Not So Sexy: The Stinky Story of Perfume in New Zealand

I’m a sucker for a nice smell. Who isn’t? It’s obvious that floral scents appeal: they appear in everything from perfumes, detergents, shampoos, hand creams, baby wipes, paper, ink, pesticides, candles, air fresheners, food, fly sprays and a host of other consumer products. Even products that claim to be “fragrance free” only have to contain no perceptible odour: often they contain both fragrances – to hide chemical smells – and masking agents to hide the fragrance.

It would be nice if all these floral smells came from natural sources. The companies that create them would love you to think that’s the case. Plenty of perfume adverts these days show waifish girls standing in or even rolling through beds of wildflowers. Perfume bottles frequently evoke the shape of flowers; petals are everywhere. The implication is that perfumes are the bottled essence of nature. The gimmick is nothing new – companies have been trying to sell the idea that perfumes come from flowers for years.

These adverts are laughable really (even aside from the idea that you need to be mostly naked with beads wrapped round your torso in order to sell a product), once you know what’s in them. The reality is that perfumes and fragrances – used on their own or added to other products – are a potent cocktail of well over 3,000 individual synthetic chemicals. Some of the most common are listed here.

So what exactly are these chemicals?

Perfume consists mostly of chemicals called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. We smell fragrance chemicals because they become airborne due to their volatility…. Children, since they are closer to the ground, are more likely to inhale VOCs as they fall through the air.

What are the problems with perfumes (aka parfum) and fragrances?

In a wider sense, volatile compounds cause air pollution. They also bio-accumulate in the environment and contaminate waterways and aquatic wildlife.

The chemicals that make up perfumes are commonly skin and respiratory system irritants and allergens. Some chemicals in perfume alter the skin tension to make it absorb more of the fragrance – and then it will also absorb more of any other chemicals it comes into contact with. Some of the chemicals, like formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, are carcinogenic. Some, including toluene (also known as methyl benzene) are neurotoxins. Some chemicals have depressant and narcotic properties. Perfumes often contain phthalates as these plasticisers make fragrances last longer. Unfortunately, they can also cause hormone disruption and birth defects.

Of the 3,000 chemicals that the fragrance industry utilizes to make perfume and other scented products, 900 are toxic, as reported by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. These toxic substances include carcinogens and chemicals such as diethyl phthalate and musk ketone. Diethyl phthalate is a chemical that builds up in human tissue over time, and is found in 97 percent of Americans. It is linked to sperm damage. Similarly, musk ketone is found in high concentrations in human fat tissue, including breast milk.

Some of these chemicals cause irritability, mental vagueness, muscle pain, asthma, bloating, joint aches, sinus pain, fatigue, sore throat, eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, laryngitis, headaches, dizziness, swollen lymph nodes, spikes in blood pressure, coughing, and burning or itching skin irritations… the chemical industry’s own Toxic Data Safety Sheets list headaches, tremors, convulsions, and even death as a possible effect of exposure to acetonitrile, another common fragrance ingredient.

-The Toxic Effects of Perfume

And some chemicals… well, this is the worst bit really: we just don’t know what all the chemicals do or what effects they might have. We also don’t know what effect they have on children, even though children breathe more air than adults and have more permeable skin. Of the thousands of chemicals found in commercial fragrances, very few have been tested. In fact, 43% of these high production volume chemicals have no testing data on basic toxicity and only seven percent have a full set of basic test data. Most of the chemicals which have been studied have been found to be fairly toxic in at least one area – so who knows what is left lurking in the rest of the compounds used.

There are two main problems with avoiding the toxins in perfumes: 1) the industry safety regulations are crap and 2) so are the labelling regulations. Let’s look at these two issues a bit more.

