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  • Writer's pictureSecond Opinion Magazine

Overhaul Your Scents Sense

by Yael Grauer

Artificial scents put into most of our cleaning and beauty products these days reek havoc not only on your sense of smell, but our environment. Get smart about the perfumes in your life.

The sense of smell is arguably the strongest, with fragrances being linked to events and emotions in our deepest memories. In fact, smell is one of our earliest senses, belonging to our limbic system or olfactory brain. Scents can release some very pleasant neurotransmitters such as endorphins and serotonin.

Sadly, our glorious sense of smell is not all roses. Commercial scents can do a great deal of harm to both ourselves and our environment.

Phthalates are often included in perfumes and other substances that have scents added. These are endocrine disruptors that affect the body’s hormone system, many of which are listed as reproductive or developmental toxins by the state of California. Some phthalates (such as dibutyl and diethylhexyl) have been banned in cosmetics by the European Union. Although the US government has recently limited the use of pthlalates in baby toys, new research indicates that prenatal exposure is linked to neurodevelopmental issues leading to disruptive and problematic behaviors (such as aggressiveness, conduct disorders, and ADHD) in children aged four to nine. Previous research has indicated a link between phthalates and lower sperm motility in adult men, and birth defects in the reproductive systems of boys. The chemicals are found in plastics, cosmetics, and perfumes and lotions — but it is the latter that are most strongly related to neurodevelopment. And although members of the perfume industry says phthalates are safe in small doses, they are stored in the fat and stay in our bodies for a long time.

Sadly, phthalates are difficult to spot, as they are often hidden in the product’s “fragrance” ingredient, due to an FDA loophole that allows manufacturers to simply use the generic term to protect proprietary secrets. This is true not only in perfumes but also in lipsticks, mascaras, moisturizers and shampoos. Even products labeled as “unscented” can contain phthalates as part of a masking fragrance. Other chemicals can also be included, as the FDA does not systematically review the safety of fragrances, but instead lets the fragrance industry’s own trade association (the International Fragrance Association) regulate itself.

In addition to phthalates, synthetic fragrances can also include parabens (hormone disruptors), sodium laureth sulfate, or PEGS, often contaminated with dioxins. And of course there are other environmental factors to consider the vast majority of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. The U.S. National Academy of Science has also identified certain fragrance ingredients as neurotoxins, though systematic research to determine the safety of these ingredients has not been funded.

Musk scents are often found in perfumes, in the form of nitromusks and polycyclic musks. Both are unregulated, although they are linked to reproductive and fertility problems in women at high levels. These synthetic musks have been found in human fatty tissues, breast milk, and the umblicial cord blood of newborn babies. Synthetic musk has been found in rivers and wastewater, and preliminary research indicates that it may be harmful to aquatic life as well. Galaxolide and Tonalid are two trade names for musks, but they are often simply hidden in the “fragrance” ingredient.

So what’s a healthy and environmentally-conscious consumer to do?

1. Find safe products. Luckily, the Environmental Working Group has compiled an online database of safe cosmetics and personal care products, which can be searched for ingredients.

Some companies have even made a committment to create safer products by signing the Compact for Safe Cosmetics, thereby pledging to meet or exceed formulation standards and deadlines set by the European Union Cosmetics Directive (eliminating their products of chemicals known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation, and birth defects). These companies are listed on the site Skin Deep: Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database ( as well as The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (

2. Choose products with no added synthetic fragrances. Just look at the ingredient list and make sure “fragrance” is not listed on the label.

3. Buy products that use natural fragrances or essential oils. Or, buy your own essential oils to spruce up your new safe products. These oils are safe and green, and have the added benefit of their own medicinal properties. Just think, instead of using fragrances that cause harm, you can use fragrances that are healing!

Cautions: Because essential oils are extremely concentrated, do not apply them directly to the skin unless you’ve diluted them in a carrier oil (such as almond oil, grapeseed oil or even olive oil). Make sure to use organically produced essential oils to avoid pesticide residue. Do not ever ingest essential oils.

Some Scent Favorites
  1. Lemon balm, often called balm (botanically, melissa officianalis) is a wonderful herb often made into tea to cheer the spirit. The oil, which was written about by St. Hildegard of Bingen and used as far back as the 10th century, is extremely calming and revitalizing and good for stress, anxiety, and depression.

  2. Cedar (cedrus sp.) essential oil is extracted by steam distillation of the woodchips and sawdust of this amazing tree. Often used as a fragrance for men’s products, cedar is warming, harmonizing, and calming. It is excellent for aggression and anger masking fear or discontent.

  3. Eucalyptus (eucalyptus sp.) oil is great for breathing, and can be applied (in a carrier oil) directly to the chest or used as a steam. It is incredibly effective for asthma, bronchitis, colds and flu. Mentally, eucalyptus is stimulating, increasing concentration or helping with mental sluggishness or overload.

  4. Lavender (lavandula sp.) is one of the most popular essential oils, and for good reason. It has a light, sweet and flowery scent and aids with relaxation. Add just a few drops to a carrier oil and massage it into your temples for a headache, or simply let the scent waft over you for balancing and cleansing.

  5. Lemongrass (cymbopogon) is widely used in its country of origin, India, oil is refreshing and tonifying. It also works well as an insect repellant.

  6. Mint (mentha sp.) Add just a drop to your soap in a morning shower and you’ll definitely wake right up! Mint is as refreshing as it is stimulating, increasing concentration and memory. Be very careful, however, as many people are quite sensitive to this oil!

  7. Rosemary (rosmarinus officianalis) has been used since ancient times to aid in memory, with students in Greece and Rome wearing wreaths on their head while studying. One would do well by continuing in the tradition by trying the essential oil. Uplifting and strenghtening, this plant does indeed help stimulate the brain.

  8. Tea tree (melaleuca alternifolia) Although the scent is definitely an acquired one, one can’t deny tea tree oil’s immense benefit as an antiseptic. Tea tree oil has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, and can be used to treat infections such as athlete’s foot.

  9. Neroli Orange (citrus aurantium or citrus sinensis) is said to be named after Anna Maria de la Tremoille, the Princess of Nerole. The oil is tranquilizing, sweet, and strengthening. It is excellent for cramps, headaches, and digestion. The fruity scent is particularly useful for those who don’t care for flowery scents (like lavender) but could still use some calming and relaxation from a place of strength.

  10. Ylang ylang (canangium odoratum) means “flower of the flowers” in Malayan. The oil is derived from blossoms of the cananga tree and it is said to be used by newleywed couples in Indonesia. Flowery and exotic, ylang ylang is primarily known for its use as an aphrodisiac, though it can, of course, be used by individuals for its healing and balancing properties.


  1. The Complete Aromatherapy Handbook: Essential Oils for Radiant Health; Susanne Fischer-Rizzi; 1990

  2. Skin Deep: Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Safety Database

  3. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics

  4. Prenatal Exposure to Phthalates Affects Childhood Neurodevelopment

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