The UK’s Sun newspaper has carried a story suggesting that pregnant women should avoid fragrances. The background to this story is the work of a Dr Sharp at the Human Reproductive Sciences Unit. He has found that a common component of fragrances, dibutyl phthalate, inhibits the development of the sex organs in male mice.
I hate stories like this, because it is difficult to know how you should react to them. On the one hand, it is often that case that work done under laboratory conditions often has no relevance to real life. It is also quite likely that the amounts of phthalate even an avid user of fragrances absorbs will never reach anything like the levels needed to cause the effect in any case.
My gut feeling is to simply ignore it.
On the other hand, reproductive problems are increasing and can we really be sure that Dr Sharp hasn’t pinpointed the problem. I also know that it is perfectly possible to formulate fragrances without phthalates, and to formulate cosmetics and other beauty products without fragrances. And while it is important to be aware of the shortcomings of lab work – it isn’t wise to ignore it altogether either. There must have been a point in time where it wasn’t clear whether or not smoking was a health hazard. (Though it is worth remembering that the native Americans regarded it as bad for you.)
The other consideration is that even if the risk to reproductive health is small, it is the risk of something that is very damaging. So on a cost benefit basis, phthalates really ought to go. But I don’t think it is something that you should worry about – it might well come to nothing in the end.
You can form your own view of the research here
(Sorry this link has now broken and I can’t find the research. If anyone knows where to find it I’d be very grateful for a reference.)
You might also be interested in how you can work out a bit about a product’s fragrance from its ingredient list.