Could Going Scent-Free in Your Home Save Your Life?

‘So, could going scent-free in your home save your life then?’ was the question put to me recently by a good friend after he had patiently listened to the findings of my latest research article.

Quite an intense and serious topic to be discussing over tea and chocolate biscuits! But it essentially stemmed from a little chat we were having about perfume and other fragrances, and a few VERY surprising discoveries I had just made…

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been a slave to perfume for many years. If I’m honest I’ve always felt quite naked leaving the house without a few sprays of my favourite scent. And even through the day I’d be ‘topping up’ with yet more spritzes, relying on smelling nice to give my self-confidence a little boost.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who’s been swayed by those seductive perfume and aftershave adverts we see all the time in those glossy magazines. One spray of X, Y or Z and you too can have the looks and lifestyle of the current feted celebrity or movie star – if only it was that easy!

Actually, I think my attraction to fragrance goes way back to my childhood where I’d excitedly skim through my mum’s latest Avon catalogue, seeking out those pages where they had patches you could scratch and sniff. And every week my pocket money would be redeemed against a pack of scented stickers. I guess I’ve been hooked from a very early age!

‘So what’s wrong with that?’ I hear you ask. Is it such a bad thing to want to smell nice, and enjoying those things which do?

Yes, it might well be, unfortunately…

Something I’d never really given much (in fact, any) thought to before now was just exactly HOW manufacturers produce those appealing scents.

Well, it turns out that they do this through the use of a huge number of synthetic chemicals, many derived from petroleum, which contaminate the air we breathe and which can also have a number of unpleasant and serious effects on our health.

For example, there’s medical evidence to suggest that some chemicals found in manufactured fragrances, such as toluene, benzoyl chloride and methylene chloride, can cause cancer and birth defects.

Toluene has also been shown to trigger asthma attacks, not only in people with a pre-existing condition, but also in previously healthy people.

Acetone, another chemical featured in many fragrances, can cause a number of nasty reactions when the vapour is inhaled such as nausea, lack of coordination, slurred speech, dizziness and drowsiness.

Some chemicals are also now known to be neurotoxic (for example pyrdinethione and hexachlorophene), while others may cause kidney damage (including camphor, ethanol, benzyl alcohol).

Other symptoms which may flow from exposure to these synthetic compounds include depression, lethargy, skin and eye irritations, weakened immune systems, and allergic respiratory reactions.

So, armed with this knowledge, why would we as a society continue in the use of these synthetically manufactured fragrances?!

I think the answer lies in 2 parts.

Firstly, the fragrance industry is big, BIG business. The global fragrance market is estimated to be worth $40.1 BILLION in 2017 and growing year on year thereafter. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we’re bombarded at every turn with seductive adverts for the latest scented products, and the promise of all the good things that will follow their purchase!

And it’s not just fragrance in its traditional form where money is being spent. Lots of different companies are now using the lure of lovely smells to sell a variety of products, such as mobile phones which release ‘relaxing’ scents to help relieve the stress of difficult phone calls!

The second, and I think most pertinent reason for continuing to purchase products with artificial odours, is a lack of knowledge. Until very recently I for one had absolutely no idea what went into my favourite perfume, or what it might potentially be doing to me and other people around me.

And the manufacturers themselves certainly don’t make it any easier for us to find this information out.

Fragrance formulas are considered to be ‘trade secrets’, meaning a manufacturer can simply list ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient, without specifying exactly what it’s comprised of.

And to make things even more confusing for us consumers are labels which I feel give a very misleading impression.

If you saw the words ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘unscented’ on a label you’d be justified in thinking that it meant the product in question contained no fragrance chemicals, right?

Wrong!

Those phrases don’t actually provide any guarantee that a product doesn’t contain any nasties or that it’s natural, but rather just that there’s no perceptible odour. Synthetic fragrances may well have been used to mask the smell of other ingredients and there’s no legal requirement on the manufacturer to tell you that’s the case!

If you want to be sure an item doesn’t contain chemicals look instead for ‘without perfume’ on the label.

I’ve never been one to worry too much about the latest health fads, and certainly haven’t succumbed to a sugar-free, gluten-free, paleo etc. lifestyle! I know there will always be something out there deemed to be bad for our health. But I do try to weigh up the pros and cons in each case to try and find a healthy balance.

In the case of perfume I figure this is something I can actually live without. Not even so much for my own health, but more for the health of my two young children and a desire not to expose them unnecessarily to something which may be having a unseen detrimental effect on their well-being.

But it’s undoubtedly hard-going completely scent-free in your life and involves a great deal of awareness, effort and commitment. Sadly, artificial fragrance is not confined to just perfumes and colognes, but pops up in so many different products that we use each and every single day.

I had a think about all the different things I used to use at the start of the day that contained synthetic fragrance and the list was staggering.

…shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, deodorant, moisturiser, make up, hairspray, perfume…even the laundry detergent used to clean the clothes I was wearing was artificially scented!

So in addition to ditching the spritz I’m also going to make the switch to natural personal care products, and try my own homemade non-toxic cleaning products. It’ll take a bit of time for sure eradicating all traces of artificial fragrance, but every small step is still a step in the right direction I guess.

As to the future – well, it’s not inconceivable to think that there will be a conscious move towards scent-free environments in the not-too-distant future, particularly in relation to the workplace.

In fact, there’s already a growing awareness in Canada and the US as to the effects of exposure to these chemicals, and a recognition that they can adversely affect the health of some people.

For example, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity has now been recognised as a disability by the US Social Security Administration, while Canadian safety authorities ran a ‘No Scent Makes Sense’ campaign a few years back.

There are even several companies which now operate a ‘scent-free’ policy in their offices and buildings in a bid to ensure a healthy working environment for all employees.

So back to my friend’s question ‘can going scent-free save your life?’.

Well, it’s certainly not going to do any harm cutting artificial fragrances out, and definitely something worth considering especially if you have underlying medical conditions.

We may all be looking back 20 years from now wondering why we ever used such things in the first place, and being lambasted by our children for our foolishness!

Now back to my tea and biscuits and some light-hearted chat… 😉

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