Fragrances are everywhere. Whether it is a perfume, air freshener, food, cosmetics, detergent, toy, or stationery, it is quite difficult to find products without fragrances in our daily life. However, most of the fragrances that we smell, such as cosmetics and household goods, are synthetic fragrances. Here, we want to talk about synthetic fragrances and give some facts you should know.
First, let’s find out what ‘aroma’ is. The ‘aroma’ that perfume companies manufacture is largely divided into: flavor which are added in food; and fragrance which are added into perfumes, cosmetics, and other household goods. The problem is that both flavors (which are edible) and fragrances are mostly synthetic fragrances. If we take orange juice as an example, you may feel that it is the natural scent from oranges, but in most cases, it has a synthetic fragrance (synthetic flavoring) added into it to further enhance the citrus scent of oranges. Then, where do synthetic fragrances come from? The raw materials of fragrances are classified into natural fragrances which come from natural materials, and synthetic fragrances which come from petroleum or coal. Yes, fragrances are made from oil.
How are synthetic fragrances made?
Synthetic fragrance is usually made by chemically processing the components extracted from petroleum and natural gas. About 4,000 kinds of synthetic fragrances have been developed to date, of which about 500-600 kinds are commonly used in the market.
How are synthetic fragrances indicated?
Even when there are dozens of synthetic fragrances combined, and even when these combinations are from different products, they are referred simply as fragrance or perfume in the ingredients label. Given this, even if the synthetic fragrance combination has a grapefruit scent or mango scent, it wouldn’t matter that it would be labelled under one ingredient name— ‘fragrance.’ You should reveal the actual ingredients hidden under the ingredient, ‘fragrance’. There is no way to know how many kinds of ingredients are included under this single ingredient. That is the reason why, as of 2017, EWG, a reputable non-profit environmental organization in the US, has been signing and supporting the campaign for cosmetic companies to reveal the ingredients hidden under the name ‘fragrance’.
Are synthetic fragrances harmful?
Synthetic fragrances hidden under one ingredient name was found to be more harmful to the human body than what we had initially thought. When you search ‘fragrance’ on EWG’s Skin Deep, the safety database for ingredients, it appears to have a safety rating of 8 (among 1-10 levels), which shows how harmful it is.
Phthalate - a hormone disruptor
According to EWG, countless of chemical fragrance ingredients and phthalates (hormone disruptions) that haven’t been tested for safety until now are included under ‘fragrance’ ingredients. Phthalates have the property to soften plastic, so it has been a controversial ingredient as it has been used in construction materials, such as flooring materials, wire covering materials, household goods, and even toys that children can be easily biten and chewed.
Present condition of phthalates
Since 2007, the EU has banned the use of phthalates in toys and baby products. In Korea, the Ministry of Environment has determined that phthalates are harmful to the body due to the environmental hormones that cause disruptions in the endocrine system of both humans and animals. Given this, the government has created a voluntary agreement on the restriction of phthalate use with related companies and have carried out activities to eliminate the use of phthalates since 2007. Regarding cosmetics, diethyl phthalates have been used as a type of solvent used to preserve fragrances longer and is known to affect the secretion of female hormones. In addition, according to EWG, these synthetic fragrances are associated with allergies, dermatitis, dyspnea, and latent effects on the reproductive system.
What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?
This is a generic term referring to hydrocarbon compounds that are volatile. It can be found in the air, water, and nature, and are also detected in cigarette smoke, automobiles, architectural interiors, chemically synthesized fibers, and other daily necessities. Since it is an umbrella term, it also includes components that are harmless to the human body, such as phytoncides, but they are normally used to refer to carcinogens that cause damage to the nervous system through skin contact or respiratory inhalation. Example of high-risk components include benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, ethylene, styrene, acetaldehyde, etc.
VOCs found in sanitary pads!
Another thing, remember how harmful VOCs were mentioned several times during the crisis last summer regarding sanitary pads? Do you remember how many times VOCs were mentioned last summer regarding sanitary pads issue? Did you know that VOCs are related to synthetic fragrances? In a dissertation published in the Environmental Impact Assessment Review of the US, it investigated the VOCs ingredients in consumer goods that have synthetic fragrances. According to the paper, it was found that an average of 17 VOCs per product were included in addition to synthetic fragrances in various consumer goods.
In the KBS Special ‘The Dangerous Secrets Behind Sweet Scents’ aired in October 2012, the number of VOCs detected in household products containing synthetic fragrance was measured. As compared with 8,847ppb of VOCs detected in the exhaust of vans, a high number of VOCs was found in daily necessities such as air fresheners and perfumes that have synthetic fragrance.
What can replace synthetic fragrances? We’ll take a look at natural fragrances and essential oils in Part 2.