1. The safety regulations are crap.

Way back in 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins that should be thoroughly investigated for impacts on human health. Despite this, there is no requirement that fragrance components (or any cosmetic ingredients, for that matter) have to be proven safe before being added to products. Quite the opposite in fact: ingredients have to be proven toxic before they must be removed. It’s an equation that makes consumers the guinea pig – in fact, there’s an even a NZ site called “I am not a guinea pig” which campaigns against this dangerous retrospective regulating.

Think New Zealand’s laws must be better? Nope. The cosmetic industry in New Zealand is only self-regulated by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), a group of companies within the industry. Like the United States, the CTFA follows a policy of “include all the shit you like until you can PROVE it causes harm.” Most consumer products are held to the Product Safety Standard of section 29 of the Fair Trading Act, but cosmetics are exempt. The CTFA campaigns against any increased regulation: their submissions have included asking the Ministry of Consumer Affairs not to match Australia’s slightly better fragrance safety laws; that any new laws be “principles” rather than prescriptive; and not to add a “good faith” clause to the Fair Trading Act (which would ask that suppliers trade fairly and in good faith). They also regularly stipulate that their submissions should not be “heard in public”; although the submissions can still be found on good old Google if you look hard enough. This month, the International Organization for Standardization will hold 217 meetings in New Zealand about cosmetic safety. However, the conference is hosted by – you guessed it – the CTFA, so I’m dubious about it having any major breakthroughs.

2. The labelling regulations are crap.

In New Zealand there are NO laws that cover cosmetic ingredient labelling, even though they have existed in Australia since 1991 (yup – we’re 20 years behind and counting). Fragrances are considered trade secrets and don’t have to be labelled at all. And because there are so many potential ingredients in fragrances, companies can refuse to list ingredients like phthalates because they come under the umbrella of “fragrance” (or perfume, parfum, whatever).

Even if you DO see an ingredient list, don’t assume it’s complete. A report last year by the Environmental Working Group entitled “Not So Sexy” found that the average fragrance contains 14 unlisted ingredients. The unlisted ingredients were not randomly left off: they were much more likely than listed ingredients to be toxic or untested for safety.

In July 2010 the (NZ) Environmental Risk Management Authority decided to remove the expiry date from the use of “alternative labelling provisions”. Alternative labelling provisions means that imported cosmetics only have to satisfy the laws of the country they come from, not the New Zealand law. So if your product was imported from, say, Thailand or India, it only has to satisfy their labelling laws, not ours. This system was supposed to be temporary, but thanks to the removal of the expiry date, has now become permanent. Not only does this mean we have no real labelling laws but it also makes policing compliance damn near impossible. Good one, ERMA :/.

So where to from here?
1. Remember that no fragrance is really necessary. Perfumes don’t serve any purpose other than to smell nice, cover up other chemical smells and enhance artificial flavours. Use fewer chemicals and eat less processed food and you won’t need fragrances in your life.

2. If you need those pretty smells, consider essential oils or a bunch of flowers (or pot plant) to freshen up a room. And check out the Good magazine guide to alternative fragrances. They also have some cool DIY fragrant ideas.

3. Do things the old fashioned way to get rid of odours: open windows, sprinkle the area with baking soda (or put a saucer of it nearby); spritz with white vinegar diluted in water.

4. Look for fragrance free products (rather than unscented), but check the ingredient list to see if it contains fragrance anyway

5. Check out Safe Cosmetics to check the ingredient lists and safety ratings of your beauty products.

6. And most importantly: take action!

  • Don’t buy fragranced products – vote with your wallet
  • Join the I’m Not A Guinea Pig campaign
  • Vote for the Green Party – they have a comprehensive Toxics Policy, including mandatory product ingredient labelling
  • It might be worth looking for products certified by Environmental Choice New Zealand. While their certified toiletries are not necessarily fragrance free, they are free of toxic musks and have other environmental standards, like not being bio-accumulative.
  • While you’re at it, check out the brand new (launched Nov 10) Safe Shopper website, which is a guide to cruelty-free cosmetics.

Finally… check out this cool video, The Story of Cosmetics.

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