Why Fragrance Stinks

Why Fragrance Stinks

by Elena Greco

Typical reading time: 7 minutes

November 28, 2010

Fragrance can be a touchy issue. Some people seem to feel that wearing fragrance is a form of self-expression, one which others should have no say about. In addition, many people are simply not aware how much fragrance they emit from the personal care products they wear. Why does this matter? Because it is making us sick. All of us.

What is fragrance?

The word fragrance is misleading. It prompts images of roses and sweet-smelling things, but in fact, at least 95% of all commercial “fragrance” is petrochemicals and a few other chemicals that vary in their degree of toxicity to human beings. By “toxic,” I mean a substance that causes temporary or permanent physical or mental illness or death (definitely permanent) in human beings.

In former times, fragrance consisted primarily of essential oils from natural substances. That is no longer the case. Commercial fragrance, whether in the form of cologne or fragrance that is added to personal care products, is composed of synthetic chemicals. When you wear these fragrances, you are absorbing these chemicals through your skin, and those around you are absorbing them into their bodies through their lungs, nose and eyes. You might not mind absorbing essential rose oil into your body, but what about cocamide DEA, talc (lung irritant and carcinogen when inhaled), propylene glycol (neurotoxin, can also cause contact dermatitis, kidney and liver damage), acetone, benzaldehyde, pdichlorobenzene (a carcinogen found in air freshener), diazolidinyl urea (which releases formaldehyde, a carcinogen and lung sensitizer), toluene (don’t get me started) and methylene chloride? Some of the chemicals in fragrance are respiratory irritants, some of neurotoxins and others are known carcinogens. Again, I strongly urge you not to take my word for this, but to research it for yourself.

The FDA does not regulate these chemicals. Why? Because fragrance formulas are legally proprietary, and that means that no one is allowed to know what is in them, including the government. It might seem impossible that someone can put any toxic chemical they care to in a fragrance formula, which is then put into your hand cream or deodorant, but as hard as that might be to believe, it is so. Many of these chemicals have never been investigated as to their potential for harm, and many of the ones that have been tested have been found to be toxic. And virtually no one has studied what the effect of exposure to these chemicals together has. Yet we do not have the right to know what is in the “fragrance” that is in our hair gel or shaving cream, because there is no law protecting us from these unregulated chemicals being put into these products. The Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 requires companies to list the ingredients in their products, but fragrance is exempt. A drug company cannot get an experimental drug approved by the FDA without strenuous trials, but it is absolutely legal for a company which produces personal care products to put fragrance containing untested and potentially toxic products into your body lotion, which is absorbed directly into your skin.

When you put lotion onto your skin, it quickly disappears. Where do you think it goes? Anything you put on your skin is absorbed into your body through the skin into the bloodstream just as if you had eaten it. So you might ask yourself, the next time you use that lotion, or hand sanitizer, or deodorant, or cologne … would I be willing to inject this into my bloodstream? If not, maybe a change is in order. Because your bloodstream is exactly where it is going.

It is my hope that as people become more aware of this enormous problem, companies will become more responsible about the chemicals they put into personal care products and commercial fragrance. Money continues to be one of the strongest forces for change in our society, and if more of us begin to buy products that do not contain harmful chemicals and do not buy those that do contain them, eventually the large manufacturers will begin to take note and stop using these chemicals. The food industry is undergoing just such a change. But until that time, it is up to us to protect ourselves, and it is also our responsibility not to harm those around us.


The most obvious illnesses resulting from fragrance exposure are asthma and multiple chemical sensitivities syndrome, known as MCS. When you wear fragrance containing this myriad of toxic chemicals, asthma sufferers around you have no choice but to breathe the air containing these chemicals, pulling them into their bronchial passages and lungs, which are already taxed. This can cause aggravation of chronic asthma, a severe asthma attack or death as the bronchial tubes swell shut and the muscles constrict. Drugs that purport to treat asthma symptoms are often as toxic as the chemicals that cause it, and they don’t prevent the damage that the chemicals in fragrance do to the body.

