Updated: Apr 19
I’ve realized that my biggest occupational hazard as a massage therapist is coming into contact with the products my clients wear on their bodies. The most bothersome to me are the chemicals known as perfume and fragrances. I try to use the best quality, all natural products on my body and in my home. Yet every massage I give exposes me to what could be dozens of different chemicals disguised as “fragrance” in personal care products.
“But I don’t wear perfume!” Laundry detergents, body lotions, cosmetics, hand sanitizers, deodorant, hair products, air fresheners… are all products commonly containing fragrances.
Let me set the scene: A woman hops into the shower, the shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap, facial cleanser, shave cream and razor she uses all have at least one fragrance, probably more. She dries off with a fresh fluffy towel that was washed in detergent, treated with fabric softener, a dryer sheet and scent boosters. Each of those products adding more fragrances to the mix. She thinks she’s just washed herself when really she just doused herself in dozens of chemicals while her pores were wide open from the hot shower. She’s not done yet, though.
After the shower she applies moisturizer all over her skin with chemical fragrances. Antiperspirant - more chemicals. She puts on some eyeshadow, mascara, blush and lip
gloss… all of them have fragrances (I was horrified when I first noticed mascara had perfume in it! Why on earth do we need eyelashes to have a scent?!) The products in her hair all have a scent too. She puts on clothes that have been treated with the same chemicals as her towel. All the while she has a plug in air freshener in each room of her house and usually has at least one candle burning with her favorite seasonal fragrance. Now that she’s done getting ready, she sprays some perfume all over herself before she heads out the door.
I don’t mean to be alarmist, but I think it’s high time we all become aware of how dangerous these chemicals really are! Up until recently I would simply ask clients to refrain from wearing perfumes during sessions because I am sensitive to them. This is true, I often get headaches, a tingly cough or feel ill during and after giving a massage to someone wearing fragrance. However, these products cause so much more than just my personal discomfort, they are toxic chemicals and I strongly recommend eliminating them completely. Here are 5 reasons why:
1. Synthetic fragrances are known to cause Cancer - Particularly any fragrance that contains styrene, a known human carcinogen or cancer causing substance. Styrene is a chemical building block used in a multitude of household products including Styrofoam, cosmetics, cleaners and detergents. It’s hard to know what products contain styrene since it falls into a category of chemicals that can be listed simply as “fragrance” on labels. It's also found in cigarettes and car exhaust.
2. Fragrances are endocrine (hormone) disruptors - Hormones play an important role in nearly every process of the human body. Chemical fragrances can block or mimic the role of these hormones, creating a wide array of health problems including but not limited to: infertility, birth defects, sex organ abnormalities, immune function, nervous system function, metabolic issues, obesity, diabetes, neurological problems, growth & development issues, endometriosis, thyroid issues and so much more. If you suffer from any of these conditions, take a look at how many fragrances you encounter every day!
3. Toxic fragrances can cause Heart Disease - When absorbed into the bloodstream, these chemicals irritate the delicate lining of the blood vessels known as endothelium. When chemicals and other toxins irritate or damage the lining, it creates tiny abrasions or cuts that become inflamed. If the body is continually exposed to these chemicals, the damage to the blood vessels and the process of inflammation never stops. The blood vessels begin to narrow as the sites of damage begin to build up with plaque which is basically tiny scabs where the body is trying to heal. This is called atherosclerosis which is the condition that can lead to Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, Peripheral Vascular Disease and High Blood Pressure. For more information on this, I highly recommend the book by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride MD called “Put Your Heart in Your Mouth”. It’s a quick and easy read packed with eye opening information.
4. Perfumes overwhelm the nervous system - In today’s world, our nervous system is inundated with a tremendous amount of stimuli and I believe this is a source of many health and behavior problems. Our 5 senses are extensions of our nervous system, always helping us to navigate the outside world by receiving information. With some stimuli remaining constant, the nervous system never gets a break. Here are some examples of how each sensory organ is bombarded every day in the life of an average person.
