Today, I’m focusing this skincare article on a common ingredient that can really stink, literally and metaphorically: fragrance.
You’ll learn what fragrance is, why it’s an issue in personal care products, and how your body deals with it. My goal is to empower you to make the best choices for yourself when it comes to safer skincare.
What is Fragrance?
We live in a world of smells, and while many of these scents – from essential oils to roses to farts (ha!) – are natural, many of them are not.
(Note: It’s important to understand that just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s automatically good for you and vice versa.)
Artificial fragrance, also called parfum – not to be confused with natural perfume – is so ubiquitous that you barely even think about it. That is, until you walk past an Abercrombie & Fitch – seriously, what is UP with that place? – or a sweaty teenager who just dispensed a whole can of Axe body spray.
Consider just this short list:
- Air fresheners
- Laundry soaps
- Dryer sheets
- Body lotions
- Household cleaners
- Haircare products
- Body spray…
…you’re bombarded by fragrance all day long.
What is the FDCA?
In 1938, a law called the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) was passed in the United States. Before its enactment, there was no regulation of the products that Americans put on their skin / bodies. “Good news! Some regulation is better than none,” you might say, until you realize that since 1938, this piece of legislature has barely seen any updates.
Suddenly, that doesn’t sound so good.
How many new skincare and personal care products have come onto the market in 80 years? An untold number. And there remains precious little oversight by the governing body responsible for it all, the Food and Drug Administration.
What that means in plain English is that the United States currently only restricts 30 ingredients for use in personal care products compared to Canada (600+) and the European Union (1400+).
[pause to let that sink in]
Beautycounter, on the other hand, restricts over 1500 ingredients from its products, going above and beyond even the most stringent international governmental standards. (Read more about the Never List).
Why Fragrance Ingredients Aren’t Disclosed
But because these fragrances are often protected as trade secrets, companies are not required to disclose what’s in them. It’s the personal care equivalent of “natural flavors.”
According to SafeCosmetics.org:
“The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) lists 3,059 materials that are reported as being used in fragrance compounds. Of these 3,059 ingredients, some have evidence linking them to health effects including cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities.”
In short, the synthetic chemicals commonly used in fragrance are linked to human health issues. Given we, as a society, slather ourselves in fragrance-containing creams, lotions, gels, sprays, and more, this is a concern.
When added to the other environmental toxicity we encounter daily, it’s not a stretch to see how your body, in particular your liver, can become overburdened.
Your Liver’s Role
It’s worth mentioning here that the liver is one of your body’s most important detoxification organs. There are two pathways called Phase I and Phase II that control much of the detoxification of compounds in the body.
These compounds include but aren’t limited to medications, pollutants, pesticides, heavy metals and household chemicals, as well as metabolic by-products, hormones, and food compounds we consume, such as caffeine and alcohol.
Normally, when these pathways are working properly, the liver can either process and recycle these compounds or get them ready for elimination via sweat, pee, and poop.
As a quick example, estrogen is detoxified in two steps: Phase 1 and then in a few Phase 2 pathways. One of those Phase 2 pathways is called sulfation. (One of the ways to support this pathway in your liver is to eat plenty of sulfur-rich brassicas like broccoli (including broccoli sprouts!!), kale, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
It’s one of the other reasons that good liver and gall bladder function is necessary when dealing with estrogen excess…and why constipation can cause the reabsorption of wastes that were bound for elimination.
In nutritional therapy, one of the telltale signs the liver needs support is a sensitivity to perfumes and solvents.
Yes, your liver is your body’s detox engine – fad detoxes are waste of money! – and it does its job quite well as long as the system is not getting overwhelmed. There is, on the other hand, merit to therapeutic detox protocols but they should be done under the guidance of a qualified practitioner who can be sure your elimination pathways are working properly first.
Summarizing the Problem with Fragrance
Avoiding artificial fragrances is one piece of low-hanging fruit that you can get rid of from your routine. We’ve made an effort in our house to avoid synthetic fragrance in our cleaning supplies and of course, our personal care items.
As you begin to run out of your current products, consider switching for fragrance-free or natural fragrance only options.