“That which we call a rose,” Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “by any other name would smell as sweet.”
What if the scent of that rose was actually derived from chemicals with names like dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate? The scent, while authentic, may not seem so sweet after all. Almost certainly, at least, it would lose its romance.
For many, scent is one of the most important criteria in choosing a beauty product. Regardless of how well any given beauty treatment claims it works, if you don’t like how it smells, you probably won’t buy it.
But when you make your choices based primarily on scent, what are you really buying?
Scent in beauty products is typically derived from one of two broad groups of ingredients: natural perfume, and synthetic perfume.
Natural perfume, often referred to as essential oil, is almost never dangerous, and depending on the concentration may even have some therapeutic benefits. At the very least, we know scent is closely tied to memory and is capable of changing our mood, so assuming the natural scent is free of any toxic chemical preservatives or stabilizers, its ability to simply make us feel good may be reason enough to enjoy it.
The cost of extracting natural scents from their botanical origins, however, is high. Many plants produce very little scent oil, or oil with scent that rapidly dissipates, so scientists have tried to replicate natural scent by developed chemical concoctions sometimes referred to euphemistically as “nature identical.”
But make no mistake, these chemical wannabes are not even remotely related to the make up of natural scent. Rather, they’re formulated from petrochemicals, animal byproducts and more often than not, phthalates (pronounced thal-ates).
In fact, according to Environment Working Group, phthalates in fragrance are in over seventy percent of beauty products, although they seldom appear in the ingredients listing on the label. The reason? Because phthalates are an “ingredient in an ingredient,” which means they are typically buried in “perfume” or “fragrance,” the common names for synthetic scents.
While it was previously thought that low levels of phthalates are harmless, an increasing number of scientists now believe there is no safe level of exposure.
When absorbed into the bloodstream, phthalates mimic estrogen. In women, this can cause breast cancer and ovarian cysts among a myriad of other complications; and in women pregnant with baby boys, the higher level of estrogen means the concentration of testosterone in their developing fetus is by comparison, relatively low.
Recent studies suggest this hormone imbalance in male fetuses can play a major role in the abnormal development of the male reproductive system, which accounts for an increased incidence in the general population of undesended testicles, a condition called hypospadias (where the urethra opens on the underside rather than the tip of the penis), smaller penises, and even lower birth weight.
What’s most unfortunate is that phthalates simply aren’t necessary in beauty products, and they’re easy to avoid.
If you prefer scented products, then choose ones with essential oils rather than perfumes. Better yet, choose unscented products; but be sure to read the label carefully, because even “unscented” products may contain perfume or fragrance as a masking scent.
The good news is that governments and regulatory bodies are starting to recognize the health issues associated with phthalates, and are enacting legislation to protect consumers.
Al Franken, the comedian turned Minnesota Senator, recently introduced Senate legislation to force manufacturers of household cleaning products to list toxic ingredients like phthalates on their labels.
This measure, when extended to beauty products, will help protect us even more.
How to buy safer cosmetics:
- Read the label on your beauty products before you buy them.
- Avoid products that contain “perfume,” “fragrance,” or “parfum.” While they sound pretty, these are usually synthetic scents that typically contain phthalates.
- Buy products that list the essential scent oil explicitly on the label. If you’re not sure, ask a Beauty Advisor.
- Pregnant women should always choose products without any added scent, perfume or fragrance.