Scent: Synthetic perfumes are hyper stimulating to our scent receptors. Laundry, personal care items, household cleaners, plug in air fresheners and scented candles all deliver a steady stream of fragrance. These perfumes permeate clothing, hair and everything in your house! I’ve received gifts for my baby that I had to wash or air out simply because the book or stuffed animal smelled so badly of perfume just from being in someone’s house!
Sight: Blue light from electronics, cell phones, tablets and screens. Bright lights from LED bulbs. Street lights and outdoor flood lights. Our brain might never get a break! When eyesight is continually inundated with these bright white and blue lights it can cause a number of issues including insomnia since the brain may think it’s always daytime.
Sound: Sounds from roads or busy streets, noise from the TV that’s always on, sound machines, electronics and even music can cause near constant sound input. Whenever I turn off the sound machine in my office, even though it’s usually ocean waves, it still feels great to get a break from the constant noise!
Taste: Processed foods are what I call “hyper palatable”. This means that they are developed specifically to deliver the perfect hit of sugar, salt or a particular “mouth feel” that makes you come back for more and more without ever hitting your limit. Before you know it, you’ve finished the whole package and that is exactly what companies like Nabisco actually research and develop in their food to make them addictive. Kids foods, if you can even call them “food”, are particularly hyper palatable. If the only thing you eat is processed, fast foods you’ll lose taste for whole foods and their more subtle flavors and textures.
Touch: This is where things take a turn. While all the other senses are bombarded all day every day, humans in today’s society are typically lacking in input from touch. We are a touch starved society. Unless you belong to a family who is affectionate or “huggy”, a vast majority of people are not touched beyond their hand or forearm on a regular basis. Another reason why massage therapy and therapeutic touch is so important!
5. Many people are allergic or become physically ill from fragrance - “But perfume doesn’t bother me! I would feel naked without it” I really can’t tell you how many times I have hugged someone and immediately gotten a headache or felt ill from their perfume. The worst part is it lingers on my clothes and body all day until I can get home and change. Sometimes I even have to shower to get the smell off. One hug can ruin a whole day and that sucks because the world needs more hugs! I’m not the only one this happens to, in fact I know a lot of people who have the same experience. Wearing perfume pollutes the air of everyone around you, whether you are bothered by it or not.
I wonder why we humans feel the need to use so many scents and fragrances? What’s so bad about our natural smells anyway? I would say that it is a very rare and extreme situation for someone’s body odor to bother me so much that it stays with me all day. However, almost any time I’m in public, I encounter some synthetic perfume that makes me ill.
In massage therapy there is a technique known as “the pause that refreshes”. It’s a moment of breaking contact with the client in order for their body to integrate the work. I find that this carries into life as well. A vacation or even a short break can also be the pause that refreshes! In the case of nervous system stimuli, I think it’s important to take a break from these sources of constant stimulus, otherwise it can cause problems. If you’re encountering a lot of fragrance in your day to day, you probably won’t notice it much since your receptors are burned out. If you cut back or switch to more natural scents you may notice that perfumes and fragrances start to bother you too. I used to have a favorite body spray that I wore all through high school and college. Since I stopped wearing it and have done some detox, I can’t stand the smell anymore!
This small list of reasons to avoid fragrance is likely just the tip of the iceberg. I imagine in time we will discover even more health problems that arise from these insidious chemicals.
My hope is that people grow in awareness when it comes to the chemical load in their lives, not just fragrances. There are thousands of chemicals on the market today despite the serious health problems they cause. Placing regulations on these products can unfortunately take years so don’t assume that every product on the market is safe! This is why it’s important to be proactive about protecting your health and the health of your loved ones. Your health is very much in your own hands!
How about you? Do you have a sensitivity to perfume? Do you have any stories of how someone’s fragrance impacted you? I’d love to hear about it!