetics and fragrances.” Of course, there are plenty of people who disagree with this stance, including hormone guru, functional nutritionist, and author of “WomanCode,” Alisa Vitti. She believes that phthalates, and another petroleum-derived preservative found in perfumes called BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), are messing with your hormonal health.
“[Both phthalates and BHA] are endocrine disruptive (and carcinogenic) [and] mimic estrogen in the body,” she told us. According to Vitti, exposure could make you “estrogen dominant,” causing women to become more susceptible to PMS and possibly other more serious illnesses.
“PMS is no small thing. The [National Institute of Health] published the BioCycle study over a decade ago, conclusively connecting PMS in your 20s and 30s to increased risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia in your post menopausal years,” Vitti says, urging women to choose essential oil blends over synthetic fragrances.
There is some research backing Vitti’s mindset, but right now there isn’t enough proof that these ingredients cause harm to motivate a FDA ban. In 2001 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report called “National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals.” They found that women of child-bearing age show elevated levels of phthalates, but didn’t make a link between phthalates in cosmetic products and a health risk. A 2012 study considering the potential relationship between urinary levels of nine different phthalates and the incidence of breast cancer noted that a form of metabolized DEP was elevated in the urine of women with breast cancer.
If that’s all the information you need to avoid DEP and BCA in your perfume, there’s really only one thing you can do. Because brands don’t have to disclose these ingredients, the FDA suggests choosing “products that do not include ‘fragrance’ in the ingredient listing.” So with that, here are a few of our favorite, all-natural alternatives that will still keep you smelling sweet.