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Toxic Fragrance: Why You Want to Avoid This Common Ingredient

If there’s one ingredient you should always watch out for in common household products, it’s fragrance.

Fragrance sounds nice. It conjures up images of smelling fresh flowers or breathing in the scent of clean morning air. But unfortunately, manufactured fragrance is not a pleasant thing at all.

Many of the fragrances you breathe in from manufactured products are synthetic. They are created in a lab from a mixture of chemicals. They often fall in the “How do you pronounce that?” category.

And the effects of many synthetic fragrances can be summed up in one word: toxic.

However, to get a better understanding of just how dangerous this seemingly innocent ingredient is and how it may be affecting your health right now, it’s worth taking a closer look at the world of mass-produced scents.

The Truth About Fragrance

If you make a habit of scanning labels to catch toxic ingredients, you probably have some specific ones you look for. Maybe it’s artificial flavoring and MSG in food products or sulfates in personal care products.

But what throws a lot of people off, even the health conscious ones, is finding the word “fragrance” on an ingredient list (sometimes, it is instead listed as “scent” or the really-fancy-sounding “parfum.”)

Now, “fragrance” isn’t unpronounceable. It doesn’t sound like a harmful ingredient. And maybe if all or most of the other ingredients check out, you buy the product anyway.

This is an unfortunate trap that many people fall into. And it exists because companies often don’t want you to know what really goes into their products.

As briefly mentioned, synthetic fragrances are actually a mix of many different chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the average product containing fragrance has about 14 additional chemical ingredients not listed on the label.

This means you have no way of knowing which chemicals make up the word “fragrance” in a specific product.

There are over 3000 possible chemicals that could be in a fragrance cocktail, many of which are derived from petroleum (yes, petroleum, the same ingredient at the base of gasoline, motor oil, jet fuel, asphalt, bicycle tires, and more… and the alarm bells should be ringing already!)

None of these chemicals in “fragrance” have to be disclosed to you, the consumer, because they are protected as “trade secrets.” And that alone should be enough to make anyone wonder what the manufacturers may be trying to hide.

Most Common Products Containing Fragrance

Before getting into the specific dangers of fragrance, here’s a look at where it’s most likely hiding out in your home. Be warned: If you start checking labels for this ingredient, it will probably turn up in more places than you think.

Perfume and Cologne

Perfume and cologne are two products that are obviously loaded with fragrance chemicals. After all, their sole purpose is to smell appealing.

In a report by the EWG, some of the top brand name perfumes and colognes contained as many as 24 secret chemicals- in a single product. What’s really concerning is that some of these chemicals (like diethyl phthalate and musk ketone) are known to accumulate in human tissues.

This means that if you use any of these products regularly, the toxins may well be building up in your body.

Cosmetics

There are numerous toxins lurking in cosmetic products. Fragrance is one of them, showing up in scented lip gloss, scented nail polish, and other makeup products. Even makeup that doesn’t smell like much may contain fragrance to mask the smell of other chemicals used in the formula.

If you are a makeup wearer, just think about how often you wear it and how long it spends sitting on your skin. Your exposure time to toxic fragrance in makeup can really add up quickly!

Other Personal Care Products

Personal care products are a huge problem when it comes to fragrance. Nearly any conventional product you apply to your body that has a scent will contain fragrance chemicals.

For example, one report from 2011 found that more than 95% of shampoos, conditioners, and hair styling products contain fragrance. And that’s not even counting soap, lotion, deodorant, sunscreen, and the many other products you use everyday.

Candles and Air Fresheners

Like perfume, candles and air fresheners are designed specifically to smell nice. Except, of course, they “freshen” your home instead of your person.

Not surprisingly, these two products are also one of the biggest sources of toxic fragrance in your home.

In fact, one study from 2011 that examined 25 scented products, including air fresheners, found 24 chemicals that are classified as toxic or hazardous by U.S. regulations. Most notably, none of these chemicals were on the label. They were all hiding under the word “fragrance”.

