Perfume smells divine and comes in the prettiest bottles, but could these musky and floral concoctions pose risks for you, as well as those around you? It's certainly a thought for parents who love to wear their delicious scents regularly. Holding and loving on your little one means your baby is breathing in perfume all day. Stopping yourself mid-spritz to wonder, "Can I wear perfume around my baby?" may be one of the best questions you could ask to help protect your child's health, because there's more than rose petals and patchouli mixed in that mister.
If you've ever sat next to a person drenched in eau de toilette, you know some scents can be so strong that you feel like your senses are being attacked. Sneezing, coughing, and getting a headache are all symptoms of a fragrance sensitivity. “Skin rashes [or] contact dermatitis are also a very common reaction to perfumes and fragrances,” Dr. Jessica Madden, M.D., board-certified pediatrician, neonatologist, and international board-certified lactation consultant, tells Romper. When you analyze the ingredient list, there are a few potent villains — not least of which you probably recognize as one of the top unfriendly chemicals to avoid: phthalates. And with this buzzword making appearances fairly often in fragranced products, it makes you wonder whether perfume and babies are a safe mix.
Are phthalates bad for a baby?
Although phthalates can be found in numerous cosmetic products, evidence suggests we should keep our distance from this troublemaking ingredient. According to a 2021 study in Reproductive Toxicology, phthalates, when the mother is exposed during pregnancy, may cause birth defects in mice, and a growing body of evidence suggests that these same chemicals can cause similar developmental problems in humans.
Looking at the research, you'll learn that phthalates affect hormones levels, and exposing babies to this chemical can cause an onslaught of health concerns as they develop. One 2014 study published in Reproductive Toxicology found that when young boys are exposed to phthalates, testosterone levels are lower; another study found that for girls, they can cause early onset of puberty. Phthalate exposure has also been linked to postpartum depression in parents, and obesity, asthma, and ADHD in children, according to studies.
Is wearing perfume around a baby safe?
However, the findings of these studies point more so to the effects of phthalate exposure directly to pregnant people and children. While phthalate-containing skin and hair care products should be avoided in babies, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t wear your fragrance at all. “Your baby is unlikely to be exposed to a large number of phthalates from you wearing perfume,” board-certified pediatrician Dr. Pierrette Poinsett, M.D. tells Romper. “The risky exposure is when phthalate-containing products are used directly on baby's skin or in-utero exposure from mom using phthalate-containing products.”
Other experts agree that fragrances in a parent’s perfume are not likely to pose serious long-term risk to children. “When we look at the risk of a product or exposure, we need to think about the dose, the type of exposure, and the scientific plausibility of harm before we decide how likely it is to pose a significant risk to babies,” Dr. Rebekah Diamond, M.D., board-certified pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, explains. “Perfume is worn by the parent, and so only very small amounts of it will be transferred by inhalation or through a baby's skin.” Diamond also notes that there are international standards that perfumes must meet to test the environmental impact and safety of ingredients.
“The only meaningful risk of perfume exposure to a baby or child is that it can trigger allergies and asthma,” Diamond tells Romper. “This is not because perfumes can cause allergies or asthma. Instead, parents may find that their babies [or] children who are sensitive to fragrances have asthma or allergy exacerbations when they are exposed to these substances.” In this case, she recommends limiting perfumes to control flares.
If you want to play it extra safe, it doesn’t hurt to avoid wearing perfume around your baby (“and definitely not when pregnant,” Madden says). But there are phthalate-free and natural fragrances on the market, which Poinsett says are safe to use. “Avoid perfumes that contain parabens and phenol,” she adds, which can exacerbate respiratory symptoms.
The bottom line of which all the experts can agree? Phthalates should be avoided in direct-contact baby products. (and during pregnancy — though there are some perfumes safe for pregnancy). “Parenting is hard, and exposures are everywhere,” Diamond tells Romper. “But focusing on controlling your baby's contact with perfume is an unnecessary source of anxiety. If you enjoy perfume and want to wear it, or if your baby is exposed to perfume that others wear, it will be absolutely OK.” Whether you keep wearing your favorite scent, switch to an au natural spritz, or avoid the idea of fragrance altogether, wearing perfume around your baby is personal choice, but knowing the facts can help to inform your decision.
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Dr. Rebekah Diamond, M.D., board-certified pediatrician, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Columbia University, and author of Parent Like a Pediatrician
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