This is something I know all too well, because I am an asthma sufferer. If you don’t have asthma or know someone who does (and since we have 15 million asthma sufferers in the US, chances are you do), you might not know that when you have an asthma attack, as the balance between carbon dioxide and oxygen is disrupted, eventually the oxygen required to keep you alive dwindles and you feel as if you’re suffocating. To get an idea what asthma feels like, imagine that someone has their hand over your mouth and nose so that you cannot inhale. As you struggle to breathe, your heart is racing, the adrenaline is coursing through your body, you feel fear, you believe that you must get air or you will die. Are you getting the picture? This is what asthma feels like. Eventually the damage to the lungs is permanent. And every asthmatic event causes more damage. Asthma shortens your life. It certainly decreases the enjoyment of it.

In addition to the unpleasant experience of an asthma event or reaction, each exposure to a particular irritant causes a greater potential for a reaction when exposed to that trigger in the future. So every time you breathe that substance, the swelling and muscular constriction in the bronchial tubes is greater, and the reaction is more intense. Eventually exposure to a very small amount of the substance can cause an instant and serious asthma reaction. This is called sensitization.

In addition, for me, exposure to those particular substances causes an instant contraction of the bronchial muscles, swelling of the bronchial tubes and throat, and makes it extremely difficult or even impossible for me to sing. I am a professional singer. Exposure to fragrance in its various forms harms not only my health, but my professional life.

Someone said to me recently, “Oh, I know you don’t like fragrance.” Experiencing asthma when I am around fragrance has nothing to do with whether I “like” fragrance. I love good-smelling things as much as anyone. Not wanting to breathe toxic chemicals that put my life at risk is not a personal preference, but a life-affirming intention. But asthma aside, do you really think it is polite to force someone to smell something that might not smell good to them? Would you rub yourself with feces and complain, when someone asks you to refrain from doing that, that they are stifling your self-expression? And that is simply a repugnant odor, not one that will cause dangerous or permanent physical harm and suffering, as chemical fragrance can do.

The occurrence of asthma has risen very sharply in the last 30 years, along with associated costs and deaths, possibly in correlation with the rise in pollutants and toxic chemicals in our environment and in the things we use, eat and drink daily. While we can’t individually control the environment, we can each be vigilant about monitoring the things we put into ourselves and that we put into the environment around us that others must breathe.

There is currently a lot of research funded by drug companies trying to find a “cure” for breast cancer and other cancers. But I strongly believe that the reason we have such a sharply increasing occurrence of cancer is not only the enormous increase in environmental pollutants, but our exposure to an increasing number of toxic chemicals that we consume, through personal choice, in our food, our water and our personal care products.

I’ve just discussed the effect that the chemicals in fragrance have on an asthma sufferer, but that is just one of the many dangerous effects of these chemicals. They can cause cancer, central nervous system damage (e.g., brain damage, MS or Alzheimer’s Disease), immune system damage (including Hodgkin’s Disease), headache, nausea, hoarseness, dizziness, rash, coughing, skin irritation, and CNS problems, including depression, hyperactivity, irritability. Phthalates are known hormone disruptors and can cause infertility and miscarriage. All or almost all colognes contain toluene, which can cause liver, kidney and brain damage, as well fetal damage. Look up just one of these chemicals, and you will find a myriad of side effects or illnesses.

But I’m expressing myself!

Getting back to the “personal self-expression” thing, if your olfactory sense is developed, and is as sensitive as it should be naturally, chemicals smell just like that: chemicals. If the olfactory sense has been deadened by repeated and constant exposure to chemicals, a chemical concoction might be the only thing that can excite that sense. But for those who can still smell the roses, cologne stinks! At least the chemical brew sold commercially as “cologne” does. If your means of personal self-expression is wearing that brew of chemicals, you are forcing a lot of people to smell something that is unpleasant to them.