Cleaners and Laundry Products

Ironically, many cleaning products contain such harsh-smelling (and toxic) chemicals that manufacturers add even more chemicals to mask the smell. It can actually be difficult to find an unscented cleaner because fragrance is so prevalent.

Laundry products are also a major concern. Detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets frequently contain synthetic fragrance. They cause problems both inside and outside the home, since products are typically vented outdoors.

Dangers of Toxic Fragrance Chemicals

Absorbed Through Your Skin

One of the biggest dangers of fragrance comes from skin contact.

A growing body of research is indicating that scented products are one of the biggest triggers for allergies in the world. The report, which was from 2016, found that about 1/3 of participants experienced some kind of allergic reaction to fragrance.

This is bad news if you have sensitive skin.

Contact dermatitis (an allergic skin reaction) is one of the most common symptoms of applying a fragrance product topically. Other reactions include hives, sinus problems, and migraines.

Another scary issue is that fragrance chemicals can also be absorbed into your body through your skin. Those that are small enough will even enter your bloodstream. And as mentioned, several of these chemicals are known to accumulate in human tissue.

The specific dangers?

Besides allergies, these toxic chemicals can increase your cancer risk. A common one, styrene, is considered a human carcinogen, and plenty of others are potential carcinogens.

Other fragrance chemicals are also endocrine disruptors, which means they can alter your hormones, causing all kinds of damage. Some are even linked to birth defects and child developmental issues through prenatal exposure.

Breathed Into Your Lungs

dangers of toxic fragrance

Fragrance products like air fresheners are one of the top contributors to indoor air pollution. They emit chemicals known as VOCs (short for volatile organic compounds) that are very toxic to your lungs and the rest of your body.

Even other products that you wouldn’t think of as airborne can still get into your lungs. Perfume and cleaning chemicals, for example, are often sprayed and easy to inhale. Scented laundry products get vented outside and can be breathed in by anyone nearby.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest dangers of fragrance products is lung irritation or damage.

Just being exposed to cologne was enough to worsen asthma symptoms according to one study. Other research on VOCs, which includes certain fragrance chemicals, indicates that exposure can increase the risk of chronic respiratory problems in children.

Other common reactions to inhaling synthetic fragrance include migraines, dizziness, and congestion.

If that weren’t enough, fragrance products also release compounds that react with ozone to form secondary pollutants. This includes formaldehyde and acetaldehyde- both of which are carcinogens.

Damaging to the Environment

While this article is mainly focused on the toxic nature of fragrance for human health, it’s important not to forget about the effects chemicals have on animals and the environment.

Fragrance chemicals are most likely going to end up either in the indoor atmosphere of your home or in the outdoor world. They get washed away, sprayed into the air, vented directly outdoors, and so on. And that’s not even counting how many chemicals “escape” during the manufacturing process.

The same chemicals that accumulate in your body can also build up in the ground, water, insects, and animals. Ironically, this eventually comes back around to humans through the food chain and also does untold damage in the meantime.

Most Common (and Problematic) Fragrance Chemicals

Phthalates

Phthalates are linked to major issues like altered hormone levels and developmental and reproductive toxicity. They also appear to cause sperm damage and are linked to lower IQ in children who had prenatal exposure. Phthalates are banned in other countries and even in certain products in the U.S.- but not from fragrance.

Synthetic Musks

Musk is a popular scent, but the synthetic forms are awful for your health. They are known to accumulate in the environment, human fat tissues, and breast milk. Some of the most used musk chemicals are endocrine disrupters, toxin to the brain and lungs, and are linked to reproductive toxicity.

Look for them under the names galaxolide, musk ketone, tonalide, and musk xylene.

Styrene

Styrene has a sweet scent but can be toxic to your lungs when inhaled. It’s also a probable human carcinogen, endocrine disruptor, and can be toxic to red blood cells and your liver. Unfortunately, styrene is very commonly used in fragrance products.

Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a human carcinogen and can also cause skin irritation. It’s still used in product in the U.S. (despite being banned in other countries). It may be present in small amounts in fragrance or form when other compounds react with ozone.

Acetaldehyde

Acetaldehyde has a fruity smell- and is listed as a probable human carcinogen. It can also cause kidney, reproductive, nervous system, and respiratory damage. Like formaldehyde, acetaldehyde can form after a reaction of fragrance compounds with ozone.

Chloromethane

This chemical can have acute and chronic effects on your nervous system. It can also affect your liver, kidneys, and skin and may have developmental toxicity as well. Like the other chemicals, chloromethane is commonly used in household fragrance products.

The List Goes On

This just scratches the surface of possible fragrance chemicals and their negative effects. The list could go on for a while, but you get the picture of just how harmful synthetic scents can be for your health.

Why Are Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Allowed?

At this point, you may be wondering how all these harmful chemicals can end up in fragrance.

The truth of the matter is that cosmetics, personal care products, and even home goods are all highly unregulated industries. The U.S. FDA has placed few restrictions on chemicals that are considered harmful and banned in other countries.

In fact, cosmetic ingredients are not required to be free of harmful effects before going on the market. Chemicals that have been used for long periods of time have to be proven to cause a high level of harm (rather than proven safe) before restrictions are even considered.

Even then, compliance is often voluntary for companies, or it takes years for the government to phase out chemicals.

To make things worse, companies do not have to disclose fragrance ingredients on the label because they are considered a “trade secret”. This makes it impossible for you, the consumer, to even make an informed decision.

Until companies change their policy and list all the ingredients in their products, the best choice you can make is to avoid fragrance altogether.

And to be honest, things are unlikely to change without a new policy because those synthetic, harmful chemicals are cheaper than natural fragrance ingredients. Most companies likely won’t give up this cost savings easily.

How to Avoid Toxic Fragrance + Better Choices

When it comes to avoiding fragrance, the best option is to read labels. First, do a quick scan to see if it’s listed in the ingredients. If it is, do your health a favor and don’t buy the product (or get rid of it if it is on your shelf). Also, be sure to look for those synonyms of “fragrance” some companies use such as “parfum” and “scent”.

A few companies will actually list the ingredients in their fragrance, either on the label or on a website. In this case, you can put any you aren’t sure about through EWG’s Skin Deep database to see if they are toxic.

Something else to beware of is “fragrance-free” or “free and clear” products. Remember that labeling is mostly about marketing — not information. Products may have chemicals added to mask the scent of other ingredients so that they becomes “scentless”. Once again, double check the ingredients.

Also, be on the lookout for greenwashing. The word “natural” on a product is very loosely regulated and doesn’t rule out synthetic ingredients. Even if you see the words “natural fragrance,” don’t assume the product is safe unless the manufacturers have actually listed the ingredients and they check out.

So what should you look for?

One smart step is to look for USDA Certified Organic cosmetics/personal care products if you live in the U.S. This ensures — in a strict process independent of the companies involved in selling the product — that the products don’t contain potentially harmful ingredients, including those otherwise often found in “fragrance.”

Now, do note that products with no scent added are a good choice. You just have to be sure the company really hasn’t added fragrance or any masking chemicals (and being USDA Certified Organic is one such method of assurance.)

Naturally scented products can also be a good option… again, as long as you verify the true ingredients. Look for essential oils (not fragrance oils), herbs, spices, or plant extracts to be used as ingredients.

And if you are looking for chemical-free skincare…

No Fragrance Added, Anti-Aging Skincare

If you are looking for highly effective anti-aging skincare without dubious ingredients —  including NO synthetic fragrance — look into the Age-Defying Dream Cream from Purity Woods.

You won’t see the word “fragrance” anywhere on the label, since the Dream Cream relies on the gentle and natural scent of maple leaves and other key natural ingredients in its powerful formula. What you will find are real plant extracts, including powerful antioxidants and deeply moisturizing botanicals.

