When it comes to presenting yourself in public, one of the top concerns that many people worry about is body odor. I’m sure many of us have been given “the talk” during puberty and have been told how we have to start paying attention to how we smell. Even in middle school and high school, we’re bombarded with messages about how we have to do everything we can to make our body smell nice and pleasant like a field of wildflowers. During health class, our health/P.E. teachers never fail to mention how using deodorant is crucial for good hygiene. At the same time, girls are taught by both their friends and popular media to incorporate perfume into their personal grooming.
As a result, applying these chemicals on our bodies has become a normal part of our life. It isn’t uncommon to see advertisements that depict expensive cologne as something “sexy” and magazines like Cosmopolitan give popular advice like “Carry a travel foot spray in your purse” and “Spray your bare torso with fragrance” (Cosmopolitan, “14 Incredibly Easy Ways to Smell Great All the Time,” 10.18.2013).
As such, it should come to no one’s surprise that the deodorant and perfume industries are make an enormous profit every year. According to Emmanuelle Moeglin, Global Fragrance and Colour Cosmetics Analyst at Mintel, the United States continues to be the biggest market for deodorant worldwide, hitting over $3 billion in 2015 and showing a growth of nearly 5 percent in just one year alone (Cosmetics Business, “Global Deodorants Market Shows Marginal Growth,” 08.03.2016).
The perfume industry is even bigger–the annual global perfume industry sales revenue is about $28.95 billion, with the U.S. market making up $6.1 billion of that profit (Statistic Brain, “Perfume Industry Statistics,” 08.05.2016). Not only that, but perfumes aren’t often known for being cheap. About 46 percent of designer perfume brands are priced at over $75 and can even cost up to $440 for one bottle (The Huffington Post, “Why One Bottle Of Perfume Can Cost $440,” 12.06.2017).
But is all this necessary? We’re told that these products are essential for our daily lives, but is that really true? According to researchers, our frequent use of aerosol products like deodorant and perfume may not only be gratuitous, but it may also contribute to the declining health of our planet. The first misconception to clear up is how deodorant and perfume actually work.
For one thing, deodorant doesn’t actually target the underlying cause of the bad smell that you’re trying to prevent. Despite its notoriety, sweating is a pivotal mechanism for maintaining proper homeostasis. It helps regulate body temperature, but it also flushes out toxins from clogging up your skin, prevents the buildup of excess salt and calcium in your bones and help fight dangerous pathogens (Medical Daily, “Sweat It Out! 5 Surprising Health Benefits of Sweating That Actually Don’t Stink,” 11.07.2014). Sweat also typically doesn’t have a smell. The terrible odor we often associate with sweat is actually caused by the skin bacteria that break down the sweat components (Medical Daily, “Got Sweat? Use of Deodorant and Antiperspirants Is Just a Social Construct,” 01.21.2016).
What deodorant does is mask the smell with a more pleasant fragrance or kill the bacteria on the skin that is causing the smell. There is also a subcategory of deodorants called antiperspirants which use aluminum salts to kill of bacteria by blocking the sweat glands with aluminum salts.
However, the most important thing to know about deodorants is that they’re not as necessary as we tend to believe them to be. In fact, when the first deodorant came out in late 19th century, very few people actually used it, mainly because they handled the body odor problem by washing regularly (The List, “This Is Why You Should Stop Using Deodorant,” 03.06.2017). Deodorants only started gaining popularity when advertisers started targeting the insecurities of young women in the early 1900s by convincing them that they “carried repellent odor” (Smithsonian, “How Advertisers Convinced Americans They Smelled Bad,” 08.02.2012). The marketing strategy worked, and by 1927, sales of deodorant had reached $1 million.
According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, a director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, the use of deodorant is dictated more by social norms rather than good health practices (Medical Daily, 01.21.2016). In fact, several experts question the safety of some of the chemicals found in many deodorants and antiperspirants. For instance, research has shown that the chemical compounds known as parabens, which may interfere with the body’s hormone levels, are often used as preservatives in deodorant (Time, “5 Things Wrong With Your Deodorant,” 07.05.2016). While there is no conclusive evidence that link parabens with cancer, lab results suggest that they may promote the growth of cancer cells in both men and women.
