Is Perfume Safe for the Environment?

Many beauty products have a hidden environmental impact, but does that even extend to perfume?

Perfume is not safe for the environment because it contains volatile organic compounds that contribute to global warming and impact indoor air quality. There’s a lot of concern around the ingredients that go into fragrances thanks to a regulatory loophole that allows brands to conceal what goes into them.

Instead of using perfume, you can try plant-based shower gels and soap or swap to eco-friendly and sustainable fragrance brands.

Does perfume cause global warming?

We all know that spray scents alone aren’t going to be a major cause of global warming.

But do we know the environmental impact of it?

Perfume accounts for a significant share of the cosmetics and personal care industry. It’s easy to forget that it doesn’t just account for products labeled perfume, but also any similar substance – including cologne and body spray – that gives a pleasant smell when applied to the body.

Even so, nobody expects eau de toilette to have a big impact on the environment… except it might.

Perfume is an air pollutant and contains potentially hazardous chemicals. All air pollutants affect global warming and with the number of fragrances sold every year, it’s clear that this impact is rising. It’s also predicted to rise even further – compound annual growth rates for the perfume industry range from 3.9% to 6.09% by 2025.

It’s near impossible to determine just how much perfume contributes to global warming, but there are some worrying studies on its status as an air pollutant.

Is perfume an air pollutant?

Spray scents emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when sprayed due to the synthetic ingredients found in many brands. While many ingredients may be listed on the box or bottle of the eau de toilette, many scented products will list ‘fragrance’ without specifying what the fragrance is or what it’s made from.

The ingredient ‘fragrance’ is usually the worst part of the product because there are no regulations checking what manufacturers are including in the fragrance.

A study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the emissions from products like perfumes and paints rival vehicles as a source of pollution.

Designed to evaporate, fragrances are worse at causing pollution because they spread into the air, while cars minimize the loss of gasoline to evaporation.

Unfortunately, most regulations on air pollution don’t address the secondary organic aerosols found in fragrances, instead focusing on mitigating ozone and other air toxins.

What happens when you spray perfume in the air?

When perfume is sprayed in the air, you create a mist of fragrant droplets with an ethanol/water mixture evaporating quickly. The fragrant compounds take longer to evaporate and form a vapor, diffusing in the air to spread the fragrance.

Every spray of fragrance contains VOCs which react with sunlight and the atmosphere, contributing to ozone pollution.

These VOCs can also cause indoor air quality to lower, potentially contributing to short-term and long-term health effects like headaches, irritation, discomfort, allergies, nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and more.

Are perfumes and body sprays hazardous to the environment?

Without knowing what ingredients go into making fragrances, it’s hard to know just how hazardous they are to the environment.

One of the most popular fragrances is Chanel No. 5. On the Chanel website, over 20 ingredients are listed, including ‘fragrance’.  By looking at this list, we can determine some of the hazards.

Benzyl benzoateModerate ecotoxicology to birds, low ecotoxicology to mammals, moderate ecotoxicology to fish.
Toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.
Benzyl salicylateToxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.
CoumarinHarmful if swallowed, causes damage to organs (especially liver) through prolonged or repeated exposure, potentially carcinogenic to humans.
May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways, very toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects, carcinogenic to mammals (unknown if carcinogenic to humans), causes liver damage to mammals.
Toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects.
Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethaneMay cause long-lasting harmful effects to aquatic life. Also known as avobenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreens, which can disrupt the endocrine system.
CI 19140 (Yellow 5)May cause allergy or asthma symptoms and/or breathing difficulties when inhaled

While these ingredients may be found in small amounts in the bottled perfume, manufacturing plants could potentially release large amounts into groundwater, waste streams, and the environment.

This is just one brand of perfume. With thousands of ingredients used each year to manufacture perfume, it’s worrying how many have adverse effects on the environment.

Are perfumes really toxic?

It’s hard to determine just how toxic perfumes can be because manufacturers hide the ingredients so much.

Manufacturers use ‘fragrance’ to describe the mixture of compounds used to create a particular scent, which could include tens, hundreds, or even thousands of different compounds. Nobody is regulating the compounds used, so if even one compound is carcinogenic only the manufacturer would know – and that’s not to mention how different compounds interact with one another.

In 2011, the National Toxicity Program found that styrene – a synthesized liquid from petroleum and natural gas by-products – was “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen”. The National Academy of Science’s National Research Council review confirmed in 2014 that there was credible evidence that exposure to styrene is associated with an increased chance of lymphohematopoietic cancers for manufacturing workers.

Yet even in 2022, styrene is listed on the ingredient transparency list hosted by The International Fragrance Association. It’s one of 3,224 fragrance ingredients.

While styrene in fragrances is unlikely to cause cancer in anyone who buys the product, it provides further reason to scrutinize what goes into the so-called “fragrance loophole”.

The fragrance loophole allows companies to hide the ingredients of their fragrances from competitors, hiding potentially hundreds of chemical ingredients used by the manufacturers. This allows brands to use cheap, synthetic chemicals that are more likely to be toxic or polluting.

Why is synthetic fragrance bad for the environment?

Synthetic fragrances are stronger and last longer than natural fragrances – they’re also generally cheaper. Despite these advantages, synthetic fragrances are largely worse for the environment because they’re non-biodegradable, often toxic to aquatic life, and potentially carcinogenic (whether to humans or animals).

Thousands of tons of synthetic fragrances are produced every year without much regulation.

A 2007 study found that synthetic fragrances known as polycyclic musks were showing up in breast milk. In 2011, a study in China found four synthetic musks in breast milk – two of these (musk ketone and HHCB (1,3,4,6,7,8-Hexahydro-4,6,6,7,8,8-hexamethylcyclopenta-gamma-2-benzopyran)) are on the IFRA transparency ingredient list.

Most synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum, which near-enough immediately rules them out as biodegradable.

What can you use instead of perfume?

Swapping out your fragrance might look different but there are alternatives to consider.

First, make sure to ask yourself why you use it in general. That will help you determine what alternative fits you best.

Common alternatives include:

If none of these options suit you, maybe you don’t need to give up perfume – just choose more eco-friendly brands.

How do you make perfume eco-friendly?

Perfumes can be eco-friendly, just like most cosmetics products. An eco-friendly fragrance should be plant-based, free from toxic chemicals, and responsibly sourced.

Some of the best eco-friendly perfumes are:

The best thing you can do to be eco-friendly with your perfume is to remember to reduce how much you use, swap to sustainable brands, and be aware of what you’re buying.

Which perfumes are not toxic?

If a perfume is labeled “fragrance-free” then it should be free of any synthetic fragrances. This doesn’t guarantee that it is non-toxic, but it does go a long way to reducing pollution and toxic emissions.

However, a perfume labeled “unscented” is almost certain to contain synthetic chemicals in order to mask odors. Otherwise, what would be the point of wearing it?

How to use less perfume

Some of the best ways to minimize your use of perfumes include:

  • Buying and using only as much as you need
  • Avoid “fragrance” or “parfum” in the ingredients list
  • Choosing “fragrance-free” scents
  • Reducing usage by ventilating rooms instead
  • Swapping to plant-based alternatives

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