Cumulative danger

You might think that the body is capable of handling one little chemical in your liquid soap, for example. I’m sure it is. But the average person uses about 10 personal care products a day, and each of these products might contain 10 or 15 of these chemicals, so we can be exposing ourselves to literally hundreds of chemicals in this way every day. Exposing yourself to one chemical might not cause much harm, but exposure to many chemicals, in a mixture that could possibly have a synergistic effect, might very well push your body over the edge into an illness. I advocate reading labels religiously before buying anything in order to reduce the number of chemicals you’re exposed to. If there’s anything listed that you don’t understand (and there will be), look it up online. You might be amazed that what is advertised as a “natural” hand cream, for example, contains some long chemical names that turn out to be substances that are dangerous to our health. There is no restriction on how a personal care product can be described. For example, in the food industry, food must meet certain requirements before it is labeled as “organic.” There is no such restriction on personal care products. Manufacturers can say anything they please about the products.

Also beware: companies are not required, and usually do not, list any of the ingredients found in the fragrance they are using. In fact, they often do not know themselves what is in the fragrance, which they buy from another company. The ingredient list will simply say “fragrance.” So when you see the word “fragrance,” you can assume that at least some of the toxic chemicals mentioned here and elsewhere with regard to fragrance composition are present. Companies that are trying their best to present a toxin-free product as their selling point or as their commitment will likely tell you exactly what is in the product.

It is not possible to avoid exposure to chemicals completely, since we live in a polluted environment. But it seems to me that it is to our benefit to reduce the number of chemicals we knowingly expose ourselves to. My apartment is a self-designated “chemical-free zone.” It’s certainly not perfect in that regard, but people who come to my home can feel certain that anything in the apartment is as free from toxic chemicals as I can manage. I can’t control the dust that comes in from the steam heat vent or the pollution in the city air, but I can choose not to expose myself, or my guests, any more than necessary to toxins in the products I use and the food I eat or serve.

I cannot always choose what people around me outside of my home choose to expose me to, though, and sometimes I have an asthma event because they wear, knowingly or unknowingly, products that contain fragrance with toxic chemicals in them. It’s certainly a problem in a work environment, for me and for anyone with asthma or MCS, where we’re exposed to coworkers’ fragrance, sometimes in heavy concentrations, cleaning chemicals that contain fragrance, and even so-called “air fresheners” in the bathrooms. I’m also surprised when I encounter strong fragrance occasionally in a theater or concert hall or conference room, as I would think people who know they are going to be in close quarters with a crowd of people would think twice about dousing themselves with something that other people will be forced to breathe and which could cause health problems for them. And that is why I am writing this, because I hope that it will help people become aware, not only of the toxic chemicals in our personal care products, but of the way in which they can avoid making themselves and other people sick through their choices.

If you have a heart, please don’t wear fragrance in the workplace or in crowded public places where other people have no choice but to breathe what you’re wearing. You could cause unnecessary suffering, illness or death. And if you want to live a long, healthy life, please read labels and avoid exposing yourself unnecessarily to chemicals that can cause you suffering and illness and reduce the quality of your life. Knowledge is power, and in this case, the knowledge is readily available.

Relevant websites that contain information and further resources:

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: http://www.safecosmetics.org
The Environmental Working Group: http://ewg.org
Guide to Less Toxic Products: http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/index.asp?fetch=personal
Physicians for Social Responsibility: http://www.psr.org
Prevent Cancer: www.preventcancer.com
Skin Deep: Cosmetics Database–look up your product here: http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com
Other Environmental Health Links: http://www.preventcancer.com/links
Your Cologne Is Making Me Sick! http://hr.blr.com/whitepapers/HRAdministration/Facilities/YourCologneIsMakingMeSickFragrancesAllergie


See Elena’s bios for more information about the author.

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