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Millions Report Adverse Reactions to Perfumes and Fragrances.

Most of us are aware of potentially harmful substances in the environment such as pollution, exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. We even know that inhaling or using some cleaning products, paint, glues and stains can be hazardous. Yet, it probably never occurred to us that our sweet smelling perfumes and fragranced products could be bothersome to many.

Then again, most of us do not realize that these fragrances often contain various chemicals that many consider toxic. After all, “Scented products are generally perceived as pleasant, a harmless means of self-expression and certainly not a significant health concern.”(1) Therefore, we don’t think twice about using them.


Perfumes used to be made from natural ingredients like flowers and herbs. However, “Perfume formulations changed sometime around the late 70s and early 80s. Today, they are approximately 95-100% synthetic (man-made).”(2) Using crude oil or turpentine oil as the base material, synthetics are usually derived from chemical reactions.(3)

These synthetic compounds are chemicals that can be dangerous to many when inhaled or applied to the skin. Author Connie Pitts explained, “Perfumes, colognes, and many other scented  products contain an abundance of harmful chemicals, many of which are listed on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste List. They also include numerous carcinogenic chemicals, neurotoxins, respiratory irritants, solvents, aldehydes, hundreds of untested and unregulated petro-chemicals, phthalates (which can act as hormone disrupters), narcotics, and much more.”(2)

In 1991 a study performed by the EPA, “…Identification of Polar Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Micro-environments, found numerous chemicals commonly used in fragrance products, including, among others: acetone; benzaldehyde; benzyl acetate; benzyl alcohol; camphor; ethanol; ethyl acetate; limonene; linalool; methylene chloride, one or all of which, or in combination with one  another, cause, when inhaled, ‘central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, uncoordination, slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract, kidney damage headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other symptoms and illnesses.’ Material Safety Data Sheets on each chemical confirm these findings.”(4)

Also, “Toluene (methyl benzene) was detected in fragrance samples and collectedby the EPA in 1991. Toluene is a ‘hazardous waste.’ It is flammable and volatile, it attacks the central nervous system, blood, liver, kidneys, eyes, and skin, and it serves as an asthma trigger….Methylene chloride is also found in pesticides and septic tank cleaners.”(5)

According to the Committee on Science & Technology, “Approximately 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.”(6) What’s more, “Petroleum based  chemicals are being found to cause significant attritional effects to the nervous system and immune system after prolonged exposure. Illnesses identified in the medical research include adult and child cancers, numerous neurological disorders, immune system weakening, autoimmune disorders, asthma, allergies, infertility, miscarriage, and child behavior disorders including learning disabilities, mental retardation,  hyperactivity and ADD (attention deficit disorders).”(7)

Synthetic fragrances are found in just about everything these days. Even seemingly harmless scents in our favorite soap, shampoo, deodorant, lotion, powder, candles, air freshener, laundry and cleaning products could be full of potentially toxic substances. For example, “Some scented candles contain acetone, benzene, lead, carbon monoxide, toluene and more.”(5) In addition to many fragrance chemicals, chloroform was found in tests of fabric softeners (8) and a room containing air freshener had a high level of p-dichlorobenzene (a carcinogen) and ethanol.”(9) Ironically, “Air ‘fresheners,’ according to the Household Hazardous Waste Project, do not freshen the air at all. What they do is mask one odor with another, while diminishing one’s sense of smell with a nerve-deadening agent.”(5)

Furthermore, phthalates are found in many every day products like hair spray, deodorant, nail polish and perfume.(10) “In May 2002 a coalition of environmental and public health organizations contracted with a major national laboratory to test 72 name-brand, off-the-shelf beauty products for the presence of phthalates, a large family of industrial chemicals linked to permanent birth defects in the male reproductive system. The laboratory found phthalates in nearly three-quarters of the products tested.”(11)


First, manufacturers often use these chemicals   simply because they work well to disperse the fragrance into the air and cause it to linger.(12) Also, these chemicals help to cheaply recreate the scent desired.(13)

Second, they are allowed to use these components, because “By all accounts, the fragrance industry is primarily self-regulated. Safety tested before marketing is not required and ingredients used in fragrance formulas do not have to be disclosed even to regulatory agencies. In general fragrance is a very low priority among regulatory agencies and there is little monitoring of compliance or enforcement of laws that are in place. There is a self-regulatory system in place within the fragrance industry. Compliance with recommendations are voluntary and rarely monitored.”(12) Regrettably, this could mean that “More than 80 percent of the chemical ingredients in these products have never been tested to see if they are poisonous to humans. Some have been tested only minimally. “(1)

