Are fragrance chemicals affecting your hormones? Learn about five endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in fragrances, and how to avoid them.
Written by: Maggie Twaroski
If you take a look in your bathroom or under your kitchen sink, you’ll likely find a collection of products containing fragrances; whether in cleaning solutions, hygiene products, cosmetics, perfume, detergent and even plastic bags. What you may not know is that many of these fragrances contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs. These are substances that interfere with hormone function in both men and women.
Most EDCs hide under the word “fragrance” on a product label. While seemingly straightforward, this word actually signifies dozens of other ingredients that can affect hormones. Since fragrance is classified as a trade secret, a company is not required to disclose their formula on the label or conduct safety testing on those chemicals.
How do Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals Affect Hormones?
To understand how endocrine-disrupting chemicals interfere with hormones, it’s important to understand how the endocrine system works. When endocrine glands release hormones, they travel through the bloodstream until they reach their target cells, which contain hormone receptors. When the hormone binds with the receptor, it initiates a cellular response that executes the hormone’s instructions. The body uses these signals to impact metabolism, reproduction, growth, homeostasis and moods.
When EDCs enter the body, they disturb the endocrine system either by blocking receptors or mimicking hormones and binding to the receptors themselves. This signal disruption can cause a host of problems, most notably in reproductive systems.
Top Fragrance Chemicals to Avoid
Currently, some of the most common endocrine-disrupting chemicals in fragrances are phthalates, benzyl salicylate, oxybenzone, octinoxate and synthetic musks. I’ll unpack each of these chemicals along with their accompanying research and offer tips for avoiding them.
If you avoid one fragrance chemical above all others, it should probably be phthalates. These ubiquitous chemicals are added to hundreds of daily products to increase longevity. Despite reproductive risks in both men and women, they’re still present in over 97 percent of Americans.
In women, phthalates target ovarian follicles at different stages in their development, suppressing or accelerating them. Research has linked phathlates with sperm damage in men, and animal testing associates prenatal exposure to phthalates with premature puberty in male offspring.
Designed to improve scent and shelf life, benzyl salicylate is a staple in most fragrance products. It’s typically absorbed through the skin and remains in the body for an extended period of time after application. Tests on human breast cancer cells show benzyl salicylate mimicking estrogen and interfering with receptors.
Oxybenzone is another widespread endocrine disrupter and a common sunscreen ingredient. This bioaccumulative chemical can remain in the body weeks after application. In addition to allergic skin reactions, oxybenzone can also lead to reproductive issues including endometriosis and sperm damage.
Octinoxate is most commonly absorbed through the skin from sunscreen, but can also pass through breastmilk. In lab testing, octinoxate binds to human estrogen receptors and increases uterine weight in animals, suggesting reproductive complications.
Musks give perfume that rich, earthy scent that’s appealing to the senses, but not to hormones. There are several types of synthetic musks, but those most commonly found in fragrances are musk ketone, galaxolide and tonalide. These chemicals stimulate human estrogen, androgen and progesterone receptors. Research also links musk ketone with ovarian failure and infertility.
5 Ways to Avoid Fragrance Chemicals
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash
1. Go fragrance free: This is perhaps the simplest option, as you can avoid fragrance chemicals altogether. Steer clear of “unscented” products however, as these contain chemicals to mask naturally-occuring fragrances.
2. Watch out for fragrance keywords: If you see a product labeled with “fragrance,” “parfum” or “eau de toilette,” it’s best to put it back on the shelf. These are umbrella terms for dozens of chemicals, many of which can be classified as EDCs.
3. Choose essential oils: Essential oils are a great alternative to synthetic fragrances, but it’s important to select the right ones. Many essential oil brands still contain additives and preservatives, so choose oils that are 100 percent pure.
4. Look for safety seals: Some organizations such as Made Safe will have certification seals on products they deem safe, based on extensive research and expertise. You can feel safe about your product choices by relying on these safety seals.
5. Know your synonyms: If fragrance labeling wasn’t complicated enough, many ingredients have synonyms, or aliases for their names. For example, octinoxate has over 30 different names. Next time your eyes glaze over at a list of unpronounceable ingredients, you may want to do some quick research to see which chemicals may be in disguise. The EWG database is a helpful resource for identifying chemical risks and synonyms.
Fragrances are tough to avoid, but it’s worth the effort. Prolonged exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals can have long-lasting effects. Do you have questions or concerns about your hormones or fertility? Dr. Katie is here to help you understand what is causing the imbalance and will guide you in treating things naturally.