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Sweet Poison: What Your Nose Can't Tell You About The Dangers of Perfume

Introduction written by Andrea DesJardins Copyright 1997

Enviroknowís Health & Environment Resource Center is pleased to present "Sweet Poison: What Your Nose Canít Tell You About the Dangers of Perfume." The information provided in this document is intended to introduce the reader to human health issues related to the widespread use of fragrance products.

Culturally, Americans are enamored with fragrances, unlike our European counterparts. Not only are many of the products we use scented, but many products also have a number of scents from which to choose. Thus, not only can you buy a product, but you can choose between 'spring fresh,' 'mountain fresh,' or 'lemon scented' versions of the product.

Americans also love to wear fragrances. This love of fragrance has allowed advertisers to reach their audience by linking fragrance with a desired quality such as 'sexiness,' or 'freshness,' or 'innocence.' This message is so pervasive that many men and women feel it necessary to wear a fragrance in order to be desirable or feel sexy.

Advertisers and marketers also know that there is a very powerful connection between scent and memory, as well as scent and emotion, and they use this frequently in their promotions. The result is that fragrance is considered a 'normal' component of our everyday lives.

Many consumer products contain fragrances. These products include personal products (i.e. perfumes/colognes, shampoos, conditioners, hairspray, shaving cream, make-up, baby care products, deodorants, soap, feminine products, etc.), and household products (i.e. cleaners, air fresheners, bleach, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, etc.).

Perfumes make their way into our mailboxes as well. Many magazines carry "perfume strip" advertisements which waft their odor into the noses of unsuspecting readers. Some companies use scented stationary for their mass mailings. Nobody seems to think that this use of fragrances is anything by pleasant and harmless.

The problem is that fragrance products are not necessarily harmless, and many can cause some very unpleasant effects.

Few people realize that there are at least 5,000 different chemicals used by the fragrance industry in the manufacture of fragrance products. Nor do they realize that a fragrance product such as perfume may contain as many as 600 individual chemical ingredients.

Of the 5,000 different chemicals used in fragrance products, less than 20% have been tested and reported as toxic. Many of those chemicals that have been tested are regulated by the federal government as hazardous materials. The remaining chemicals have not been toxicity tested, so the health effects and regulatory potential are unknown.

Of the 150 highest volume chemicals used in fragrance products, more than 100 can be identified in the air of a room using sophisticated testing techniques. Most of these 100 chemicals are known to be toxic.

Technically, the Food and Drug Administration oversees fragrances under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic act. Although the FDA has jurisdiction, they actually administer very little control over fragrance products, allowing the fragrance industry to police itself. As a result, only about 16% of cosmetic products on the market have been tested for toxicity. Thus, the FDA really knows very little about the health effects of fragrance products because they do not require manufacturers to prove their products are safe. It literally requires an act of congress before the FDA can intervene with the fragrance industry to protect public health interests. However, movements to increase the documentation of adverse reactions to fragrance products with the FDA hopefully will illustrate the need for more stringent oversight of the fragrance industry.

Studies show that fragrance chemicals can cause health effects, primarily at the skin, lungs and brain. Many studies have been conducted to show that fragrance products can cause skin sensitivity, rashes, and dermatitis. In fact, skin sensitivity is one of the best known side effects of fragrances.

Fragrances have also been studied for their effect on people with chronic lung disease, particularly asthma. Study results differ, but some data suggests that as many as 75% of known asthmatics (i.e. approximately 9 million people in the U.S. alone) have asthma attacks that are triggered by perfumes.

Finally, a number of studies have been conducted to show how fragrance affects the brain. Because of the strong connection between scent and memory, we know that fragrance products can cross the blood brain barrier. This is important because it means that fragrance chemicals have the potential to affect, and possibly damage, brain tissue. This kind of effect is called 'neurotoxicity.' For example, Linalool, the most abundant chemical in perfume and fragrance products, is known to cause lethargy, depression, and life threatening respiratory effects.

As an example of how potent fragrance can be in the brain, one study conducted in Japan showed that the fragrance of citrus was more effective in alleviating depression than were prescription anti-depressants. This means that the fragrance has psychoactive properties, which places it in the category of psychoactive drugs (i.e. Prozac, Valium, Elavil, etc.).

