Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Essential Oil + Fragrance = Something Stinks!

Reading product labels is incredibly important if you care about wellness and personal health, but you’re hamstrung if you don’t understand the secret industry jargon.  Particularly in the beauty, health, wellness and natural product arena.  Labeling laws around the world still allow manufacturers to not fully disclose all the chemical ingredients in a product, and sadly many manufacturers use these legal loop-holes to pull a few swifties.

“Fragrance”, “perfume”or “parfum” is perhaps the most tricky area of all.  Intellectual property law says manufacturers don’t have to disclose the chemical components of a fragrance – it’s privileged and commercially sensitive information.  A report by the Committee on Science & Technology to the U.S. House of Representatives as long ago as 1986 (25 years!) showed 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates and many other known toxics and sensitizers capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.  Some other studies have shown that an individual synthetic fragrance can contain up to 300 different chemical components.

So, we got that part.  Artificial fragrance is bad.  Essential oils are good – beneficial to good health even.  So we look for products that are labeled “with essential oil of moonflower” (or whatever), we feel safe and reassured and we stop squinting at the label.  It contains essential oil so it must be OK.

Maybe.  But Maybe not. 

When I first learned soap-making here in Thailand I was determined to make all natural soap (and still am) but the soap-making teacher explained that using only essential oils was not smart or profitable – they cost too much and the soap has a very short fragrant shelf life, often ending up after 6 months with no scent as the volatile oils have all evaporated.  She explained that adding chemical fixatives would make the volatile essential oils stay in the soap over a long time. “But I want to make all-natural soap!” I wailed.  “Mai pen rai” she answered (translates from  the Thai as “never mind”)… “you use a tiny bit of essential oil and then add cheap commercial fragrance –  10%-90% ratio is normal - it works because the fragrance itself already contains chemical preservatives and fixatives,  and they then fix the essential oils into the soap.  Only you don’t have to declare those chemicals on the label.”  She was smiling at the end.  wasn't.

I didn’t want to believe her.  But in the last year I have often seen “essential oil” right up front on a “natural” product label (usually plastered on the front), and then way down the end of the product list on the back in microscopic type it might say “fragrance”, “parfum”, “natural flavor” or “natural scent”.  Yes, petroleum is natural and so is cyanide, so they’re at least not lying about that part. 

I wanted to believe that products either contained only essential oils (and were therefore safe, natural and beneficial to my health) or used cheap synthetic fragrances (and were therefore easily identified, “bad” and easily rejected).  The truth is that many, many factory produced “natural” products which contain essential oils also contain synthetic fragrances.  These products are not 100% natural at all and can be harmful to your health used over time.

How harmful?  Health Care Without Harm*, a research and action group, found phthalates in most of the popular beauty products they tested.  Since reproductive age women buy more cosmetics and personal care products than other people, they have a greater exposure to phthalates.  Recent studies suggest diethyl phthalate, commonly used in fragrances and other personal care products, damages DNA of sperm in adult men, which can lead to infertility, may be linked to miscarriages and birth defects, and may lead to cancer and infertility in their offspring.   Phthalates have also been associated with thyroid disorders, premature breast developments in baby girls and abnormal sexual development in baby boys.  Phthalates, at levels of concern, are found in the blood of most pregnant women. They can cross the placenta and are found in breast milk. 100% of people tested had phthalates in their urine.

We can’t avoid synthetic fragrances 100% of the time – they’re in most everything, even many “unscented” products, where they are used to mask component odors and achieve a neutral smell.  But we can reduce our exposure and we can wise up to the tricks and traps manufacturers use to sell us quasi-natural at a premium price.

Make sure when next you buy “natural” that “essential oil” on the label means ONLY essential oil.  If there are “fragrances”, “parfums”, “perfumes” or things you can’t pronounce on the label as well as the essential oils, put it back. 

Be smart, be aware and know that as a consumer you have a lot of political power to change the world we live in.  Speak up and share good information.  Support people and businesses who genuinely present you with healthy and 100% natural choices.  Let the management and marketing people of these less-than-reputable companies know why you are no longer buying their product.

Enjoy the gorgeous natural essential oils Mother Nature has blessed us with, and choose products that don’t compromise them or their amazing healing properties.

*Health Care Without Harm is an international coalition of more than 470 organizations in 52 countries working to transform the health care sector so it is no longer a source of harm to people and the environment. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this! What an eye-opener to the uninitiated, such as myself!