Third, these ingredients in fragrances are considered “trade secrets” of the manufacturer. “The fragrance industry has traditionally been a very secretive industry. For decades secrecy was required to protect fragrance formulas from being copied by others. Fragrance formulas are considered ‘trade  secrets’ and do not have to be revealed to anyone, including regulatory agencies. The secrecy of the  industry has lead to tremendous problems in terms of regulation, monitoring, and impact on those that have problems from fragrance.”(1)

Also, “The Cosmetic Regulations state that within 10 days after starting to sell a product, a list of ingredients must be provided. ‘Fragrance’ is considered a specific ingredient, and no disclosure of the potentially hundreds of chemicals within the fragrance is required.”(15) Therefore, manufacturers are allowed to clump all their scented ingredients  together and list them as just “fragrance,” versus   having to individually cite them all.


For many people, breathing in fragrances from perfumes, colognes, household products and cleaners can just be a little annoying, “…but for a growing    number of others, these smells, called ‘emissions of volatile organic compounds,’ can be a form of torment that throws their bodies into reactive overdrive. One whiff of a chemical cocktail – coming from not only perfumes and detergents but also construction materials, fabrics, furnishings, cleaning supplies, adhesives, paints, caulks, and paper – can result in a vast array of debilitating symptoms.”(16)

It has been reported that exposure to fragrances can exacerbate several health conditions.(5) “By design, fragrances are composed of materials that quickly get into the air. Once in the air, these materials pose serious health concerns for many with asthma, allergies, migraines, chronic lung  disease, and other health conditions.”(1) Surprisingly, this may include    millions of people.

For example, “In 1998, it was estimated that 26.3 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma in their lifetime.”(17) Asthma is a serious respiratory disorder that can constrict and cause swelling of the airways. “The Institute of Medicine placed fragrance in the same category as second hand smoke in triggering asthma in adults and school age children.”(1)

What’s more, “Up to 72% of asthmatics report their asthma is triggered by fragrance. Asthmatics and others that are negatively impacted by fragrance often have difficulties working, obtaining medical care, and going about activities of daily living because of others’ use of scented products.”(1)

Additionally, “Approximately 12.6% of the population suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition in which they experience reactions from exposure to low concentrations of common chemicals…”(18)

MCS is “…marked by multiple symptoms in multiple organ systems (usually the neurological, immune, respiratory, skin, ‘GI,’ and/or musculoskeletal) that recur chronically in response to multiple chemical exposures. MCS Symptoms commonly include difficulty breathing, sleeping and/or concentrating, memory loss, migraines, nausea, abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, aching joints and muscles, and irritated eyes, nose, ears, throat and/or skin. In addition, some with MCS show impaired balance and increased sensitivity not just to odors but also to loud noises, bright lights, touch, extremes of heat and cold, and electromagnetic fields.”(19)

Overall, reactions to toxic substances can be quite serious for many, leaving them unable to go shopping, to a doctor’s office, to church or to work without risking an exposure. It is estimated that “…more than 5.2 million [with MCS] may lose jobs as a result.”(18) Unfortunately, many become   isolated from friends and family, disabled or homebound, because of their reactions to chemicals in our environment.


There are many groups and manufacturers that will tell us that a given product is harmless, because it only contains a low dose of chemicals. It could be possible that for many, a small amount of fragrance does not effect them. Yet, maybe we need to take into account simultaneous exposure to multiple products and for long periods of time, as well as increased susceptibility, due to compromised immunity, stress and/or other environmental factors?

“’Even if the general population isn’t likely to suffer acute effects from exposure to fragrances, there are long-term chronic health effects connected to these chemicals that we don’t fully understand yet,’ says [Carrie] Loewenherz,”(20) an industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. In all, as we are mindful of those who do have reactions for whatever reasons, maybe we should consider our own health.

