This month, I’m here to warn you about the dangers of artificial fragrance. It is most probably detrimental to your health and you should avoid it. To do that, you need to know why, how to identify it and avoid it where you can. So, read on.
Identifying and avoiding artificial fragrances
One thing I’ve learned over the years since I began soap making, is that peoples’ noses have very different levels of sensitivity. A customer will come to my market stall, smell a soap and say “I can’t smell anything,” – another will come along, smell the same soap and say, ‘oh boy, that’s too strong for me” (sometimes accompanied by a sneeze!). These two are the two opposite ends of the sensitivity spectrum and most people sit somewhere in between, but it is a good illustration of the fact that not all noses are equal.
Why is this important? Because artificial fragrances can’t always be identified with your nose. Some people can, sometimes. To me, artificial fragrances often smell like chemicals – strong and brash and nasty, often overly sweet or overly floral – not something I want in my house, let alone my shower. But the person who can’t smell much when they’re holding one of my soaps won’t have a clue.
Are artificial fragrances really that bad?
Now I don’t say this just because I’m some sort of ‘smell snob’. I say it because cases of artificial fragrance making people ill are well-documented, and scary. The man-made fragrance industry is largely unregulated and despite concerns over the negative effects of artificial fragrance - its presence in breast milk and accumulation in adipose tissue, for starters - very little evaluation has been done on its effects. Unfortunately, it is up to us to educate ourselves and regulate our exposures.
If you think about it, the opportunities for exposure to artificial fragrance are daunting. From wearing clothes washed in fragranced detergents to cleaning our houses with artificially fragranced cleaners to air fresheners, body cleansers and moisturisers, makeup products, scented candles, those silly sticks in a bottle – the list is huge and almost impossible to avoid for most people during their daily lives. Often, you’re exposed to about 15 different artificial fragrances before you have even had breakfast.
There is a book by Australian author Kate Grenville called The Case Against Fragrance, which is a fantastic, if sobering read. I highly recommend it. Chemical fragrances make this author ill – headaches and brain fog being two of her more debilitating symptoms. Fresh flowers don’t bother her, and nor do small amounts of essential oils – it is the man-made, synthetic chemical fragrances which cause her harm. And these chemical fragrances can be linked to not only short-term symptoms like headaches and asthma, but also to more serious illnesses such as cancer and hormone disruption.
Much of what I do is driven by my partner. He certainly doesn’t look delicate (!) but he is extremely skin sensitive to chemical fragrances. Once when we were first together, he was complaining of dry skin and so I whipped out some bottle of moisturising potion I had just been given by someone and slapped it all over him. We then jumped in the car for a three-hour drive to a weekend away. By the time we got to our destination, the poor man was covered in itchy red rashes and my lesson was learned. These days, everything I make in the Soap Kitchen is either unscented or contains essential oils only and therefore he can (and does) use every product I make.
Now many of us actually love fragrances. Smell is a powerful sense, it can shape our moods, induce emotion and bring back memories. But unless we are smelling the real thing - or the essential oil distilled from it – we are smelling a synthetic product that has been developed in a laboratory and produced in a factory.
Fragrance-free vs unscented products
So, what can we do? Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to avoid all artificial fragrance – but we can mitigate and avoid it where we can. Do you know the difference between ‘fragrance free’ and ‘unscented?’ I surely did not – I was a bit taken aback to learn that fragrance free products have no odour at all, but unscented products have had odour neutralising chemicals added! Yuk. So, if you can’t find products scented by essential oils, I highly recommend going fragrance free. And you might want to look or question closely the grade of essential oil you’re potentially purchasing – aromatherapy grade are the expensive ones and they’re the real deal. But there are also cosmetic grade oils, which are natural compounds which are manipulated into the desired aroma profile, or there are fragrance oils which are totally man made and should be avoided. It is not always made clear which is on offer.
If you can’t remove, reduce..
When you do want a hint of something beautiful, make sure it is the real deal, but don’t go crazy with fragrance. ‘Everything in moderation’ is a great motto to live by in many aspects of life, and I include the use of naturally fragranced products here too. You would smell a rose, or maybe a bunch, but you wouldn’t put 100 roses up your nose. If it takes 100 roses to make a teaspoon of essential oil, (an illustrative guess by me only) that’s a good indication that you should use just a few drops rather than a teaspoon full. Essential oils are powerful chemicals too. Yes, they’re natural, but so is deadly nightshade. That’s one of the reasons that I provide a good selection of fragrance free products (Savon de Wanaka, goats’ milk and manuka honey soaps; face butter, hemp lip balm, hemp skin bar, dish detergent bar), and I’ll seldom use the lavender and rosemary body butter if I’m using a beautiful essential oil soap at the same time. I’m a huge fan of my own face butter with manuka honey because not only is it really effective but also because the only fragrance I get from it is the locally produced beeswax in it. That’s what I want on my face before I sleep.
More and more these days, I find myself enjoying the natural smell of things. Many of you will be aware of the fact that recently I’ve been working with hemp seed oil and the two hemp products I have so far developed, I’ve left without any scent. I like the slightly weedy smell of the hemp oil and see no need to add anything else. I’m also mindful of the fact that these are products that may well be used by sensitive people, and fragrance free is often better for them. A very few people are actually sensitive to essential oils too.
Sorry if I’ve shocked you, but I hope you’ve found this useful and encourages you to look more closely at all the products you buy and use. Remember to use only products fragranced with aromatherapy grade essential oils if you can. Use products without scent too, and choose fragrance free where you can.