10/10/2011 11:43 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2011

The Stinky Facts About Smelling Good

Have you ever looked at the ingredient list of your favorite fragrance? I guarantee you cannot pronounce most of the words. That can't be good. And did you also know that the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found 14 secret ingredients not even listed on the label -- they call them trade secrets. I call them synthetic chemicals. To make matters really worse, it's totally legal to omit those ingredients from the label.

It's unusual to find a household or personal-care product made without synthetic fragrances. You practically can't escape it. Recently I was putting on lipstick and I noticed it was perfumed. Why would I possibly want my lipstick to smell good? I call this "involuntary aromatherapy," and we're all exposed to it every day.

Fragrances may seem benign, but they can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. Many of the individual chemicals in perfumes and other fragrances can also potentially cause damage to the liver, kidney, immune and reproductive systems.

And virtually all fragrances are stabilized with phthalates -- yes, we've heard about them before. They're plasticizers and fragrance carriers that are banned in children's toys, but still used in a wide array of consumer products, especially those containing PVC (polyvinyl chloride).
They're in nail polishes, where they keep polishes flexible; in hair sprays, where they keep your hair from stiffening too much; and -- more importantly -- in the vast majority of fragrances, where they help to stabilize, or "fix" perfumes in products to make fragrances last longer.

Phthalates are especially dangerous to children. The Washington Toxic Coalition explains in no uncertain terms that a developing baby is extremely vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals. They develop at a breakneck pace in the womb, and that development is easily derailed by toxic chemicals. Unlike adults, babies also have a very limited ability to detoxify foreign chemicals.

Just last month, researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that higher prenatal exposures to phthalates significantly increased the odds of motor and behavioral developmental delay during the preschool years. The Center for Health Environment and Justice summarizes the mounting evidence against phthalates in "This is Your Brain on PVC." The facts on trends in learning disabilities are startling:

• The incidence of learning and developmental disabilities appears to be rising, affecting about one in six children in the U.S.

• The number of children in special education programs classified with learning disabilities increased 191 percent from 1977 to 1994.

• Since the early 1990s, reported cases of autism spectrum disorder have increased tenfold. One in a hundred American children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the most commonly diagnosed childhood psychiatric disorder in the United States. Recent evidence suggests the prevalence may be as high as 17 percent for all school children.

• The U.S. has seen a six-fold increase in ADHD between the years 1985 (0.7 million cases) and 2000 (4-5 million cases).

Many naysayers believe that these numbers are exaggerated -- that we are perhaps just better today at identifying these problems in children. I say that may be true in part, but the numbers speak for themselves and are way too staggering to dismiss.

But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud: Phthalates don't build up in our bodies. When the source of exposure is removed, levels decrease quickly.

You can begin making a difference for you and your family right now by skipping PVC plastic (vinyl) in products like shower curtains, food wrap and flooring, and checking ingredient lists to avoid "fragrance" and phthalates. You can find detailed information on thousands of products in the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database.

On a personal note, I stopped wearing perfume when I gave birth to my first child 11 years ago. It just didn't feel right when my infant smelled like Chanel No. 5. I may no longer smell like jasmine or spice, but I'm a lot safer.

Follow Sloan Barnett on Twitter and join Sloan on her Facebook Fan Page.