The Hidden Ingredient in Fragrance – Phthalates

Cosmetics | Source: Akira Ohgaki on FlickrGo into your bathroom and look at the ingredients on every cosmetic or personal care product. Unless you are an avid purchaser of eco and/or health friendly products, I guarantee that almost all of them will list either Fragrance or Parfum as an ingredient. But what exactly is fragrance or parfum? The sad reality is that you might not want to know the answer.

What are the Ingredients in Fragrance?

The fact is, no one really knows and companies don’t have to disclose that information. Why? Because the formulation of fragrances are considered a ‘trade secret’ by the courts, and as a result, companies are not obligated to list the ingredients that go into them – even if they might pose a risk to our health!

But It Smells So Nice!

I bet it does! Companies that manufacture personal care products have put a lot of time into making your shampoo smell like you’re rubbing an orange on your head, or smell like you’re washing your hands in ‘essence of watermelon’. Some companies entire brand is based on their smells. I personally know several people who only buy perfumes and other fragrant products from specific stores like The Body Shop or Bath and Body Works. I spent over an hour in Bath and Body Works with my fiancee one day after The Body Shop discontinued her favorite scent (sorry love!). The last thing these companies want is for someone else to produce a cheaper knockoff of their own scent.

So What’s So Bad about Fragrance?

I mean, if it smells good, it must be good for you, right? Not necessarily – a lot of fragrances are made possible through the use of a group of compounds called phthalates. In a 2002 report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics entitled Not Too Pretty – Phthalates, Beauty Products and the FDA [PDF File], phthalates were found to be present in 52 of 72 products tested. Not a single one of the 52 products that contained phthalates listed it as an ingredient on the product. Much like triclosan, which I talked about last month, phthalates can pose a risk to humans because they can disrupt our hormonal systems. That can lead to all kinds of reproductive system disturbances and birth defects or potentially even cancer.

Do I Have Phthalates in Me?

Realistically, yes, you probably do. The good news? Our bodies process phthalates quickly and so with some basic product choice changes, we can go a long way towards reducing phthalate levels in our body. But as author Rick Smith demonstrated In the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck, which I reviewed last month, even a major detox may not be enough. Smith purposefully avoided phthalate containing products for two days, but still couldn’t eliminate phthalates from his body. The reality is that phthalates are so ubiquitous in the environment that nearly everyone is exposed to them on a regular basis, even without directly using products containing them. Fragrances, in fact, are just the tip of the iceberg. Phthalates are even more commonly used as a plasticizer – that is, they make plastic more flexible, so that things like children’s toys or tupperware made of plastic aren’t brittle. As a result, all kinds of plastic containers might possibly contain phthalates. This is a problem because phthalates readily leach out of plastics and into things like food.

After his initial detox period, Smith purposefully used phthalate containing products for two days – the concentration of monoethyl phthalate (the metabolite of diethyl phthalate, which is the most common phthalate found in personal care products) was over 20 times higher than it was at the end of his phthalate detox. Scary stuff!

What Can I Do to Eliminate Phthalates from my Body?

  • Avoid scented products of any kind. Look for the word fragrance or parfum on the ingredients list – this is your first clue that the product might contain phthalates. If you see it, opt for an unscented variety of the same product.
  • Many products targeted at consumers looking to go green will now actively promote that their products are phthalate-free. Green Beaver is a great Canadian company that sells natural, mostly chemical-free personal care products.
  • Buy foods in glass containers instead of plastic containers.
  • If you must buy plastic, do not heat any foods in plastic containers – transfer them first to an alternative dish.
  • Plastics #2, 4, and 5 are generally considered to be safest for usage as they don’t leach many chemicals compared to the other plastics (#1, 3, 6, and 7).

At the end of the day, you are what you eat and what you use. As consumers, we have the power to speak with our wallets every time we make a purchase. So the next time you’re buying a scented product or some food in a plastic container, be mindful of the chemicals in the product and choose an alternative unscented or glass contained product, and vote with the power of your dollar for your health and the health of the environment.

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8 thoughts on “The Hidden Ingredient in Fragrance – Phthalates

  1. I love how you put you are what you eat and use. This is huge and so many people don’t think of this. I use only natural products because I like to be green and I have really sensitive skin. I find the stuff smells better too. Real almond and vanilla smell divine.

    I have used the Green Beaver suncream before. It works decent and I don’t seem to react to it. I also use coconut oil, has about a 15 SPF.

    • Lots of people think about chemicals in the foods we eat, but people easily forget that the personal care products we put on our bodies can be just as damaging. I had not heard of using coconut oil as a sunscreen before, I will have to look into that! Thanks for your comment Miss T!

  2. It is really crazy that such a loophole exists for companies to avoid listing ingredients like that. Information is power – I think that is so true, and that was one of the reasons why I started this blog – to spread the word about these issues.

  3. Plastics have really scared us lately, especially the ones in food containers, like you mention. So last Christmas, we bought some glass lunch containers on Boxing Day. Best buy ever! I love being able to nuke my food piping hot and not having to worry about potential plastic toxicity.

    • Thanks for your comment CF! I should be doing the same – I would never heat anything in plastic, so I haven’t been in a rush to do it, but even at room temperature, the potential for chemical leaking exists.

  4. Pingback: Updates: May 13 – 19 | The Outlier Model

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