Latest News

<--Return to Latest News Main Page

Fragrances: What Your Nose Needs to Know by Pamela Lundquist 2006
Children's Health Environmental Coalition 


Our noses tell us a great deal about our world--the toast is burning...the baby needs a diapers change...the milkís gone bad. Aroma doesn't simply warn, though. We derive pleasure from scents, such as those from fresh flowers, hot coffee, baking bread.

Given the strong feelings that smells can evoke, it's no surprise that fragrance has become an "essential" ingredient in many consumer products, including air fresheners, cosmetics and beauty aids, cleaning products, paper goods, pesticides, food, candy and many other products you wouldn't necessarily associate with perfume. In fact, according to a source at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the government agency that regulates cosmetic products, "The fragrance market is experiencing the biggest increase in almost any industry, with new scents and scent identification added to new products."

Since good smells sell, fragrances are also used to cover up offensive odors that products made from chemicals can have. Barbara Wilkie, president of the board for the Environmental Health Network (EHN) in California, notes that fragrances are added to poisonous pesticides "to make them smell like perfume!" That may be stretching it, but floral scents may make pesticides less unpleasant and, therefore, more likely to be used.

Artificial scents can also enhance artificial flavors--powerful combinations of fragrance and taste can make you think that pink bubble gum is strawberry rather than raspberry, when in fact it is neither.

Today, most fragrances are synthesized, primarily from petroleum products. About 3,000 chemicals are used in the fragrance industry, but very few of these have been tested for their cancer-causing potential or other health effects. The use of fragrances in an increasing number of products also increases the chances that someone will develop skin irritation or an allergic reaction. Allergic reactions to fragrances are on the rise, increasing from 9 percent to about 12 to 13 percent of dermatitis patients over the last decade, according to Dr. Donald Belsito, a dermatologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center (as quoted in a February 2002 MSNBC article"Scents and Sensitivities").

We don't have much scientific information on whether fragrances harm children--the research just hasn't been done. Health effects from fragrance chemicals could be more pronounced in children, because they inhale more air, along with the chemicals in it, than adults do. A childís skin is also thinner and therefore more permeable than an adultís is. Also, since their detoxification systems are not yet fully developed, children arenít able to process out harmful substances as well as adults can.

Some of these health problems associated with chemicals found in fragrances can show up right away, like allergic reactions. Others, like cancer, may not develop for many years.

Ingredients that Smell of Danger

A single fragrance usually contains multiple chemicals--as few as 10 chemicals or as many as several hundred. One study conducted at the University of California, San Diego, showed that mixing multiple chemicals together in a fragrance brew can actually make each individual chemical more potent, so that less was needed to cause a sensory reaction. The researchers also discovered that fragrances don't just stimulate our olfactory nerve, which identifies scent. The chemicals can also stimulate other nerves that perceive irritation. And they've found that as exposure time to a fragrance increases, irritation grows, even though the scent itself may seem to diminish.

Many chemicals used in the fragrance industry are known irritants. For example, the commonly used citrus scent, d-limonene, can cause skin and eye irritation, difficulty breathing and bronchial irritation. It can also react with ozone in indoor air to form tiny particles that aggravate lung and heart disease. Ethanol, a common solvent base used in many consumer products, may also induce headache and nausea. Camphor is another irritant capable of causing headaches, shortness of breath, weakness and central nervous system depression.

Another group of chemicals called phthalates (pronounced "tha-lates") are often used in fragrance products. Two in particular, diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dimethyl phthalate (DMP), are used in fragrance formulas because they help the scent evaporate more slowly and last longer. But certain phthalates are suspected endocrine disruptors and some phthalates are possible carcinogens. A September 2000 study of eight-year-old Puerto Rican girls linked exposure to DEP, DMP and other phthalates with premature breast development. Phthalate can be absorbed through the skin and exposure is higher than previously believed. In fact, a metabolite of DBP was found in the urine of all 286 people tested in a recent study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women of child-bearing age had the highest levels of the metabolite, which is a reproductive and developmental toxicant in rodents.