This anti-aging cream has earned the rigorous USDA Certified Organic label to confirm that it safe from toxic ingredients (even the farming of the natural ingredients it does include use organic methods!)

And beyond the fact that it is so clean, you’ll LOVE how well it works to erase the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, age spots, etc. solely with the power of plants.

Look into the Age-Defying Dream Cream here, and remember to start avoiding fragrance in all your products to get away from its harmful effects.

25 thoughts on “Toxic Fragrance: Why You Want to Avoid This Common Ingredient”

    • Hi Tarisai, many just use essential oils, some use perfumes that use natural essential oils only… you can do an online search for things like “toxin-free perfume” or “fragrance-free perfume.”

      Reply
    • Talcum powder is safe to use. Been using it for many years. My government cares and looks after me. They would not let any bad things be put in my cosmetics because if I get sick it costs them a lot of money – hospitals and medicare. HA HA. Just read that my talc has Parfum.
      Seriously now, I like your articles and this page where I can re-read articles in top RH corner. Thanks

      Reply
  1. Thank you for the informative article. How about aromatherapy and essential oils, are there any downsides associated with essential oils?

    Reply
    • Hi Aigul, first it must be noted that there is not a single ingredient / plant on earth that someone somewhere is not allergic or sensitive to. Regarding essential oils, there are certainly some that can cause reactions with excess application / inhalation / consumption (they need to be diluted etc). Because there are so many essential oils it would be a book to cover here, but if you are using oils and wonder it is wise to search online, for example, for any precautions about that oil. Or, read any number of the great guides on essential oils out there, such as Eric Zielinski’s.

      Reply
      • Thank you for this statement. I was also wondering if using essential oils may cause different reactions in the skin.

        Reply
  2. This is probably why I sneeze entering the aisles in the super market that have
    the detergents, household cleaners, scented candles and air fresheners!
    It’s so nice to have the essential and pure carrier oils on the market to use.

    My husband walked into my sitting area once, just after I had applied some
    nice essential oils and wrinkled up his nose, “What’s that smell?” I said, “That’s
    the smell of a very expensive spa and wellness center!”

    However, we have to be more careful than ever when good old ‘lemon’ and
    ‘rose’ can be chemically duplicated… even cinnamon, cloves, and other arromatic
    spices. I believe that when we listen to our bodies and train them to be
    sensitive to the ‘crap’ we can avoid more and stay healthier!

    Reply
  3. Thank you. I have a lot of home scent bottles with sticks, received as gifts, which literally give me migraines. So I won’t use them or give them to others. But I don’t know how to dispose of them safely. Can you advise. And I cannot walk past shops cleaning with cheap floral bleach without feeling sick. I thought I am just extra sensitive. But I hadn’t considered makeup. I don’t wear much, but I will check everything.

    Reply
  4. Great information! Even this old “dog” learned some new tricks from your article. I have issues
    with these “sickening” products mentioned and plan to do some HOUSE CLEANING. ie tossing out these culprits!

    Thanks!

    Patricia

    Reply
  5. A few years ago, I decided to detox my internal and external environment. It was an eye opening experience. I discovered that even the everyday things that I took for granted as being safe and healthy contained toxic fragrances. In your article you played detective, and provided detailed information about what the toxins are and their effect on the body as well as gave helpful strategies on how to delete fragrances and toxins. Brian, you have saved people that want to clean up their external environment much time and the ability to live a healthier lifestyle in less time. Brilliant, that you so much!
    PS
    I recommend that people wanting to detox their environment be gentle with themselves as this can take some time and additional money to replace things like cleaning supplies, etc.

    Reply
  6. Thanks for increasing awareness. “Consumer products such as shampoo, cleaning products and paint now contribute as much to urban air pollution as tailpipe emissions from vehicles, according to a new study led by NOAA and including researchers at the University of California, Davis.” The results were published Feb. 16, 2018 in the journal Science. https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/consumer-industrial-products-overtake-transportation-source-urban-air-pollution Think about this the next time your city/state has a smog alert.

