What You Need To Know About Fragrance


Whether you love or loathe it, fragrance plays a significant role in our everyday lives from the clothes we wear to the sheets we sleep on. Sometimes it’s subtle, like in your treasured jar of skin cream, and other times it can feel like a full-on assault when a stranger’s heavily-spritzed scent wafts on by.  

If you’ve ever wondered about the health effects of your fragrance use, you’re not alone. As people increasingly demand more transparency around the ingredients they use on their bodies, fragrance has become a target of sorts. In 2018, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP) launched their Right to Know report, which looked at fragrance and its effects on health, more closely. The verdict? We should all be more buyer beware when it comes to using fragrance in our everyday lives and product use. Here’s what else you need to know about fragrance. 

Not all fragrance terms are equal 

First off, it’s important to know that the fragrance industry is predominantly self-regulating. Canada relies on the international naming convention for cosmetics, called International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), which means components of a fragrance can be listed as individual ingredients or can be listed under the term “parfum” (in the E.U. and Canada) or “fragrance” (in the U.S.). Since approximately some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances and the term fragrance or parfum usually represents a complex mixture of chemicals, navigating a cosmetic ingredient label is not enough.  

According to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system. 

They suggest choosing products free of unnecessary, undisclosed ingredients such as fragrance and dye. Products labeled “Free & Clear” are better bets, though a few may contain a scent to mask the smell of other ingredients. Unfortunately, products like cosmetics, laundry detergents and softeners, and cleaning products marketed as “fragrance-free” or “unscented” could actually contain fragrance along with a masking agent that prevents the brain from perceiving smell. To get better informed, check out EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning or call the manufacturer for more information.  

What’s the relationship between fragrance use and breast cancer? 

BCAPP’s Right to Know report suggests that fragrance chemicals make up the vast majority of the chemicals linked to harmful chronic health effects such as cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, asthma, and skin irritation, in the beauty and personal care products they tested. They point to the aforementioned labeling loophole as well as the unregulated $70 billion global fragrance industry as an opportunity to do better by increasing ingredient transparency to consumers. As for the specific ingredients flagged, the report highlights ingredients benzene and 1,4- dioxane, (linked to mammary tumors in laboratory studies), as well as endocrine-disrupting compounds: oxybenzone, propylparaben, and two phthalates (DEHP and DEP). 

Is aromatherapy a better option? 

Right now, it feels like everyone is touting an essential oil for everything. Stressed? Consider lemon balm. Tired? Reach for a citrus oil. But just because you’re using an essential oil vs. a traditional fragrance doesn’t mean you’re not still at risk for symptoms such as allergic reactions or breathing issues. 

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, there is some evidence that the essential oils used in aromatherapy may help you cope with some of the emotional and psychological effects of living with cancer. Aromatherapy may help lower stress and anxiety, promote relaxation, improve sleep and even help relieve depression for short periods of time when used with massage.  

While more research is needed, it’s important to consult your healthcare team before starting any aromatherapy regimen. And as with all ingredients, integrity matters. For more info. on aromatherapy benefits, read up on them here

So What Can I Use?  

If you are worried about the effects that fragrance is having on your health, consult your doctor for guidance as to what is evidence-based and what isn’t. To be better informed, shop for products that meet your needs, such as organic or isn’t included in Environmental Defense’s Toxic 10.  

We’ve partnered with Well.ca on some everyday essential-use picks, from detergent to deodorant, that are fragrance-free. 

Puracy Natural Laundry Detergent
Kristin Ess Daily Cleansing Shampoo
Live Clean Deodorant
J.R. Watkins Moisturizing Lotion
Attitude Mineral Sunscreen


Thanks to technology, we can all be better educated about the products we’re putting on our skin. Here are some great apps for looking up your favourite products. 

EWG’s extensive Skin Deep database rates products on a 1-10 scale (the lower the better!) that rates hazards levels (like endocrine disruptors, skin irritants, carcinogens and eco toxicity) based on available scientific data. They even have their own verification, EWG VERIFIED, which indicates that the product meets EWG’s strictest standards for transparency and health. 

The Think Dirty app is Canadian and allows you to scan the barcode of a product with your phone (or you can just search for it by name) and then rates the product on a scale of 1-10 based on its chemical content. Each ingredient listed on the product label is evaluated for documented evidence of carcinogenicity, developmental and reproductive toxicity and or allergenicity and immunotoxicity.  

For more beauty articles, click here 

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