Live a more natural life, a more organic life, eat fresh produce, use natural products...it all sounds totally desirable and, well, common sense, doesn't it. Who wouldn't want to be able to say "I'm doing the very best I can for my health and my children's future"? Eco-awareness is indeed a most significant and noble cause. But to leap from this to an evangelical Dr.Kellog persuasion, often removed from solid scientific facts, or -worse yet- just brushing on them for added conviction, veers into a crusade for sanitation of everyday life which tends to deprive people of the small pleasures left us in favor of an ultimately unattainable goal shimmering with promise in a future that is uncertain. But let's take things at the top. The other day an article called "Secret Scents: The Hidden Chemicals in Fragrance" came to my attention thanks to a popular forum. It was posted in the best of intentions for fume enthusiasts who are interested in such stuff. The problem is the article is misleading. I mean, totally.
|The Women film still (1939) via themotionpicture.net|
Browsing the site on which the article was published I came across some interesting preliminary insights. The host is Maria Rodale's blog, who I found out is the CEO of Rodale Publishing -who issue Men's Health, Prevention and other titles in the same vein. There is even a book authored by Maria called "The Organic Manifesto", from what I can see; I can't tell you much on it though as I'm afraid to click on the title, lest I'm blinded by the earnestness. Let it be said in passing that anyone who posts in their personal blog statement "If you've made it to this blog, you're on the right track" with Messianic vapors of self-importance has my credibility antennae lurching wildly. But apparently they're dead serious about it! (check out The Rodale Story link on the bottom of the page) I have read some of their magazines, which are rather nicely put together, if a bit too focused on how to attain a specific ideal which might -just might- not be everyone's ideal. Anyway, I'd love to be proven wrong on the Messianic shades.
Apparently the article is NOT written by Maria Rodale who is merely hosting it (and therefore I assume she approves of it) but by Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth. This was the first mental "uh huh" I did. Especially when I read this statement on their site: "This bill will ensure that personal care and salon products are free from toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm." The reason? Simply put, the natural sensibility of women, especially towards the care-giving and nurturing role they -for better or worse- emulate in our society, is unfortunately very often channeled into crusades of goals that are peppered with half-digested truths and half-truths period (and I'm coming to that shortly). Perhaps the classic men's -though not restricted to men!- "no suffering fools gladly" attitude would be nice to surface from time to time to actually challenge and put things into perspective, even if it veers into the boorish and frat mentality. As women we tend to sometimes be over-considerate of others' feelings, I find, and in issues that have to do with information circulating on the Net this might do more harm than good. But I digress.
Furthermore, I read that Alexandra "Prior to working at WVE, she worked in the epidemiology and statistics unit at the American Lung Association headquarters in New York. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and a BA from Amherst College." This also gives me an insight on how the data and the viewpoint are formed. I realize that we're dealing with someone who has a focus on the environmental issues rather than the medical profession. This is totally legit and I respect it as long as the article would adhere to presenting things via that prism (but it doesn't, which is my whole point).
My deduction is the article is misleading, written from an "expert's" viewpoint addressed to a lay(wo)man, which makes it particularly dangerous (and if you browse some of the other articles you might see the same): it's easy to take it as gospel, reproduce it via social media, email and just plain linking, to the point that it catches on like wild fire and becomes THE truth due to overexposure and repetition. I'm not in a million years suggesting there is some Goebbelsian intent of spreading lies or half- truths. No. They seem like perfectly nice people and with a noble intention in their heart of hearts no doubt (It sells magazines too, but hey, that's totally legit and everyone does it). I'm just saying that in their earnestness and oversimplification in this particular article the author/editors are doing a disservice to the public.
I'm going to really dissect this with a scalpel below, so bear with me (it's long but worth it, even if I say so myself).
NB. The different font is meant to differentiate the quotes taken off the article.
"Have you ever used a scented product that resulted in itchy, red, or blotchy skin? Or have you had a rash that’s hard to predict or control that you suspect might be caused by products in your home?"
