Synthetic Fragrances and the EnvironmentThe timeless allure of perfume is one which makes many multi-millions of pounds for the cosmetics industry each year, and yet environmental scientists are increasingly concerned about their affects on our health as well as their persistence in the environment.

Smell Pollution

Some even suggest that synthetic fragrance has more in common with diesel fumes than natural scent. This is because they are showing all the tell-tale signs of persistent organic pollutants; they are volatile compounds, produced in enormous numbers, which bio-accumulate, do not readily break down in the environment, and are being found stored in the fat of animals – including that of humans.

Many of them are hormone-disrupters, carcinogens, and cause harm to the aquatic environment, where they are found in increasing numbers.

Health Risks

Fragrance manufacture is a boom industry and one which is still on the increase. Thousands of tons of synthetic fragrance are produced each year but with very few legislative restrictions are imposed.

Yet there is wide cause for concern as to the health of those who use them. Studies have shown that the synthetic fragrance chemicals are being found in breast milk, with one comparison study measuring levels as having increased five fold in the last ten years alone.

Indeed as long as a decade ago, several ingredients used in fragrances were the subject of an investigation by the US National Academy of Sciences which labelled them as being on a par with insecticides and solvents in terms of the damage they could do to us.

Up to 100 chemicals may be used in an average perfume, most of which are petro-chemicals i.e. derivatives of the petroleum industry with many suspected to be harmful. In 2004, Pat Thomas from the ‘Ecologist’ magazine analysed a typical and well-selling fragrance product, listing the ingredients and possible effects of the chemicals used.

Below we list some of the synthetic fragrances found in many perfume products and cosmetics.

Common Ingredients of Synthetic Fragrances

Alpha-Terpineol: A floral synthetic fragrance, irritating to nasal passages and mucous membranes. Causes disruption of the central nervous system (CNS) and should be in prolonged or repeated contact with the skin.

Benzenethanol: A sweet-smelling, floral, rose synthetic fragrance which is irritating to the eyes, skin, and upper respiratory tract. It affects bone marrow, causes CNS disruption, and is classed as carcinogenic. Exposure can damage the immune system, cause excess bleeding and lead to aplastic anaemia, excessive bleeding.

Benzenemethanol: Used as a carrier for other fragrance chemicals, benzenemethanol is a solvent and sweet floral synthetic fragrance. Once again it is irritating to eyes, respiratory tract, and skin, is carcinogenic, and can adversely affect the central nervous system.

Benzyl Acetate: A fruity, floral synthetic fragrance which has been linked to pancreatic cancer and again is an irritant to the airways and eyes.

Benzaldehyde, 4-Hydroxy-3-Methoxy: This synthetic fragrance adds vanilla notes but is a nasty additive which aggravates the throat, mouth, lungs, skin, eyes, and gastrointestinal tract. It causes abdominal pain, nausea and kidney damage, as well as CNS damage.

Cyclopentadecanolide: This is one of the artificial musks which are commonly used as a synthetic fragrance in perfume. It is a known hormone disrupting chemical, a carcinogenic, and irritant.

Ethyl linalool; linalool: This synthetic fragrance adds hints of wonderful-sounding French lavender and bergamot. However its reality is very far from wonderful. It is also commonly used in pesticides, is a narcotic and CNS disrupter.

Eugenol: A synthetic fragrance used as a replacement for clove oil. It can trigger contact dermatitis and irritate the skin, eyes, and airways. It is also used in fungicides, insecticides, and pesticides.

Galaxolide 50: Another of the synthetic musk fragrances, also a hormone disrupting chemical, irritant, and a carcinogen.