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Synthetic Musks

The gist
Synthetic musks are chemicals added as scents to personal care products, including perfumes, lotions and many cosmetics. Studies consistently show that some of these compounds may disrupt hormone systems or trigger skin sensitization when exposed to UV light [1]. Synthetic musks have been detected in breast milk, body fat and the cord blood of newborn babies.

What you need to know
Found in: Perfumes, colognes, body sprays
What to look for on the label: Fragrance, musk ketone, musk xylene, galaxolide, tonalide
Health concerns: Endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, bioaccumulation
Vulnerable populations: Pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers
Regulations: Restricted in cosmetics in the EU

What are synthetic musks?
Synthetic musks are used in fragrance formulations for personal care products including perfumes, lotions, colognes and body sprays. The most common types of musks used in cosmetics are nitromusks (e.g., musk ketone) and polycyclic musks (e.g., galaxolide and tonalide). Because synthetic musks are persistent and bioaccumulate in our bodies and in nature, reducing the use of fragranced products containing these chemicals could make a significant difference to pollution in people and the environment.

What are the health concerns?
Endocrine disruption: There is evidence that exposure to synthetic musks can have hormone-disrupting effects. Galaxolide and tonalide can bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors [3], and both musks have been shown to affect androgen and progesterone receptors [4]. Tonalide has also been reported to increase the proliferation of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells [5].

Organ system toxicity: Tonalide has been identified as a photosensitizer, a chemical that becomes more toxic when exposed to sunlight on the skin [6]. Tonalide has also been linked to liver toxicity [7].

Bioaccumulation: Synthetic musk fragrances are produced in high volumes (industry manufacturing or importing between 1 and 10 million pounds of galaxolide in 2006 alone [8] and accumulate in the food chain and negatively impact the environment [9]. Environmental studies from areas as diverse as the Great Lakes, Germany and China have documented widespread galaxolide and tonalide contamination of both fresh and marine water samples, air, wastewater and sludge [10,11]. Studies also report galaxolide and tonalide contamination in many species of aquatic wildlife [12].

Due to the ubiquity of these chemicals, synthetic musks are pervasive in peoples' bodies—even in newborns. Environmental Working Group tests of umbilical cord blood found 7 out of 10 babies were born with tonalide and/or galaxolide in their blood [13]. Another study detected galaxolide in the blood of 91 percent of Austrian students [14]. Several studies have specifically linked personal care products with elevated body levels of synthetic musks. A 1996 study found galaxolide and tonalide in body fat and breast milk after use of cosmetics and detergents [15]. A survey on routes of exposure linked the use of body lotion to higher galaxolide concentrations [16,17], and another study found frequent use of perfume during pregnancy resulted in elevated concentrations of galaxolide in breast milk [18].

How can you avoid this?
Avoid perfumes and products containing synthetic fragrances (body sprays, colognes, air fresheners).

Further information including links to reports and press releases

[1] Parker RD, Buehler EV, Newmann EA. 1986. Phototoxicity, photoallergy, and contact sensitization of nitro musk perfume raw materials. Contact Dermatitis. 14(2): 103-9.
[2] Environmental Working Group (EWG) 2009. Pollution in Minority Newborns. Available online: http://www.ewg.org/minoritycordblood.
[3] Seinen W, Lemmen JG, Pieters RH, Verbruggen EM, Van der Burg B. (1999). AHTN and HHCB show weak estrogenic but no uterotrophic activity. Toxicol. Lett. 111, 161–168.
[4] Schreurs RH, Sonneveld E, Jansen JH, Seinen W, van der Burg B. 2005. Interaction of polycyclic musks and UV filters with the estrogen receptor (ER), androgen receptor (AR), and progesterone receptor (PR) in reporter gene bioassays. Toxicol Sci. 83(2): 264-72.
[5] Bitsch N, Dudas C, Körner W, Failing K, Biselli S, Rimkus G, Brunn H. 2002. Estrogenic activity of musk fragrances detected by the E-screen assay using human mcf-7 cells. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 43(3): 257-64.
[6] European Union Risk Assessment Report. 2008a.1-(5,6,7,8-TETRAHYDRO-3,5,5,6,8,8-HEXAMETHYL-2-NAPHTHYL)ETHAN-1-ONE (AHTN) CAS No: 1506-02-1 or 21145-77-7. Available online: http://ecb.jrc.ec.europa.eu/home.php?CONTENU=/DOCUMENTS/Existing-Chemicals/
[7] Steinberg P, Fischer T, Arand M, Park E, Elmadfa I, Rimkus G, Brunn H, Dienes HP. (1999). Acute hepatotoxicity of the polycyclic musk 7-acetyl-1,1,3,4,4,6-hexamethyl-1,2,3,4-tetrahydronaphtaline (AHTN). Toxicol Lett.,111(1-2), pp151-60.
[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). 2009a. Inventory Update Reporting (IUR) Data for 2006. Available: http://www.epa.gov/iur/
[9] Dietrich DR and Hitzfeld BC. 2004. Bioaccumulation and Ecotoxicity of Synthetic Musks in the Aquatic Environment. In: The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, volume 3, part X: 233-244 (Springer Berlin/Heidelberg).
[10] Chen D, Zeng X, Sheng Y, Bi X, Gui H, Sheng G, Fu J. 2007. The concentrations and distribution of polycyclic musks in a typical cosmetic plant. Chemosphere. 66(2):252-8.
[11] Rüdel H, Böhmer W, Schröter-Kermani C. 2006. Retrospective monitoring of synthetic musk compounds in aquatic biota from German rivers and coastal areas. J Environ Monit. 8(8): 812-23.
[12] Kannan K. Reineer JL, Yun SH. Perotta EE, Tao L, Johnson-Restrepo B, Rodan BD. 2005. Polycyclic musk compounds in higher trophic level aquatic organisms and humans from the United States. Chemosphere 61: 693–700.
[13] Rimkus, G.G. and M. Wolf, Polycyclic musk fragrances in human adipose tissue and human milk. Chemosphere, 1996. 33(10): p. 2033-43.
[14] Hutter HP, Wallner P, Moshammer H, Hartl W, Sattelberger R, Lorbeer G, Kundi M. 2005. Blood concentrations of polycyclic musks in healthy young adults. Chemosphere. 59(4): 487-92.
[15] Rimkus, G.G. and M. Wolf, Polycyclic musk fragrances in human adipose tissue and human milk. Chemosphere, 1996. 33(10): p. 2033-43.
[16] Hutter HP, Wallner P, Moshammer H, Hartl W, Sattelberger R, Lorbeer G, Kundi M. 2005. Blood concentrations of polycyclic musks in healthy young adults. Chemosphere. 59(4): 487-92.
[17] Hutter, HP, P Wallner, H Moshammer, W Hartl, R Sattelberger, G Lorbeer and M Kundi. 2009. Synthetic musks in blood of healthy young adults: Relationship to cosmetics use. Science of the Total Environment 407:4821-4825.
[18] Lignell S, Darnerud PO, Aune M, Cnattingius S, Hajslova J, Setkova L, Glynn A. 2008. Temporal trends of synthetic musk compounds in mother’s milk and associations with personal use of perfumed products. Environ Sci Technol. 42(17): 6743-8.