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Scented vs. Unscented Products

By HHI Staff

The odors given off by personal-care preparations and home cleaning products can arise from several sources within each item. For example, some products have a particular smell because of the basic ingredients used in them: “Almondy” is the predominate smell of almond-oil skin lotion while “citrusy” describes the odor of citrus-solvent cleaners. However, most products today also contain very concentrated natural and/or synthetic scents. These fragrances usually have absolutely nothing to do with product effectiveness. Rather, their purpose is to create an intentionally conspicuous atmosphere, or ambiance, surrounding their use.


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What Are Scents?

Scents are often defined as aromatic compounds obtained from plants and other substances. Generally, their unifying characteristic is their capacity to be readily noticed, to linger, and to spread. Scents in concentrated forms (such as essential oils), as well as perfumes, magnify these traits.

Many experts believe that scents were aromatic substances that were originally connected with sacred ritual ceremonies. However, in time they became popular for secular and personal uses. Surprisingly, far from being an ancient phenomenon, what we now know as perfume (essential oils and other ingredients diluted in alcohol) did not make its appearance until fourteenth-century Hungary. Soon afterward, perfume quickly became popular among the nobility and well-to-do. This may have been partially due to the lifestyle common in that era—one in which bathing was generally infrequent. Perfume may have provided a more appealing atmosphere than unwashed human bodies.

Eventually, the use of perfume and perfumed products expanded to the middle classes. By the end of the nineteenth century, fragrances were a part of many women’s feminine wardrobe along with fine clothing and jewelry. Fragrance use has since expanded dramatically—especially since the creation of cheap, artificial scents. Scents (either naturally derived or synthetic) are now added to nearly all manufactured cosmetics, toiletries, and cleaning products.

Natural Essential Oils and Perfumes
Until relatively recently, virtually all perfumes and scented products used naturally derived essential oils. The adjective essential refers to the medieval alchemist’s belief that these extracts were the very essence of certain plants. Since that time, chemists have scientifically analyzed essential oils. They’re actually complex organic compounds—mostly mixtures of particular hydrocarbons known as terpenes.

To extract essential oils, steam distillation is commonly used. In this procedure, volatile compounds evaporate from plant materials (leaves, flowers, bark, seeds, roots, or wood) in the presence of hot vapor and then condense in water. Further processing removes this water, leaving a highly concentrated essential oil. Today, there are approximately two hundred commercially produced essential oils. Three very popular ones are orange blossom, jasmine, and rose.

The perfumes of the past, and the natural ones of today, not only contain essential oils but also other ingredients derived from nature. These may include some resins (plant solids or semisolids that don’t readily evaporate) and animal substances such as civet (cat scent), musk (deer scent), castor (beaver scent), and ambergris (sperm-whale intestinal secretions). Other possible ingredients are balsams, which are fragrant fluids from certain tree species. Perfumes also usually have fixatives which help bind all these components together and equalize their evaporation rates. By the way, some fixatives are the same previously mentioned fragrant plant resins and animal ingredients; it isn’t unusual for a substance to serve dual purposes within a perfume’s formula.

Once a satisfactory blend of essential oils, resins, and animal substances is achieved, it’s then diluted with alcohol, chilled, filtered, and aged. Perfume has the highest concentration of non-alcohol ingredients, while cologne has a lower concentration. The lowest concentration of non-alcohol ingredients is in toilet water.

Synthetic Scents and Perfumes


Today, natural scents are generally being replaced by synthetic ones. These man-made substitutes are used in everything from pine-tree car deodorizers and kitchen garbage bags, to the most exquisite designer perfumes. No longer associated with special ritual, religion, wealth, or even sexual seduction, cheap synthetic scents, and products using them, are now virtually omnipresent.

For the most part, synthetic scents have existed for only about a hundred years. However, since the first ones were created, a synthetic fragrance (and flavor) industry has developed and expanded rapidly. The reason is simple—the cost savings of producing synthetics, compared to finding, growing, gathering, and processing naturally aromatic ingredients into essential oils is enormous. A pound of natural ingredients (tuber rose for example) can cost as much as four thousand times more than a pound of a synthetic version.

Today, with gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy, scientists can map out the chemical structures of almost any natural ingredient. With this information, they’re then able to create close copies by manipulating simple organic-molecule building blocks. These builder molecules are often originally derived from petroleum. Once a prototype for a synthetic essence has been achieved, it can be duplicated on a commercial basis. Although some natural aromas cannot yet be synthesized, other natural fragrances continue to be analyzed and simulated. Two popular laboratory creations are synthetic wild cherry (benzaldehyde) and synthetic rose (B-phenylethyl alcohol). These two fragrances have relatively simple formulations, but many synthetic scents contain hundreds of individual components. Interestingly, some of the newer scents no longer attempt to mimic natural ones. Instead, they convey such intangibles as fresh and clean.

Even if you just consider women’s fine bottled perfumes, it’s likely that many of them contain at least some synthetic scents—no matter what the price tag. In fact, they may also contain synthetic fixatives and other man-made additives such as methyl ethyl ketone, formaldehyde, etc. These synthetic components are often considered, by the fragrance industry, to be safe, but a number of them have already been shown to have negative health effects. Unfortunately, the truth is, many modern scent and perfume ingredients have had only minimal toxicity testing—or none at all.

Problems with Scents


Anymore, the majority of Americans accept fragrances as a part of daily life. A growing number of people feel that scents are not only pleasurable, but beneficial. Popular therapies now focus on applying certain aromatic oils to the body or heating particular fragrant oils so they’ll evaporate into the room air to be inhaled. “Aromatherapy” has become big business. Yet, there is another side to fragrances and scents that needs to be seriously considered. That is, while most people are not aware of any ill effects, any natural or synthetic odor has the capacity to be unpleasant or irritating—at least to some people. A survey taken in North Carolina found that 4% of the population admitted that perfumes and other scented products “made them feel sick.”