What about those frequent or occasional, unexplained headaches, dizziness, fatigue, sore throats, stuffy noses or lowered immunity? Could chemicals in the environment possibly have a part in these symptoms? After all, many say that, “Synthetic fragrances are capable of causing a number of diseases, many of which a person may not equate to the product.”(5) For instance, “Fragrances are a frequent trigger of migraine headaches”(21) and perfume can be a trigger to allergies and asthma.(22)

The numbers of Americans battling MCS seem to be rising quickly. Most with MCS tell a story of once being healthy and not effected by fragrances. “MCS usually starts with either an acute or chronic toxic exposure, after which this initial sensitivity broadens to include many other chemicals and common irritants…”(19)

Often a person may say they do not even notice fragrances and perfumes. However, “Fragrance may be present even if there is no apparent odor. Fragrance materials used to mask odors may compete with olfactory receptors so that neither they or the material they are masking are perceived. Further the olfactory system is unable to detect the same odor at the same level for long periods of time. So continued exposure results in less acute detection of the scent.”(12)

In fact, what we breathe goes straight into our lungs and organs, as well as our brains. “The sense of smell has a more direct connection to the brain than any other sense. There is no barrier between the brain and the chemicals that you breathe in…. Studies have shown that inhaling fragrance chemicals can cause circulatory changes in the brain. Changes in electrical activity in the brain also occur with exposure.”(21)

What’s more, our skin is the largest body organ that soaks up toxins into its system. “Since fragrance chemicals are absorbed through the skin they can and do affect other organs of the body. AETT [acetyl ethyl tetramethyl tetralin] was found to cause discoloration in internal organs. Some of these chemicals are toxic to the liver and kidneys. Others accumulate in fat tissue.”(21)

In all, we might consider evaluating the many  aspects our environment for our own sake. Additionally, whether or not we personally experience any noticeable reactions to these   chemical fragrances, we should be considerate of our friends, family, co-workers, church members or even strangers whose lives are greatly altered by whether or not we use these items.

(1) FPINVA, “Fragrances by Design: Materials that quickly get into the air.” Fragranced Products Information Network (Accessed September 2, 2005). Introduction.
(2) Pitts, Connie (2003). “Featured Author. Connie Pitts – Get a Whiff of This: Perfumes (Fragrances) – The Invisible Chemical Poisons.” Integrative Ink (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body
(3) Bridges, Betty RN. “Safety of Fragrances: A Case for Concern.” Fragranced Products Information Network (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(4) Dewey, David Lawrence (October 7, 1999). “Food For Thought: Colognes – Perfumes – Pesticides Are They Slowly Killing You?” Dewey’s World (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(5) Pitts, Connie (2003). Get a Whiff of This: Perfumes (fragrances) – the Invisible Chemical Poisons (Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks), xx.
(6) U.S. House of Representatives (Sept. 16, 1986). “Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace.” Report by the Committee on Science & Technology, Report 99-827.
(7) Pressinger, Richard M.Ed and Sinclair, Wayne MD. “ Researching effects of chemicals and pesticides upon health.” (Accessed September 2, 2005). Introduction.
(8) EHN, “Fabric Softeners: Health Risks from Dryer Exhaust and Treated Fabrics.” Distributed by the Environmental Health Network, with permission of Julia Kendall (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(9) EPA. “Identification of Polar volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Microenvironments.” Environmental Protection Agency Report No. EPA/600/D-91/074, Paper #A312 (March 1, 1991): Our Little Place (Accessed September 2, 2005).
(10) NTP, “Pthealate Facts.” Not Too Pretty (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(11) NTP, “Phthalates in Cosmetics in America Report.” Not Too Pretty (Accessed September 2, 2005). Introduction.
(12) FPINVA, “Fragrance Facts & Fiction.” Fragranced Products Information Network (Accessed August 29, 2005). Body.
(13) Rorem, Sharon (Aug 11, 2003).  “What’s In My Perfume?” Suite 101: Fragrance-Free Nation: (accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(14) LA.  “No Scents Makes Sense.” The Lung Association: New Brunswick  (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(15) QGBS. “Dangers of fragrance: WHY GO FRAGRANCE FREE?” Quantum Growth Business Solutions (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(16) Ephraim, Rebecca RD, CCN (April 2002). “Smells Can Make You Sick.” (Accessed September 2, 2005). Introduction.
(17) ALA, “Asthma: FAQs.” American Lung Association of Texas (Accessed September 2, 2005). Introduction.
(18) Adams, Brandon (Sept 2003). “More than 12% of Population Reports Extreme Sensitivity to Low Levels of Common Chemicals.” Journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(19) MCSRR.  “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome- Fact Sheet.” MCS Referral and Resources. (Accessed September 2, 2005). Introduction.
(20) Lyman, Francesca (Feb. 12, 2003). “What the nose knows – Think twice before buying a loved one perfume, cologne.” MSNBC (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(21) FPINVA. “Overview.” Fragranced Products Information Network (Accessed September 2, 2005). Body.
(22) ALA, “What Are Asthma and Allergy Triggers?” American Lung Association (February 2002): (Accessed October 21, 2005).

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