RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—That lemon-scented dish liquid you've been using doesn't have any lemons in it. You already knew that. But what you may not have known is that lemony scent is a combination of hundreds of different chemicals that may be interfering with your hormones, building up in your body, or reacting with other chemicals in your living space to create formaldehyde.
In a 2010 report published by the nonprofit advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), director of science and research Alexandra Gorman Scranton outlines the potential hazards posed by these perfume and fragrance “cocktails.” The report finds that these chemical fragrances, well, stink. "It’s an issue a lot of people are not aware of, as shown by the proliferation of products that are fragranced," she says. "We want to raise awareness so people think about their purchasing choices and how they affect their health."
THE DETAILS: WVE received a list from the International Fragrance Association of all the chemicals used in perfumes and fragrances added to everything from candles to baby shampoos to cleaning products. WVE then examined the list for chemicals that pose potential health risks. The list contained 3,100 chemicals used in various combinations (a single fragrance can contain hundreds of chemicals) to make your shampoo smell like raspberries or your dishwashing detergent smell like jasmine.
Many of these chemicals are potentially hazardous. For example, the report called out one specific class of chemicals called synthetic musks. They were originally created to mimic the natural musks emitted by musk deer and musk ox. Problem is, synthetic musks can accumulate in body fat and act as hormone disruptors. More disturbingly, animal studies have shown that musks can make cells less able to defend themselves against toxic chemicals. Synthetic musks have also triggered the proliferation of breast-cancer cells in lab tests. Finally, according to research, synthetic musks show up in 70 percent of newborns tested, likely because the musks build up in women's breast milk.
Synthetic fragrances may also contain phthalates, a class of hormone-disrupting chemicals that help make scents last longer. Phthalates have been linked to obesity and learning disorders in children (read more of Rodale.com's coverage of phthalates). Chemicals in perfumes and fragrances may also give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that essentially pollute your indoor air. These VOCs have been linked to liver, kidney, and neurological damage.
WHAT IT MEANS: The WVE report did acknowledge that some large companies, including S.C. Johnson and The Clorox Company, have removed all musks and phthalates from their products and replaced them with alternatives. "It’s a step in the right direction," says Scranton. "It shows that these companies are listening to consumers. But at the same time, they’re keeping the alternatives secret."