Previously, the chemicals used in fragrances and perfumes were mostly natural and were more difficult to get hold of, therefore restricting their usage. Nowadays, however, the situation is very different.
Synthetic chemicals have made it possible to manufacture huge quantities of fragrances at a much lower cost and to then use them in a vast number of products. They are not just used in perfumes and eaux de colognes, but also in cleaning products, detergents, personal care products, cosmetics, creams, air fresheners and pesticides.
Because of this, in the western world, we are nearly all exposed to the chemicals used in these fragrances. They include chemicals such as synthetic musks, of which millions of tonnes are produced every year.
This group of chemicals, including nitro musks, are used less and less in Europe due to restrictive measures now in place. However, some of them are still being used such as musk xylene (MX) or musk ketone (MK). Polycyclic musks, including widely used chemicals such as tonalide (AHTN) or galaxolide (HHCB), and macrocyclic musks are also part of this group.
They are environmental pollutants, some of which have shown to be very persistent and are found often in the food chain. They have been shown to have various effects on animals and are also common pollutants in our bodies (in blood, fat, breast milk, in adults and in newborns). These chemicals can enter our bodies through many different routes, some of the most important of which can happen in our own homes. For example, the use of detergents and cosmetics can lead to the presence of galaxolide and tonalide in body fat and breast milk. The use of perfumes during pregnancy has been linked to high levels of galaxolide in breast milk.
A detailed report published by Greenpeace in 2005 showed high levels of synthetic musks in dozens of commercial perfumes and eaux de cologne, many of which were well-known brands. This report showed something many researchers already knew, but it also showed that these musks are not sufficiently regulated.
Synthetic musks have been linked to various biological effects such as hormonal imbalances, gynaecological problems and even worsening the effects caused by other pollutants. This has been shown to be the case with musk ketone, which can worsen the genotoxic effects of benzapyrene.
One particular study showed that tonalide can cause the growth of breast cancer cells as well as being toxic to the liver.
Some scientists believe that, by reducing the use of these fragrances in products, it could have very positive effects on the ecology and on public health.