Petrochemicals and Perfume

So something that’s bothered me a lot in recent years is hearing people complain about petrochemicals in their perfumes and how, since these chemicals are in fragrances, the fragrances must therefore be bad for you.

I’m sure when you say “petrochemicals” to someone, the first thing they’ll think of is either a barrel of oil or gasoline. Then if you link perfume to that word, people will probably imagine dabbing what amounts to unleaded gasoline on their necks and wrists. Of course, it doesn’t help when a tiny local news outlet builds on this misconception with a delightful morning segment they lovingly called, “Are Perfumes Poisoning You?”

So, are perfumes or, rather, are the petrochemicals in perfumes poisoning you? No.

Here’s the thing with petrochemicals, they’re in a lot of things and not just in perfumes. Nor are they in any significantly large quantities in perfumes compared to something like–say, a plastic bucket. I’m not a scientist and don’t pretend to be, but my understanding of petrochemicals is that they’re used in the manufacturing of a lot of products. From things you might expect like plastics, computers, electronics and furniture. Then there are the things I didn’t expect like in medicine. Then there are the cosmetics, which see a lot of petrochemical use as for a large variety of reasons.

See, the thing with petrochemicals is, you really are fighting a losing battle if you want to avoid them. If you’re on the internet, reading this post then chances are, you had to touch a petrochemical product at some point seeing as computers are made of the stuff. Heck, the chair you might be sitting in is made out of it. Perhaps even the clothes you’re wearing, or the soap you use.

When we think about how many products with petrochemicals in them or were made out of petrochemicals that we use, the numbers are really mind-boggling. I could cast my eyes around the room I’m sitting in right now and I’d actually have a harder time finding something that didn’t have a petrochemical in it or wasn’t manufactured using petrochemicals.

Years ago, a friend and I were exploring “healthy” alternatives to big brand cosmetics. We were teenagers, barely into college. We liked cosmetics though. Having read something or seen something somewhere, my friend informed me of all the toxins inside of the big brand cosmetics we were using. We promptly swore off of them and looked high and low for alternatives–the more natural the better.

Eventually, we found an all natural cosmetics line that boasted no preservatives for health-conscious individuals. The packaging was cute, done up in pastels and greens to really drive home that “nature” thing. I decided to ditch my big brand stuff and go for the natural line. Because hey, I was young, I loved make-up but I didn’t want to damage my body over it. With some of the things they say, it’s really no surprise that people become alarmed. I’ve heard everything from, “it’s an allergen” to “it causes seizures”.

Long story short, a few months later and I had the worst acne in my life and my skin was horribly dry. My friend didn’t fare that much better. It seemed the longer I tried using the natural stuff, the worse my skin got. I’m not saying every natural alternative product will do this to people. A lot of individuals use these products to great success. But making my skin dry and break out was what it did to me, and that could be because my skin just didn’t mesh well with the product.

I stopped using the natural stuff. The acne went away, the dryness got better too–but I was still out a lot of money and very disappointed that my foray into no-preservative cosmetics was a disaster. It also took a really long time to get my skin back to normal. I went back to the big brands after that. Almost a decade later and my face is still intact so I guess those petrochemicals aren’t that bad for me after all.

The thing is, when I look back at the reasons why I tossed my cosmetics and jumped on the natural bandwagon was because I was afraid of something horrible happening to me. It took a while for me to realize that people have used petrochemical products for decades or even longer and a great deal of them are perfectly fine. How much does the use of petrochemicals in our every day lives really affect us? And does it matter to me that much in the end?

How long do I expect to live if I swore off all the stuff that I enjoy because someone, somewhere (of questionable credentials, I might add) told me that it was bad for me because it’s not “nature made”? And do I really want to be around that long even after I gave up everything I like to do it? All I really know is that my face is fine and it’s been layered in petrochemical containing products a lot over the years. I’m still kicking and I’ve used perfumes almost daily for a while now. I also sometimes eat out of plastic bowls, drink out of plastic cups, sat on, laid on, stood on plenty of petrochemical-containing materials and I don’t think I’m any worse for wear.

Some more interesting read for those concerned with ingredients in their cosmetics:
Lucas from Chemist in the Bottle on Parabens
Perfume Shrine on the Demonization of Perfume
Chemist Corner on Companies Caving to Fearmongering

6 thoughts on “Petrochemicals and Perfume

  1. I subscribe to the school of “what I don’t know won’t hurt me”. Which is probably the wrong thing to do. I do have to say that I have noted with several perfumes that after I spray them on the insides of my arms, I will break out a little. I think it’s a combination of dry winter skin and the chemicals which is why I am now started to use more moisturizers on my arms. In any case, everything we touch is made up of chemicals and it’s hard to get around that fact.

    • Yep, I came to terms with it a while ago and feel kind of silly when I think about that whole natural products phase I went through. The blood in our veins is, itself, a chemical. It’s silly to be afraid of a word like I was. But I blame my youth for that lol.

    • Thank you, lucasai, for posting that excellent piece on parabens! People are too afraid of what they don’t understand.

  2. A lot of designer brands use petrochemical fragrances then charge a lot for perfumes that cost them almost nothing to manufacture. Good perfume is made with absolutes and the difference is striking. I am very sensitive and cheap perfume gives me a strong burning sensation in my nose.

    • Hi M, while that’s true that their profit margins are sky high, at the same time one has to wonder what business isn’t interested in increasing their profit margins? I like the smaller houses that focus on quality, and whether they use the cheap stuff in their compositions or the expensive stuff, it’s the end result that matters to me most.

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