    Keith

    Reply
  7. As a manufacturer of essential oil-based personal care products for over 30 years, I’d like to share that it is also important to be aware that the cosmetic industry (including most chemists and formulators) make absolutely NO distinction between pure essential oils derived from plants, and the synthetic fragrance oils that they are familiar with.
    MANY products labelled as containing ‘essential oils’ actually contain only similar-smelling fragrance oils concoctions (even the really big companies are guilty of this.) It is very frustrating to hear people state that they are ‘allergic’ to essential oils when they then show me the ‘essential oil’ based products they are allergic to, which inevitably contain just conventional cosmetic chemicals plus synthetic fragrance oils. Be on the lookout for these imposters, educate yourself as to how real essential oils smell so that you know the difference. Sensitivity to pure essential oils is relatively rare, and they are definitely the superior choice over synthetic fragrance oils, including those falsely marketed on the product packaging as ‘essential oils.’
    Dr. Eric Zielinski’s books and website provide an excellent introduction to true essential oils and their proper uses….I recommend his work.

    Reply
  8. I shall be passing this on, especially to people who use sprays. I have often wondered what was in ‘parfum’ etc. Happily we have good local health shops (in the UK) that sell cleaning products which are much better. Faith is a well-known brand here for SLS-free and other nasties-free shampoo and conditioner. Aloe Pura makes non-paraben skin products, including sun block.

    Reply
  9. Thanks Brian for this article. My next step is to do a thorough product check from household cleaners to personal use products. Also thanks for a fabulous Summit. You are much appreciated and your dad jokes too!

    Reply
  10. Somehow, this information is not at all new. I’ve known about this for many, many years now which is why I never use any fragranced product in my home or on my skin or family’s. Over the years, I’ve warned people about this but they just totally ignored me. Which makes me realize that is why they are all sick except me and my family. Funny, huh?

    Reply
  11. I just used some alcohol disinfectants that had fragrances. Even after I washed my hands multiple times with soap and water, that fragrance is still strong on my hands. I plan to toss this since the lingering smell concerns me (and gives me a little headache).

    Reply
  12. Brian, thank you for this indepth and easily understood article. You’ve certainly opened my eyes to the amount of toxic products that are in my home….. from scented soap to scented body lotions and make up, and that’s without even mentioning the huge quantity of cleaning products. OMG! because of Covid and the current rigid lockdown rules here in Sydney Australia I’ve bought extra of each product. Now I’ve got decisions to make about whether I use these extras up, then go “clean” or just toss them and start “clean” now. Living on a disability pension with money so limited is the crux of my decision but I will definitely go “clean” soonest. Thank you again Brian. I’m enjoying these talks.

    Reply
  13. Just to give you a little more to think about, talc is NOT safe. It contains asbestos. I’m not certain, you may have been poking fun with the government looking after you since talc products have been in litigation. You can google the dangers of talc and you will find a lot of information. Many cosmetics (blush, face powder) contain talc. As for your body powder you are safer with cornstarch although it doesn’t feel as good.
    Good luck!

    Reply
  14. Thank you for this accurate and informative article. I intend to share with our friends and family who Oooh-Pooh my adult son’s severe reactions to many products, especially those which are endrocrine interrupters. Fabric softeners will bring him to his knees. He suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome, which is not a minor illness. He is also sensitive to many essential oils and all of the Italian seasonings.

    Reply
  15. I am becoming addicted to reading these articles. Thank you again as my job involves cleaning and we use many chemicals with fragrances. Will definitely take note.

    Reply
  16. My husband and I stayed in a Mexican hotel that had an automatic spray scent. After being exposed to it we could not even remember our phone number when asked in the lobby. We immediately removed the dispenser and placed it outside for the rest of our stay. We thankfully regained our acuity directly after some fresh air. My son also had memory problems after burning a scented candle for a period of time. I am not sure of the science behind it but we know it was the scents.

    Reply

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