According to the BBC, an ester is formed when an organic acid substances interacts with alcohol. Sounds benign enough, right? But when it comes to your health, esters can be a “double-edged sword.” They can be transporters of potential healing, such as with natural esters used in organic essential oils, or they can be carriers of dangerous toxins. Here’s what to watch for with these tiny gaseous substances.
Dangerous Scents: Toxic Esters in Commercial Perfumes
Americans love their fragrance. It seems like there is some kind of perfume additive in just about everything these days, from laundry soap and sanitary pads to kid’s marking pens and, of course, commercial perfumes.
According to the Environmental Working Group, there are over 3,000 “stock chemical ingredients” that the commercial perfume industry can choose from when putting together the next block-buster fragrance. What’s more, in the name of protecting “trade secrets” under the U.S. Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the perfume industry does not need to inform their potential customers what exactly they are putting in their concoctions.
“A rose may be a rose,” the EWG reported recently. “But that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely…”
Many of these ingredients may be toxic to health and some have been proven in studies to be xeno-estrogenic. Way back in 1991, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a study that found over 30 ingredients used in commercial fragrances as potentially toxic to human beings, including several ester-derived substances. Here are just a few:
-Acetone: Normally found in colognes, detergents and nail polish remover, acetone is currently on the EPA’s “hazardous waste” list because it acts as a central nervous system depressant. In severe exposure, it can induce coma;
-Benzyl Alcohol: Although benzyl alcohol is found naturally in fresh-smelling flowers like jasmine and ylang-ylang, the synthetic version, used to fragrance fabric softeners, detergent and fabric softener, has been shown to induce sudden low blood pressure and respiratory failure;
-Methylene Chloride: This ester-derived substance is used mainly in shampoos and perfumes as well as in paint and varnish removers. Methylene Chloride was actually banned by the U.S. Food and Drug administration in 1988. However, because of “trade secret” laws, there is no way of enforcing this ban within the fragrance industry (and no way for consumers to know whether their commercial beauty products contain it). This substance is also on the EPA “Hazardous Waste” list and is considered a carcinogen. It is stored in body fat, where it is metabolized to carbon monoxide, which can severely reduce the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.
Changes Afoot for Trade Secret Policy?
Even though government agencies still conveniently have their hands tied when it comes to safety enforcement for the $29 billion a year global perfume industry, self-regulation caused by consumer pressure may be a ray of light on a still rather grim horizon. For the last few years, companies have begun to voluntarily disclose the ingredients of the fragrance compounds in their products. Clorox led the way, with SC Johnson becoming the first multi-national corporation to voluntarily disclose back in 2014.
The potential healing power of esters derived directly from plants is an example of how miraculously the human body can work with nature and her chemistry. Synthetically-derived esters which come mostly from the petroleum industry is a whole other ballgame, however. They can prove toxic and cancer-causing for you and your family. Even though the tide may be turning when it comes to ingredient disclosure of toxic ingredients, don’t wait for big business to come clean. Do the homework yourself, and opt for all-natural fragrances made with 100% organic, all-natural essential oils like rose and lavender whenever possible.