From shampoo to soap to deodorant to hair wax, most products these days are heavily scented. In fact, you may be piling on half a dozen or more fragranced grooming products when you get ready for work (and that's not even counting actual fragranced products like cologne). Even your detergent, dryer sheets, air freshener, and countertop cleaner are likely scented.
That's a problem, according to some experts who are sounding the alarm about the potential health risks associated with the chemicals.
What kinds of health risks? “Breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, migraine headaches, dizziness, rashes, congestion, seizures, nausea, and a range of other physical problems,” says Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., a professor of civil engineering at Australia’s University of Melbourne who has conducted research on long-term exposure to fragranced consumer products. In a 2017 study, Steinemann even found that 33% of Australians reported experiencing migraines and asthma attacks after exposure to fragranced products like air fresheners and cleaning supplies.
While this might sound extreme, Steinemann is far from the only researcher to express concern about chemicals in fragranced products. A handful of studies have found that phthalates, a class of chemicals that are often used in scented soaps and shampoos, can also have some harrowing effects, says Heather Patisaul, Ph.D., a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University who runs a lab studying the biological effects of consumer chemicals.
“These compounds have been linked to abnormalities of male reproductive system development and are suspected of having neuro-developmental effects," she says.
Patisaul says that aside from phthalates, other fragrance chemicals have been shown to block testosterone activity, which could lead to loss of energy, erectile dysfunction, or problems building or maintaining muscle.
What's even more frightening is that in 2014, the U.S. National Toxicology Program issued a report about styrene, a chemical found in a range of consumer goods, including fragranced personal care and household products. The NTP said that it found “compelling evidence” that styrene can cause cancer in humans. Research in animals has linked styrene to lung, breast, stomach, and liver cancers.
“Styrene is important to know about, but there are potentially hundreds of other fragrance chemicals that may be carcinogenic,” says Robin Dodson, Sc.D., a research scientist at the nonprofit environmental research organization the Silent Spring Institute. “We don’t know about the others because they haven’t been tested.”
While most of us assume the products we buy at our local CVS or Walmart have been rigorously tested to ensure their safety, the truth is that's not quite the case. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require cosmetic manufacturers to prove in advance that all of their ingredients are safe. Instead, there must be proof that an ingredient causes harm for a product to be yanked from the shelves.
“The FDA and EPA are not testing these products for safety,” says Dodson.
For its part, the FDA addresses the potential health risks of chemicals like phthalates on its website, stating that after conducting multiple studies and reviewing the available data, the agency was unable to find "a sound, scientific basis to support taking regulatory action against cosmetics containing phthalates. (Men's Health has reached out to the FDA, and we will update if we hear back.)
To make matters worse, companies that produce scented products are not even required to disclose all of the ingredients they use, to begin with. That's in part due to a loophole in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which states that companies do not have to reveal an ingredient if it qualifies as a "trade secret."
That explains why, if you look at the list of ingredients on your canister of hair product or bottle of countertop cleaner, you might see a long list of multisyllabic chemicals, along with the word “fragrance” or “parfum.” That single, seemingly benign word could be a stand-in for dozens or even hundreds of chemicals, Patisaul says.
“Literally thousands of chemicals can be described under the generic term ‘fragrance,’ but for each scented product you buy, it is impossible to know what chemicals are included,” Patisaul says.
That said, there are ways to find out what ingredients are being used in your scented products. In 2010, following a campaign by consumer watchdogs, a trade group known as the International Fragrance Association started publishing a “transparency list” of all the ingredients that manufacturers could include in their scented products under umbrella terms like “fragrance.” That list includes roughly 4,000 organic and synthetic compounds — some of which, like styrene, have been linked to cancer. The non-profit Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database also provides health and safety info on thousands of consumer chemicals.)
So is there anything else you can do to lower your risks? First, the obvious: you should avoid buying fragranced products whenever possible. “Buying unscented products is an effective step for reducing chemical exposures,” Patisaul says.
While that includes cologne, you don’t necessarily have to ditch your favourite eau or aftershave. At the very least, you can stop using the dozen other scented products you spread, lather, or rub on your body every day in favour of fragrance-free alternatives. Just use a single scented product—be it cologne, aftershave, or hair product.
You should also stop buying scented laundry detergent, air freshener, household cleaner, and other fragranced products that don’t need to smell nice to do their jobs. “None of us needs fragranced trash bags,” Dodson says. “We can all skip those.” She also adds that if you see the term “unscented” on a label, that could just mean that masking agents have been added to cover up any chemical odours. Instead, buy products that are labelled “fragrance-free.”
You should also buy a product that prioritizes product transparency, Dodson says. If you see every specific ingredient listed on the label, and the manufacturer makes a point of highlighting the lack of phthalates and parabens, that’s a good sign.
Finally, Patisaul says we all need to be pushing lawmakers and government officials to change the way these products are regulated. “The overarching problem is that the FDA lacks the authority to require manufacturers to test personal care products for safety,” she says.
Ultimately, we simply don't know a lot about the chemicals being used in our products, let alone the extent of the threat they might pose to our health and safety. But until we get serious about educating ourselves and pushing for more transparency from manufacturers, nothing will change.