Itchy, red or blotchy skin can be a sign of too many things. Products in your home might be a hundred different things, from detergents to insecticides to dishwashing liquid to actual foodstuff. But the article talks about "fragrance" and specifically shows a perfume bottle forcing a mental connection.
"Millions of people in the U.S. have been sensitized to ingredients in fragrance, making them predisposed to allergic reactions like contact dermatitis. In fact, “fragrance allergy” is one of the most common diagnoses among dermatology patients."
Major fallacy: skin sensitisation is not synonymous with allergies and contact dermatitis is usually not an allergy per se (most of the cases belong to "irritant contact dermatitis"). An allergy is a disruption of the functionality of the immune system and is much graver than those simple symptoms mentioned above. You can see how it leads the reader into thinking they have developed something "serious" though, can't you?
There are then some statistics presented (obviously Scranton's expertise) :
"Up to 11 percent of the population is sensitized to fragrance".
All right, I'm willing to believe that. I have no way to refute it anyway.
"Women are two to three times more likely than men to be allergic to fragrance".
Uh huh. Please see my argument above. (It is inferred subconsciously that it is because more women than men use fragrances. But as the author states herself previously it just might be "caused by products in your home")
"Rates of skin allergies in children have risen dramatically over the past few decades."
Illogical argument. They have, because children are now screened for allergies whereas it was not customary before, because the tests have become much more sensitive and because the environment as a whole has been aggravated (including the air that we breathe).
"Billions of healthcare dollars are spent each year in the U.S. for treatment of these skin conditions".
True. But I suspect that this is actually encouraged by the pharmaceutical companies.
"Chemicals used in fragranced products—such as phthalates—have been associated with reduced sperm count and reproductive problems."
So is soy and hormones in chicken meat and a hundred other things, but you don't see that kind of holier-than-thou attitude in the projects against them, do you? Besides phthalates are used in plasticizers, so it is the plastic packaging and the plasticizer in lotions and creamy products and deodorants and not the fragrance compound itself (the raw material off the perfumer's lab counter) that is at fault.
"A fragrance can be made up of dozens or even hundreds of different chemicals."
Newsflash: EVERYTHING is made up of different chemicals! Chemical molecules are the building blocks of our universe. If the word "chemicals" hadn't gained such a skewed and faulty meaning, we'd be having a real conversation. Natural substances like rose oil, the coffee we drink every day and even organic milk and organic cotton are made up of chemical ingredients. I often review perfumes made of only natural essences, sometimes even organically produced. They're also built up of chemical ingredients, no less natural because of it. Chemicals as related to chemistry, please note, not as "man-made". But you see where I'm going.
"Among these chemicals are numerous known allergens such as geraniol, eugenol, citronellol."
True. And these are perfectly legible ON the fragrance box or the personal care product for all to read. There's really no excuse! If you know you're sensitized to one of them, stop using it for Pete's sake; don't force us all to not have the option of having it around, just because you don't like it.
Here is where it begins to go seriously skewed and faux medi-savvy:
"Additionally, several hazardous chemicals can be found in fragrance: phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive harm; synthetic musks, which may alter hormone levels; and cancer-causing chemicals like styrene and methyl eugenol. But you won’t find these ingredients listed on product labels—you’ll just see the word “fragrance.”
Well, re: phthalates see above. Regarding musks, Scranton can be excused for not knowing about the latest musks used in the industry. Let me assure you I do, however and my data and credentials are clearly posted. In fact I have a detailed article about synthetic musks on these pages pinpointing any concern. It's easily Googleable too, so again there's no excuse. As to styrene and methul euegenol, I might bore you if I zoomed in on both, so let's just take methyl eugenol as a point of deconstructing the argument.