Stinky Regulation

The fragrance industry is, by and large, self-regulated. That is, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), an organization that receives funding from the fragrance industry and represents its interests worldwide, provides guidelines for it members on the use and safety of fragrances. IFRA guidelines are based on research conducted by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), another industry-funded organization that tests raw materials used in the fragrance industry. The guidelines are not examined or overseen by any government agency. Choosing to adhere to IFRAís guidelines is purely voluntary, and the FDA or an independent third party rarely conducts tests on fragrance ingredients.

While IFRA currently recommends against the use of more than 30 substances and advises limiting the use of many more, consider the following:

  • RIFM has data on approximately 1800 of roughly 2500-3000 chemicals used in the fragrance industry.
  • RIFM tests only raw materials. Very little is known about how these ingredients interact when combined in fragrance formulas. Sometimes, a finished fragrance mixture is tested by the company that produced it, but the company isnít required to share that information with any government agency or organization.
  • The ingredients are most commonly tested for allergenicity, phototoxicity, and general toxicity by oral and dermal routes. However, tests are focused on the effects that fragrance ingredients have on the skin.
  • RIFM rarely test the effects of these chemicals when inhaled. It is "in the middle of a multi-year program of developing a testing protocol" to study this, according to RIFM spokesperson Glen Roberts.
  • No specific consideration is given to childrenís special vulnerability.
  • An unknown number of chemicals are tested for long-term effects and carcinogenicity. These tests are conducted only if current data indicate that the substance may cause cancer or other long-term health effects.

While the FDA doesnít test or regulate fragrance ingredients in many products, the agency does have jurisdiction over perfumes and other cosmetics. However, regulation is quite soft. No pre-market testing of products or ingredients is required, despite the fact that nearly 25 percent of respondents questioned in a 1994 FDA study responded "yes" to having suffered an allergic reaction to personal care products. If the FDA decides to ban a product for health or safety reasons, the burden of proof lies with the FDA to show that the product is harmful. Only nine ingredients are prohibited for use in cosmetics by the FDA. Any other substance (except color additives, which are strictly regulated) may be used.

No "Scents" in Labeling

Just to make things more confusing, it turns out that scent formulas are often protected as private information by law. That means, youíll often see the generic term "fragrance" or "perfume" on a label without information about the actual chemicals used and the amounts. Of course, this makes it difficult for consumers to avoid products containing ingredients that may cause allergic reactions. It also makes it difficult for researchers to study the potential health effects of fragrances.

Even products labeled "fragrance-free" may, in fact, contain fragrance! According to FDA Consumer, the term "fragrance-free" implies that a cosmetic product has no detectable odor, but it may contain fragrance used to mask a bad-smelling raw material. If chemicals are used to mask odors, however, the manufacturer is required to indicate "fragrance" in the listing of ingredients on the label.

Where Does It All Go?

Synthetic chemicals in fragrance products don't just disappear into thin air. Both consumers and manufacturers are guilty of rinsing them down the drain. Wastewater treatment facilities do not screen out these chemicals, and they subsequently end up in our environment. A March 2002 U.S. Geological Survey report on wastewater contaminants in Americaís streams found fragrances in 27 percent of 139 streams studied. Synthetic musk compounds, used in cosmetics and incense, have been detected in human fat tissue and breast milk, as well as in aquatic life. Without sufficient toxicity data we can only guess what the effect of these chemicals will be on our health and the health of our ecosystems.

For more information on fragrance, see the following articles:

Fragrance in Perfumes and Cosmetics
Fragrances in Cleaning Products, Fabric Softeners and Laundry Detergents
Fragrances in Air Fresheners and Deodorizers
Fragrances in Candles, Incense and Potpourri
How to Avoid Overexposure to Fragrances

Safe Products without Harmful Chemicals

top of page


Copyright © All rights reserved.

Telephone: 310-457-5176 or 888-377-8877 | Fax: 877-885-4657 | For General Information:

Webmaster for Shelley R. Kramer