Mariah Carey doesn’t seem like the kind of woman who wouldn’t be into perfume. After all, she’s designed and promoted 9 different fragrances in the past three years. But it seems that pregnancy has changed the Diva’s tune when it comes to scents. She now reports being supersensitive to smell, and finds strong smelling perfumes a turn-off.
She’s not alone. Many pregnant women find that they’re not able to handle the smell of perfume in pregnancy, especially early on. Pregnant women’s increased sensitivity to smell is the result of an increase in estradiol, the most potent estrogen. The reason for this hypersensitivity isn’t entirely known, but a prevailing theory is that it’s a way for women to be more aware of potential threats to the fetus, be it from potential predators, rotten food, or other toxins.
But could there be a reason women feel the need to defend themselves against perfume? There’s some research out there that says yes.
Here’s the thing about perfume. It’s made of chemicals. Often, lots of them. And because the unique combination of chemicals is essential to a perfume’s value, perfume manufacturers are not required to disclose their formulas. So when we put perfume on our skin, we really have no idea what’s in it, much less whether it’s safe. For this reason, the consumer-safety group EWG (environmental working group) lists “fragrance” as one of the highest risk ingredients in its cosmetic database.
As far as pregnancy-specific perfume research goes, data is pretty limited. A couple of years ago, a Scottish scientist presented a paper suggesting a connection between the chemicals in perfume and the reproductive health of male offspring, the result of a study on pregnant rats:
“Research on rats carried out by Professor Richard Sharpe has found that the reproductive system of male foetuses can be damaged as early as at eight weeks’ gestation by chemicals including those found in many cosmetics.” This was extrapolated to a more general warning in 2008, but it didn’t make a broad impact.
And then there’s the story of acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin (AETT). AETT was a chemical compound determined to be a potent neurotoxin in 1978—but only after it was used in perfumes and other body products for 22 years:
“Although AETT was subsequently removed from consumer products, it dramatizes the potential for neurotoxic compounds to be allowed in public use as it took 22 years before the problem was acknowledged and corrected. Because of the ubiquitous nature of fragrance compounds and their close source contact to the individual, and therefore the embryo and fetus, a cautious attitude concerning fragrance compounds during pregnancy should be maintained.” (Neurotoxicology 1:221-237, 1979)
I’ve brought up the question of the safety of fragrance with a few people in the beauty business and found them remarkably dismissive of the risks and protective of the mythology. I can see their point. Fragrance is a big business, and a big part of many women’s lives. The lure of a good scent is powerful, sending messages to both our bodies and our minds. Fragrance is fantasy, a magical combination of secret ingredients that conjure up a sensory and emotional experience that we couldn’t attain otherwise. Why sully all this beauty with icky medical information? After all, there’s no conclusive evidence suggesting that it is not safe! But if we take AETT as an example, that’s not necessarily a green light for safety.
Skin Deep lists 223 common perfumes in the highest hazard category, and the inclusion of a synthetic fragrance automatically ups the hazard quotient of any other personal care product: cosmetic, deodorant, lotion, shampoo, etc. The good news is that EWG lists even more products–over 300–in the low risk category, meaning that they carry few or no ingredients considered risky. It’s important to remember that EWG’s rating system is calculated for the general public, not for pregnancy. The products rated as safest use natural essential oils as fragrance, rather than a synthetic chemical compound. Some essential oils are not recommended during pregnancy. If you find an essential oil scent you like, it’s a good idea to check out the ingredients to be sure the oils used aren’t contraindicated for pregnant women. Keep in mind too that recommendations may vary depending on your stage of pregnancy or other factors.
Maybe we can get a little inspiration from what Mariah’s actually finding desirable instead of perfume: “Despite Mariah Carey being overpowered by heavy smelling perfumes, she is craving fruit, providing it is “really good”.” To me, one of the best smells in the world is my kids faces’ after they’ve eaten a ripe pineapple or a bowl of berries.Someone should bottle that. Minus the stickiness, of course. But then, that might not be possible without chemical intervention.