Methyl eugenol has been found to be related to carcinogenesis in lab rats. This does not necessarily mean that it would induce the same reactions and follow the same pathways for humans, as is common lab knowledge, and besides lab rats receive an inordinate amount of the suspect ingredient to monitor the reactions. What's more methyl eugenol is found in several natural essential oils too, and in actual foodstuff, such as in pimento, laurel, tarragon, fennel etc. Should we stop eating all these things? It's also found in high doses in tea tree oil, which had been hailed as THE natural remedy for everything a few years ago (remember?) by all the Mother Earth types. [Nothing wrong with the latter, just correlating the manipulative correlation]. Cancer on the other hand has been increasingly found out to be a genetic predisposition, meaning if you have the gene & pathway for a specific type you're almost bound to get it no matter how much you avoid "triggers" and vice versa. (I have a biologist relative in research at an esteemed institution, I'm not making this up). This is for instance why women with the gene for breast cancer and a history of it in the family sometimes elect for a preventative mastectomy, I'm told (This has been covered in several "health and fitness" magazines in the US as I recall).
Additionally, it is to our (consumers') benefit and just as a precaution that the International Fragrance Association and the cosmetics & fragrances controlling bodies such as the CSSC are setting very specific ratios of suspect ingredients in the formula; for methyl eugenol, for instance, the limit is set at 0.002% in the fragrance compound, i.e. that means it is FURTHER diluted after that for ready-made fragrances! You'd have to actually drink the fragrance by the gallon for some time to even come close to the quantities used in lab rats and to have it built in your tissues.
"[..]you can almost never tell whether a particular fragrance might contain an allergen or toxic chemical that affects you".
As stated above, yes, yes you can, actually. The allergens are clearly listed on perfume packaging by law since 2000.
"One option is to choose fragrance-free products".
If only there were more available! I'm myself here stating that in my opinion the over-saturation of our daily life with too many scented products is a problem. It won't be solved as long as added scent is a functional necessity (see below) or seen as a sales vantage point. In order to really bring change in that area one needs to push the argument that too much added scent in household products is in fact repelling and would diminish sales. (Why should my floor cleaner smell of peaches?)
"Even 'unscented' products may contain fragrance ingredients as 'masking agents' to neutralize the inherent smell of other ingredients in the product".
Indeed. "Unscented" in fact is no guarantee there are no added aromatic compounds, in fact they invariably are because the inherent scent of so many ingredients would be insupportable otherwise. Still, if among those masking agents there is a known allergen/skin sensitizer the manufacturer is again required by law to state it in the label.
There is then another statistics list of common products with added scent. I'm not refuting those either. The article closes with the wish for more allergens being disclosed (rest assure, Alexandra, they are, and at an increasing pace, if you follow our IFRA & perfumery restrictions posts here), that safer substitutes for the "toxic chemicals" are introduced (ditto) and the plea to fill out a petition or such. Not surprised here; there would be no point in not proposing "action", the whole premise was a polemic from the very start.
Bottom-line: Even if beginning on a noble founding block, after a certain point this kind of "picketing" rhetoric becomes unsupported & self-fed. A life almost fascistically devoid of some little pleasures is a life not worth living. You might get to reach a 100, but would that be a good thing? It reminds me of the old joke about a man going to his doctor and asking "If I don't smoke, don't eat fatty food, don't drink and don't fuck around, will I get to reach 100?" To which the doctor replies "It's doubtful, but it would certainly feel that way".
If overpopulation is the gravest problem of our planet right now, from which other malaise stems out, perhaps our individual vices are a small bolt in the grander evolution scheme. My little perfume use hobby is small potatoes compared to the aggravation of the planet. I use it in my own home and on myself and I won't impose it on you if you don't come within my personal space. And if you convince me you do have a medical problem with it, rather than just use it as a put down because it's so easy to, I will considerately adjust my use.
I realize that after this article I won't be very popular with the Rodale people (or even some readers) and that my thesis can be deemed long & boring, plus that I'm using a personal space to deconstruct someone's argument here instead of taking it there; but that's democracy to you and the restraints of the commentary function on most web platforms. At least no one can accuse me of being populist or sycophantic. You can bet there will continue to be discourse as long as people are willing to argue the finer points in a smart and civilized way.