Fragrances are being called the “new secondhand smoke,” and for good reason.
For one, they are in EVERYTHING—I’m talking beyond traditional uses like in perfumes and air fresheners.
And two, artificial fragrances are incredibly complex. The number of different chemicals in a fragrance can reach over 3,000…. And get this: they don’t have to be disclosed on the label. 🤯
We’ll peel back the layers on that in just a sec, but here’s what we know from decades of research: the chemicals in fragrances can disrupt our hormones, are known to create oxidative stress, can cause headaches, low mood, breathing problems, and can tank our productivity.
Today’s newsletter is about why we should go fragrance free, and what we can do to minimize our exposure to fragrance as best we can in our lives.
Let’s jump in!
Why Fragrance Is a Problem
The crazy thing about fragrance is that nobody actually knows what’s in it. Manufacturers list the term “fragrance” on a product’s label and aren’t required to disclose the actual chemicals that compose the scent.
Companies blame it on “trade secrets,” but I’m afraid it could be a darker secret that they don’t want to draw attention to because more and more research is pointing to these scents messing with us. One study found that 35 percent of adults reported breathing difficulties, migraines, skin irritation, and cognitive problems when exposed to fragranced products (1)—that’s no coincidence, folks!
These scents contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that pollute indoor air and pose serious health risks. Perhaps one of the most concerning long-term impacts of these compounds is the effect they have on our reproductive health.
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Phthalates Can Cause Fertility Problems
Phthalates are petroleum-based chemicals used in many fragrances. The biggest issue with phthalates is that they’re potent hormone disruptors. Whether we’re breathing them in or absorbing them through our skin, phthalates muddy up our hormones in many ways.
Upregulation of estrogen and oxidative stress caused by phthalates negatively affect both men’s and women’s reproductive organs and fertility. In men, that means reduced sperm concentrations, poor motility, and risk of testicular cancer (3). In women, it affects the release and maturation of eggs and can lead to ovulation problems and increased risk of endometriosis and PCOS (2,3).
Reproductive problems and difficulty conceiving has increased by more than 50 percent over the past 50 years—and incessant exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals like phthalates likely plays a big part.
The Top Sources of Fragrance in Our Lives
The evidence is clear: our bodies do not like fragrances, and cutting them out or greatly reducing our exposure to them will do us (and our hormones) a lot of good.
Becoming aware of where fragrance shows up in our lives is the first step toward minimizing our exposure. Here’s a list of some of the top sources of fragrance in our lives:
- Perfume/cologne/body spray
- Scented candles
- Air fresheners (car, home, plug-ins)
- Cleaning supplies
- Soap (dish, hand, body)
- Laundry detergent/dryer sheets
- Personal care products (moisturizer, face wash, deodorant)
As I’ve shared previously, I don’t want you to obsess, worry, or think this means you have to overhaul your life to get rid of all fragrances (although you totally can if you want to!). It’s not about being perfect; it’s about having the awareness and doing your best to reduce your exposure whenever you can.
With that being said, here are my top recommendations for reducing or greatly minimizing the fragrances in your life.
- Minimize or remove anything that’s artificially scented. I’m talking about car and home air fresheners, sprays, cleaning supplies, artificially scented candles, personal care products—yup, all of it! Unless you know that a product has been certified by the Environmental Working Group or a similar organization (like MADE SAFE, for example) it’s best to go without or at least choose a fragrance-free option.
- Go fragrance free. The best smell is no smell. There are plenty of unscented cleaning products, laundry detergents, and dish soaps that still get the job done without leaving behind unwanted smells.
- Diffuse essential oils (safely!). If you can’t stand the thought of not having a scent to give off that feeling of cleanliness, diffusing high-quality essential oils is a much better alternative. There are still potential safety concerns, however, as they are also a source of VOCs that can pollute indoor air. For more on this, I recommend checking out the work of toxicologist Dr. Yvonne Burkart. She has a great summary clip about essential oils and how to diffuse them safely. Check it out here.
- Open your windows. Air filters are a great way to keep your indoor air quality safe and filter out VOCs and other potential contaminants. If you don’t have a filter, opening up your windows to allow clean, fresh air in and stagnant, dirty air out is a great way to improve the air quality of your home or office space.
For me, the name of the game is minimizing and de-prioritizing the artificial scents and fragrances in your life. Even when I travel, I’ll ask my Airbnb host or hotel to use fragrance-free laundry detergent and to avoid spraying things like Febreeze in the room. This is a request that’s more and more common these days, so I rarely get any pushback.
Honestly, I’ve gone without fragrances for so long that when I get a whiff of it in a store, I have the same reaction as if I had something too sweet—it’s just too much, and I know my body doesn’t like it.
I totally recognize that some people feel naked without wearing perfume or fragrance. My wife is one of those people, which is why I was so excited when she found Henry Rose (no affiliation) that she’ll wear out on special occasions. All of their ingredients are 100 percent transparent and EWG verified.
Here’s to your health,