Is Your Perfume Poison?

June 29, 2015 Updated: June 29, 2015

Spritzing on perfume or cologne is a daily ritual for many, not to mention that the vast majority of personal care products – shampoo, lotion, deodorant – contain fragrances of their own.

There’s a dirty little secret the fragrance industry would rather you not know about, however, which is the extreme toxicity of many of these products. Hidden behind their pleasant scents are typically chemicals linked to hormone disruption, reproductive problems, and even cancer.

Many perfumes sold at department stores, big-box retailers, and virtually everywhere else can aptly be described as poison – and this means that you could very well be sacrificing your health by wearing them…

‘Fragrance’ Can Contain Virtually Anything

I caution against using any synthetic perfume or cologne, or any other synthetically fragranced personal care product, as they’re almost always loaded with synthetic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies, and more. 

And although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually has direct authority to regulate harmful ingredients in cosmetics and personal care products, it doesn’t exercise it… The Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains:

“When you see ‘fragrance’ on a personal care product’s label, read it as ‘hidden chemicals.’ A major loophole in FDA’s federal law lets manufacturers of products like shampoo, lotion, and body wash include nearly any ingredient in their products under the name ‘fragrance’ without actually listing the chemical.

Companies that manufacture personal care products are required by law to list the ingredients they use, but fragrances and trade-secret formulas are exempt.”

What does this mean for a health-conscious person like yourself? When you purchase a fragrance, it could contain any number of the 3,100 or so stock chemical ingredients used by the fragrance industry. What blend is in most products you buy, exactly, is virtually impossible to ascertain, aside from testing it in a lab – and this is actually what the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics did…

(Vetiver Aromatics/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0
(Vetiver Aromatics/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0


14 Secret Chemicals Found, on Average, in Fragrance Products

Laboratory tests commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and analyzed by EWG, found a total of 38 chemicals not listed on the labels in 17 name-brand fragrances (such as Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Bath & Body Works, Old Spice, Calvin Klein, and more).

The average fragrance product contained 14 chemicals that were not disclosed on the label (along with another 15 that were listed!). The report noted:

“Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.

Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues. These include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, a synthetic fragrance ingredient that concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk.”

Who’s Looking Out for the Safety of Fragrance Ingredients?

The Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 requires cosmetics companies to list ingredients on labels, but it exempts fragrance, leaving consumers in the dark about what’s in such products.

The FDA, however, is equally in the dark about fragrance ingredients, and has not assessed the vast majority of such chemicals for safety when they’re used in spray-on personal care products – and certainly not their much enhanced, synergistic toxicities when blended together. So if the FDA isn’t doing the job of investigating the safety of these ingredients, who is? 

The fragrance industry is allowed to regulate itself, through a trade association known as the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This association is responsible for conducting safety tests to determine the ingredients safe for use for their own industry – but this association has not evaluated the majority of the chemicals either!

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ report, 66 percent of the secret chemicals, and 19 percent of the listed chemicals, found in product tests have not been assessed for safety. Making matters worse, even for the chemicals that are tested, there are serious questions about whether the industry’s research institute is really as “independent” as IFRA claims it to be. Dr. Samuel Epstein, M.D., chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, and author of Toxic Beauty, warns: 

“This testing is minimal and restricted to local effects on human skin, and short-term toxicity tests in rodents.”

Which Toxic Poisons May Be Lurking in Your Favorite Fragrance?

The term “fragrance,” under US law, actually means a combination of chemicals that gives a perfume or cologne its distinct scent. These ingredients may be derived from petroleum or natural raw materials, or they may be produced synthetically. Perfume manufacturers typically purchase fragrance mixtures from companies that specialize in developing fragrances (known as fragrance houses) and then combine them to create a unique scent.

It is this chemical combination that is typically kept protected as a “trade secret,” while other chemicals in the products (solvents, stabilizers, preservatives, dyes, and UV absorbers) may be listed on the label. So what is a typical fragrance actually made of? Some common offenders include:

  • Parabens: Synthetic preservatives known to interfere with hormone production and release.
  • Phthalates: Another synthetic preservative that’s carcinogenic and linked to reproductive effects (decreased sperm counts, early breast development, birth defects) and liver and kidney damage.
  • Synthetic musks: These are linked to hormone disruption and are thought to persist and accumulate in breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood, and the environment.

According to EWG:

“An analysis of the chemical contents of products reveals that the innocuous-looking ‘fragrance’ often contains chemicals linked to negative health effects. Phthalates, used to make fragrances last longer, are associated [with] damage to the male reproductive system, and artificial musks accumulate in our bodies and can be found in breast milk. Some artificial musks are even linked to cancer. 

And if you’ve got asthma, watch out — fragrance formulas are considered to be among the top 5 known allergens, and can trigger asthma attacks. 

The same kinds of chemicals are often used for fragrances in cleaning products, scented candles, and air fresheners. To avoid those unpleasant side effects, choose fragrance-free products, but beware labels that say ‘unscented.’ It may only mean that the manufacturer has added yet another fragrance to mask the original odor.” 

Fragrances Impact More Than Just the Wearer

Have you ever gotten a headache because someone sitting next to you is doused in perfume? Or felt dizzy, nauseous, irritable, confused, or fatigued due to fragrances worn by coworkers at the office? These are signs that you likely have a chemical sensitivity to fragrance, and it’s more common than you might think. So anytime you or someone else wears a fragrance, it not only poses a health risk to the wearer, but also potentially to anyone around him or her, who will be exposed to the scent whether they like it or not.

Our powerful attraction to fragrances is now being manipulated by advertisers and marketers to sell products, as well, raising some serious health and ethical concerns. Your sense of smell is one of your most primitive senses and is hard-wired deep into primitive areas of your brain. According to Dr. Stuart Firestein of Columbia University, your olfactory system is very closely connected to your limbic system, which is said to contain your most basic drives. So it’s not surprising that scent is powerfully connected to both emotion and memory.

Product manufacturers know this, and as a result fragrances are added to far more products than you may realize, often to mask the odor of noxious chemicals but also to appeal to your emotional side. Fragrances are even added to medications (inhalers and sports creams), furniture polish, dental floss, nail polish, paper, some disposable razors, and even construction materials such as paint and varnish. Many stores now use “scent branding” to draw people in, like bees to honey—and KEEP people in. Customers in ambient-scented stores have been found to shop for 20 to 30 percent longer.

Avoiding toxic fragrance does not mean that you must forgo all pleasant scents in your home or personal care products, organic essential oils are one option(miss_j/iStock)


Non-Toxic Fragrances Are Available

Avoiding toxic fragrance does not mean that you must forgo all pleasant scents in your home or personal care products, as truly natural options are available (although if you are sensitive keep in mind that botanical extracts can also cause reactions in some people).

Organic essential oils are one option (you can even add them to your own non-fragranced lotion, for instance), and may be found in some safe fragrances that are 100 percent naturally derived. This includes essential oils and isolates that come from botanical ingredients such as flowers, fruits, seeds, bark, leaves, wood, and other natural raw materials. 

They may cost more, and the scent may only last a couple of hours after each application, but they won’t pose the health risks of synthetic fragrances. Another option, of course, is to forgo fragrance entirely… in fact, a woman’s natural scent has been found to be more seductive than perfume, scoring another point for the power of nature!