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Perfume: the side effects and dangers of fragrance

With Christmas just around the corner, many of us are looking forward to glamming up and letting our hair down.

One of the many rituals most people like to indulge in before a night out is spritzing on their favourite scent. Just a splash of perfume can leave you feeling amazing and prepare you for a long-overdue night out. But unbeknown to most, those quick, few sprays of perfume may not always leave you ‘smelling of roses’…

We take a closer look at the side effects and dangers of fragrance, as well as explore the safer alternatives to perfume.

The dark side of perfume

Chances are you chose your favourite fragrance (or fragrances if you like to mix things up) with one sense alone – your sense of smell. A simple sniff is all the convincing most of us need when choosing a perfume, which means the vast majority of people will pay little attention to the list of ingredients detailed on the back of the bottle. And that’s if all the ingredients are listed by the manufacturer. In accordance with legislation, perfume brands don’t have to disclose their ingredients, even if they are potentially going to be used by people with allergies.

Research has found that perfumes, aftershaves, and other artificial fragrances can damage your health. Some scents can trigger several troublesome side effects, including migraines, nausea, asthma, rashes and other skin problems. A study shockingly revealed that 75% of women said their migraines were the result of odours such as perfumes.

Another study – conducted by Jane Houlihan from The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in partnership with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) – went one step further to analyse the ingredients of a variety of popular women’s and men’s fragrances. Here WebMD explains exactly what researchers discovered:

“When they looked closer, Houlihan and colleagues found an average of 10 chemicals linked with allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, or asthma. The researchers found 12 different chemicals they describe as potentially hormone-disrupting, such as benzyl benzoate, diethyl phthalate, and tonalide.”

Some ingredients, such as phthalates, musk ketone and formaldehyde, were even linked to serious health issues including cancer, autism, ADHD, neurological disorders, respiratory problems, birth defects, and irreversible reproductive damage.

Is my perfume bad for me?

Unfortunately, finding out what’s in your perfume and whether the individual ingredients are harmful to your health isn’t as simple as checking out what’s written on the back of the bottle.

As previously mentioned, perfume brands don’t have to reveal their ‘trade secrets’ so you won’t necessarily find comprehensive lists of ingredients on the packaging. Most simply use the term ‘fragrance’ to cover the chemical content of the scent. This means you have to be in tune with your body and identify any reactions early to ensure you avoid the health concerns reported by various studies.

Being in contact with the perfume, whether that’s from you wearing the perfume or you being close to a person wearing perfume, can result in a mild allergic reaction. This tends to show itself as contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis symptoms can range from touch sensitivity and flakiness to burning blisters and irritating hives. If you do have this type of reaction, wash the skin immediately and apply a soothing, natural, hypoallergenic lotion to the affected area. Hydrocortisone cream can also be used to ease the irritation but do check this with your doctor first.

Reactions to perfumes don’t always occur right away. Some of the chemicals found in fragrances can build up within the body to cause reactions and sensitivities later on as levels increase. They can also cause mild reactions over time, which can result in long term damage. These types of reactions can make it particularly difficult to diagnose perfume poisoning.

You can even develop an allergy to ingredients after a long period, which means fragrances that you’ve grown to love over the years could damage your health too.

EWG’s Skin Deep tool is a handy resource where you can search for a perfume ingredient, brand or product to see whether it is safe to use. The database contained some 81,331 products at last count.

What to use instead of perfume

Doing your research may not always be possible when it comes to uncovering whether the perfume or aftershave you use is safe. Whilst EWG’s Skin Deep tool certainly helps, choosing perfume brands that are transparent about their formulations is important.

Prioritising fragrances that contain essential oils is another alternative. We’ve explored the natural alternatives when it comes to deodorant and sunscreen, so why wouldn’t you consider going au naturel with your perfume too?

Making your own perfume is another sure-fire way to avoid the artificial nasties that cause so many health issues. Again essential oils have a huge part to play in these DIY blends, and with the right supplies, you can make a different scent every week. Here’s a great tutorial for creating floral, citrus, earthy and spicy homemade scents – so which one do you feel like today? Making your own perfume is a fun activity and better yet, you get to create the ultimate custom fragrance so no one can steal your scent!

If you don’t fancy the DIY approach, check out the perfume brands putting all-natural, organic formulations on the map to discover your signature scent. I love SALT by Ellis Brooklyn, Madie by Rosie Jane, and Empower by Pour le Monde. Prosody London is a home-grown British brand I love too. They do a great sample set so you can pick and choose a handful of all-natural and organic fragrances to try.

Images: Africa Studio /