Certain fragrances, aromas, and perfumes can actually provoke allergic or asthmatic responses. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported that perfume-provoked respiratory symptoms are experienced by 72% of all asthmatics. And a great many people with MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) also report that they, too, experience negative reactions when they inhale scents and perfumes. But that’s still not the full extent of the possible ill effects from being exposed to fragrances.

In “Patient Education: Scents Make No Sense” in the Fall 1991 issue of The Environmental Physician, author Irene Ruth Wilkenfeld wrote that in 1989 The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recognized 884 of 2,983 substances (both naturally and synthetically derived) used in the fragrance industry as toxic. Some of these ingredients actually act as neurotoxins—that is, they’re capable of harming the central nervous system. For example, linalool (a clear fragrant terpene alcohol compound obtained from several types of essential oils) has been reported to cause ataxic gait (an abnormal stride due to loss of muscle coordination in the extremities) and depression. Methyl ethyl ketone (a colorless, flammable solvent that’s commonly synthesized) has the capacity to induce stupor and unconsciousness. Cyclohexanol (a clear flammable synthesized solvent with a peppermint-like odor) can inhibit motor activity and instigate spasms, and generally depresses the central nervous system.

Anderson Laboratories, Inc. (an independent research company), decided to perform testing to determine what effects, if any, four colognes and one toilet water made with these types of ingredients, would produce in mice inhaling them. Sadly, the results consistently showed that the mice experienced irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs and that there was decreased air flow in their lungs as in asthmatic attacks. The research also revealed that a number of the mice had neurotoxic symptoms such as loss of balance and abnormal gait. Worse, some of the mice tested actually died. These results were eventually published in a peer-review scientific journal. (Note: Copies of this article, as well as a video of the mouse/fragrance test, can be purchased from Anderson Laboratories, Inc.)

While the majority of people have not been obviously or severely impacted from being exposed to perfume and fragrance ingredients, it is also probably true that increasing numbers of people are being affected by them—at least to some lesser degree. In any case, many of the compounds used in scents and perfumes don’t appear to be innately safe or healthy for humans.

As fragrances and scented products have become more popular (it has been estimated that the average consumer now uses about twenty scented personal-care items each day), the interiors of our homes have been absorbing more of these potentially bothersome (and/or illness provoking) odors. Unfortunately, fragrances which are inherently designed to quickly spread are often extremely difficult to remove from skin, hair, walls, floors, and furnishings. It’s no wonder then that the term ineluctable has been applied to the use of scents. This big word conveys the simple idea that fragrances are now virtually impossible to evade—at least totally. By the way, many people don’t realize that some of the various scent ingredients can actually chemically interact with each other—creating new, totally unplanned synthetic compounds. No one can even guess what health effects these compounds could ultimately induce.

Interestingly, negative sensory and aesthetic consequences are seldom, if ever, discussed as problems associated with perfumes and scents—but from all indications they should be. Because fragrances can be found nearly everywhere all the time, many people are unable to perceive that a background of perfume and scent odors is even present. Surrounded and saturated by no-longer-discernible odors, some individuals (usually women, but increasingly men) feel they must apply large amounts of bottled perfume to their bodies in order to know they even have it on. The resulting wafting odor is often unpleasantly strong to those people who have been trying to avoid scents, or at least minimize their exposure to them. By the way, the intensity of their perfumes would probably be unpleasantly strong to those same perfume wearers if they, too, were trying to avoid using or being around scented products for a few weeks and re-acquired their normal sense of smell.

Also, from an aesthetic standpoint, being constantly in the presence (consciously or unconsciously) of scents could tend to diminish some of life’s special moments. For example, being in the presence of a magnificent blooming lavender bush or at the edge of a pounding ocean could be sensed just as “nice” smells amid the ever-present daily barrage of other “nice” smells—from hand lotion, eye shadow, bath beads, shampoo, deodorant, fabric softener, dishwasher detergent, window cleaner, and toilet tissue. As a result, real-world events can be lost or at least watered down by the banal and contrived olfactory experiences of everyday life.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are individuals who have decided they’d like to avoid the many scents to which others have grown accustomed. This decision is often reached when they find their own personal health has been (and usually continues to be) seriously affected by fragrances. Unfortunately, it requires real determination to limit scent and perfume exposure—especially in situations outside your own home. The truth is, you probably will have very little control over what products are used in public buildings, public transportation, other dwellings, or on other people. Even within your own residence, if you decide to create a scent-free environment, it’ll take a great deal of resolve and personal commitment. However, it can be done—and using unscented personal-care and cleaning products is key to doing this. Therefore, before buying, making, or using any personal-care preparation or cleaning product, seriously consider the probable odor consequences.

Scent-Free and Hypoallergenic Products


Today, people who find scents and perfumes bothersome or intolerable often try name-brand toiletries and cleaning products labeled scent-free or fragrance-free. Usually such items have formulas similar to the standard varieties, but they contain no scent additives. However, many name-brand, scent-free laundry products are exactly the same as regular formula products with the addition of a masking fragrance to counter the odor of the original scent. For many individuals, these types of low-odor products are quite acceptable alternatives.

In addition, complete product lines of specially created hypoallergenic cosmetic and personal-care items are available. In most cases, however, only the most commonly allergenic substances are left out of these formulations—ingredients such as fragrances and/or lanolin. Unfortunately, sometimes other ingredients remain that many people would consider undesirable. Both scent-free versions of conventional products, as well as those labeled hypoallergenic, often contain many synthetic compounds.
(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)


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Scented vs. Unscented Products:  Created on September 30th, 2007.  Last Modified on March 26th, 2012


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