Another disturbing ingredient class found in deodorant is phthalates, which may impact fetal development in pregnant women. Scientists have also linked phthalates to higher rates of asthma (Time).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that deodorant actively harms your body. There isn’t any concrete evidence of that yet. However, several studies have shown that many people who use deodorant don’t smell or even need it, and yet people continue using it, because its use has become so ingrained in our society (Independent, “A Lot of People Are Using Deodorant When They Don’t Need To,” 02.01.2016).
On the other hand, what about perfume? Typically, a perfume product is made up of alcohol, water and various molecules that are designed to evaporate at room temperature. A fun fact about perfumes is that they don’t produce the desired fragrance all at once. Instead, almost all perfumes are engineered so that three different types of chemicals become active during three different phases (HowStuffWorks, “How Perfume Works,” 03.02.2009).
The first phase is composed of “top notes,” chemicals that you smell immediately when you apply the perfume, but which evaporate completely after 15 minutes. In the second phase, chemicals known as “heart notes” come into play after about three hours. The smells produced by the heart notes are what you typically associate with the perfume. Finally, the “base note” chemicals appear five hours after application; these boost the strength of the other scent notes.
Are there any health risks to applying perfume? According to scientists, it’s unclear, because perfume ingredients are fiercely guarded to protect trade secrets (Scientific American, “Scent of Danger: Are There Toxic Ingredients in Perfumes and Colognes?” 09.29.2012). While most sprays will use trace amounts of natural essences, they also contain potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals, some of which may be derived from petroleum.
“A rose may be a rose…But that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely, concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer,” stated the The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American environmental organization that specializes in researching toxic chemicals to protect public health (Scientific American).
According to a report by the EWG, the average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. These secret chemicals include those associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, including diethyl phthalate, which is linked to sperm damage. This information could explain why some people experience symptoms such as contact dermatitis and why about one in 10 people have allergic reactions to chemical elements in fragrances (The Huffington Post, “Perfume Health Risks: Fragrances Can Contribute to Health Problems Like Allergies and Rashes,” 09.19.2012).
However, it’s important to note that the health risks of using deodorant and perfumes are nothing to panic over. For the most part, you probably won’t even notice anything and are probably about as safe as you are when using any other hygiene product. More significantly, these aerosol products pose a danger to the environment.
According to a recent study published in the journal “Science,” both deodorants and perfumes are contributing significantly to air pollution at levels as high as emissions from cars and trucks (The New York Times, “Want Cleaner Air? Try Using Less Deodorant,” 02.16.2018).
This type of news is not unheard of. Back in the early 1900s, it wasn’t uncommon for aerosol products like deodorant to contain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons. These anthropogenic compounds were very popular with manufacturers because they were not only non-flammable but also non-toxic and non-reactive to most compounds. As a result, they were also used commonly in refrigerators and air conditioners.
Unfortunately, scientists in the mid-1970s discovered that chlorofluorocarbons have a shocking side effect: They contribute heavily to the thinning of Earth’s ozone layer, which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays (American Chemical Society, “Chlorofluorocarbons and Ozone Depletion,” 04.18.2017). By 1984, researchers gathered conclusive evidence that chlorofluorocarbons were the culprit, and in 1987, 191 countries signed the Montreal Protocol which banned their use (Scientific American, “Bad Hair Day: Are Aerosols Still Bad for the Ozone Layer?” 08.17.2013).
Yet despite the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons, modern aerosol sprays still emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, a key component in smog that scars the lungs and can cause heart attacks and lung cancer. In other words, the use of deodorants (both the spray and the stick kind) and perfumes contribute to the creation of smog and other air pollutants just as much as vehicle exhaust (The New York Times).
To many people, this discovery might sound unbelievable. How can something like deodorant or perfume release more VOC emissions than a car? According to the researchers behind this study, automobiles previously produced a lot of VOC emissions, but recent developments in technology have greatly reduced how much air pollution they cause. Nowadays, even though many drivers use several gallons of gasoline every week, most of it is converted to carbon dioxide instead of VOC emissions (these carbon dioxide emissions may not form smog but they do contribute to climate change). In contrast, the damage caused by VOCs found in products like deodorant and perfumes add up and may heavily pollute the air we breathe.
Therefore, it may be a wise idea to start reducing our use of these hygiene products. While their negative effects on our health may still be in doubt, it’s clear that we must do everything we can to stop these VOC emissions and seek out other hidden threats that may harm our planet.