“Ring-a-ring o’ roses…”…or saying “No!” to fragrance. October 08 2014, 0 Comments


There goes my brain again searching for relevant facts in the memory bank. Up popped the old nursery rhyme chanted endlessly during childhood play:

“Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
 A pocket full of posies,
 A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
 We all fall down.”

It wasn’t until adult years that I read that the rhyme is referenced to the Bubonic Plague in England during the 17thC…who would have ever thought! The “Ring-a-ring o’ roses” refers to the rosy red, round rash symptomatic of the plague, and the “posies” refers to the belief that filling one’s pockets and pouches with fragrant herbs would prevent the spread of the disease…believed to be transmitted by bad smells. So began our pre-occupation with fragrances thereafter.

Fragrance compounds are generally added to products to conceal the unpleasant odours of the ingredients, or to tantalise our olfactory senses to encourage sales. Regulations do not require fragrance compounds to be identified in detail- but rather appear as a generalised listing as an ingredient, such as fragrance, fragrances, parfum or parfumes in Australia. Requirements vary with the country of origin for imported products.

Approximately 4,000 fragrance chemicals are commonly used in perfumed commercial items- from cosmetics through to household cleaning products. Only about 800 of those chemicals have actually been tested for toxicity- either alone, or in combination with others. They can be derived from natural sources or chemical synthesis. However, 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. ‘Fragrance’ has become a catch-all term applied to an assortment of ingredients that can be added by manufacturers without redress- under the banner of protected ‘secret ingredients/formulas’.

Some fragrance chemicals alter the skin’s surface tension- then impacting on the permeability of other chemicals into the skin. None of these associated interactions have been studied to any extent. Fragrances contain large amounts of phthalates, which are a group of toxic chemicals known to be hormone disruptors. Phthalates are used to suitably blend and fix other ingredients. They have been linked to allergic responses (both skin and respiratory responses), damaging DNA structure, infertility, birth defects, cancer and thyroid disorders. Of the people tested for the presence of phthalates in their urine, all tested positive.

As fragrance compounds can be absorbed, ingested or inhaled during exposure, their effect on the body is difficult to quantify…possibly affecting any part of the body. Here is a list of the most commonly used fragrance compounds that have been proven to be problematic in physical responses, and are required to be identified in ingredients listings: Acetone, Benzaldehyde, Benzyl Acetate, Benzyl Alcohol, Camphor, 1,8-Cineole, b-Citronellol, Cocoamide DEA, Ethanol, Ethyl Acetate, Eugenol, Geraniol, Hexyl Cinnamal, Limonene, Linalool, Methyllene Chloride, b-Myrcene, Nerol, Ocimene, a-Pinene, b-Phenethyl Alcohol, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, g-Terpinene, a-Terpineol. Whew…only another 4,000 odd to go to make the list!

A skin contact fragrance allergy will usually manifest itself in the form of red bumps, blisters, itchiness and blotchiness of the skin. Continued exposure to the allergen can lead to chronic dermatitis. Allergic contact dermatitis is now quite common amongst children. Eczema has increased as a skin condition worldwide in the last decade. Allergic and non-allergic asthma, and reactive airway dysfunction syndrome have increased dramatically, and attacks are often induced by exposure to fragrances…72% of asthmatics citing fragrance as a trigger to an attack. Asthma is now the leading serious chronic illness amongst our youth.

Unfortunately, fragrance compounds are rarely investigated as the cause of a skin irritation…because it is too vast an area to open the lid on. The simplest way to identify fragrance compounds as a cause of irritation is to eliminate it from products being used, by buying fragrance free products. We have a voice as consumers to send a loud and clear message to manufacturers by boycotting synthetically fragranced products. If we don’t, the practice will continue, and continue to grow at an alarming rate of untested use- with approximately 1,000 new chemicals being introduced into industry every year.

We consciously chose not to add fragrance compounds to our organic soaps. We endeavour to produce as irritant free a skin care product as possible- to be used with confidence by those suffering various skin sensitivities.

We do not know enough about the effect of fragrance chemicals on our bodies…yet their use is sanctioned in products by regulatory bodies/Government. We assume that commercially available products are deemed safe for our use…yet this is not so. Let’s look at some of those statistics again- only 800 fragrance chemicals out of 4,000 currently being used in products have actually been tested.

Back to the significance of the nursery rhyme. Through ignorance at the time, it was assumed that enamouring oneself with fragrant herbs would act as a defence mechanism against the Bubonic Plague. Unpleasant smells became unacceptable, and later, the trend to fragrance oneself became fashionable. Some versions of the rhyme substitute “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” with “Ashes! Ashes!” This variation is believed to refer to the mass cremations of the dead body toll of the Bubonic Plague.

Hmm…can I dare to compare the carnage from the Bubonic Plague to the growing impact of our commercially fragrance saturated lives…an unnecessary epidemic from progressive chemical exposure? Might we just “…all fall down.” before some control is manifested over the fragrance industry? Reduce the chemical burden on your body from personal care products…say “No!” to fragrance whenever possible.