Other studies have shown that fragrances can alter mood and alleviate anxiety and stress. Mood, anxiety and stress are properties that are modulated by natural chemicals in the brain. That means that in order for those properties to change, a chemical change has to take place. The studies indicate that the fragrance chemicals cause that chemical change to occur in the brain.

Fragrance chemicals can enter the body through inhalation and ingestion through the nose and mouth, and absorption through the skin. Once in the body they are absorbed into the bloodstream and transported throughout the body. Individual sensitivity to the effects of fragrance chemicals vary widely from no effect at all to severe symptoms.

Symptoms experienced by some people include: headache (migraine especially), sneezing, watery eyes, sinus problems, anxiety, nausea, wheezing (especially in asthmatics), shortness of breath, inability to concentrate, brain-fog, dizziness, convulsions, sore throat, cough, chest tightness, hyperactivity (especially in children), tremor, fatigue, lethargy, and drowsiness.

Some critics argue that people who are 'sensitive' to fragrances are actually experiencing an anxiety attack brought on by the memory of one bad experience upon the realization that they have been exposed to a fragrance. Interestingly, many sensitive people find that different fragrances consistently cause different arrays of symptoms, with some fragrances causing no ill effects at all. This experience would tend to discount the anxiety attack theory.

Further, odor isn't the cause of symptoms. Even pleasant (an not necessarily strong) smelling products, and products whose concentration is too low to be smelled, can cause symptoms, while some noxious smelling products may not even elicit a response at all.

Children are even more susceptible than adults to the effects of fragrance chemicals, yet fragrances are added to nearly every baby product on the market. A parent who wears perfume or uses scented products may well be poisoning the air their children breathe. Exposure to fragrances may result in the child having difficulty concentrating, learning disabilities, hyperactive behavior, and even growth retardation and seizures in extreme cases.

And even if you think that avoiding fragranced products will protect your child, evidence shows that fragrance chemicals can be stored in the body, showing up in breast milk in the nursing mother. A frightening prospect indeed!

Even though there are outward symptoms that can be evident, there may also be symptoms that we can not see. We know that many chemicals can cause birth defects (both subtle, like learning disabilities, and overt, like limb deformities) or make changes in DNA, but it is often difficult, if not impossible, to link those effects to a given exposure.

The effects of many fragrance chemicals on health is still largely unknown. The fact that different fragrances cause different symptoms (or no symptoms at all) may indicate that some chemicals are more toxic than others. But until all chemicals have been tested, we can't know which products are harmful, and which are not. Until the time that all chemicals have been tested and the harmful one removed from production processes, it is prudent to avoid fragranced products as much as possible.


Making Sense of Scents

Compiled by Julia Kendall, Co-Chair, Citizens for a Toxic-Free Marin, borrowing from Irene Wilkenfeld's "Fragrance Facts," and from research contributed by Karen Stevens, Carol Kuczora, Milan Param, Richard Conrad PhD, Susan Nordmark, Susan Springer, Mary Ann Handrus, Susan Molloy, and Sandy Ross PhD.

"Perfumes are increasingly used in an ever wider variety of fields, including perfumes proper, cosmetic products, hygenic products, drugs, detergents and other household products, plastics, industrial greases, oils and solvents, foods, etc. Their composition is usually complex - it involves numerous natural and synthetic sweet-smelling constituents, more than 5,000 of which are known. Perfumes may produce toxic and more often allergic respiratory disorders (asthma), as well as neurological and cutaneous disorders." from the French toxicology journal, Ann Dermatol Vernereol, Vol 113, ISS 1, 1986, P.31-41

84% of these ingredients have never been tested for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally. N. Ashford, Phd and C. Miller, M.D. Chemcial Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes 1991, p. 61

In 1986 the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. The other groups include insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives and certain air pollutants. The report states that 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxics and sensitizers - capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. "Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace" (Report by the Committee on Science and Technology. U.S. House of Representatives, Sept, 16, 1986) [Report 99-827]

A few chemicals found in fragrances known to be neurotoxic: hexachlorophene; acetyl-ethyl-tetramethyl-tetralin; zinc-pyridinethione; 2,4,dinitro-3-methyl-6-tert-butylanisole; 1-Butanol; 2-butanol; tert-Butanol; Isobutanol; t-Butyl Toluene. Neurotoxic properties of chemicals found in fragrances have caused testicular atrophy in lab animals as well as myelin disease. The myelin sheath protects the nerves and does not regenerate. (Compiled from TOXLINE database of fragrances industry and medical journals.)

Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, Lupus, and Alzheimer's are all neurological disorders. Dyslexia is a neurological dysfunction. Could any of these neurological dysfunctions be caused by exposure to neurotoxic chemicals? Symptoms are often identical to chemical hypersensitivity. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is also a neurological dysfunction. Could fragrant fabric softeners or detergents emitting neurotoxic chemicals cause the neurological breakdown?

A few chemicals found in fragrances known to cause cancer and birth defects: methylene chloride; toluene; methyl ethyl ketone; methyl isobutyl ketone; tert Butyl; sec Butyl; benzyl chloride. (Compiled by comparing a list of 120 fragrance chemicals from the EPA obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and California's Prop 65 List of Chemicals).

A few chemicals found in fragrances designated as hazardous waste disposal chemicals: methylene chloride; toluene; meythl ethyl ketone; methyl isobutyl ketone; ethanol; benzal chloride. These chemicals are listed in the EPA's Code 40 of Federal Regulations, Ch 1, Section 261.33.

884 toxic substances were identified in a list (partial) of 2,983 chemicals used in the fragrance industry: "Many of these substances are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, breathing and allergic reactions and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities." (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report.)

In a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study conducted by Syracuse Research Corporation, Report No. SRC TR 81-521, 1981, benzoin is named as a chemical used in fragrances found to cause enlarged lymph nodes in both male and female mice and enlarged spleens in males. Liver damage is also cited.

AMICUS journal, Winter '89, Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Research Counsel, the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that "15% of the population experiences hypersensitivity to chemicals found in common household products".

National Institutes of Health, "Issues and Challenges in Environmental Health," NIH Pub. #87-861..."Allergic reactions and hypersensitivity diseases, for instance, are among the most costly of U.S. health problems afflicting at least 35,000,000 Americans."

Article "One Woman's Perfume-Another Woman's Poison", in "Let's Live": "The chief reactions we see are those that affect the nervous system - headaches, anxiety, depression. But anything can be affected, even diet and a personal intolerance for different foods. There are two major ways in which cosmetics and their chemical constituents can affect the body. One is through direct contact. Inhalation is the other major route for molecules of an active substance to enter the blood stream. "There is a route from the nasal passage into the nervous system," says Mandell... "It is the way, for instance, that inhaled cocaine has an effect on the brain."


Toluene was detected in every fragrance sample collected by the Environmental Protection Agency for a report in 1991: "Toluene was most abundant in the auto parts store, as well as the fragrance sections of the department store."

Toluene not only triggers asthma attacks - it is known to cause asthma in previously healthy people. According to "Air Currents", publication of Allen and Handsbury's Respiratory Institute, division of Glaxo, Inc., asthma has increased in the past decade by 31%, and in the same period asthma deaths have increased by 31%. Women and those over 65 suffer the highest death rate for asthma.

72% of asthma patients in a study have adverse reactions to perfumes; i.e., pulmonary function tests dropping anywhere between 18% and 58% below baseline (from "Affects of Odors in Asthma," Chang Shim, MD and M. Henry Williams, MD, American Journal of Medicine, January, 1986 Vol. 80)

Toluene-laced fragrance industry chemical products have become increasingly pervasive in the last ten years - used not only in perfumes, but also in furniture wax, tires, plastic garbage bags, inks, hair gel, hairspray, and kitty litter. A Danish toxicological journal, "Ugeskr Laegar", Vol 153, ISS 13, 1991, p. 939-40, found perfume in kitty litter to be the cause of asthma in humans.

SYMPTOMS PROVOKED BY FRAGRANCES INCLUDE: watery or dry eyes, double vision, sneezing, nasal congestion, sinusitis, tinnitus, ear pain, dizziness, vertigo, coughing, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, asthma, anaphylaxis, headaches, seizures, fatigue, confusion, disorientation, incoherence, short-term memory loss, inability to concentrate, nausea, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, depression, mood swings, restlessness, rashes, hives, eczema, flushing, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, irregular heart beat, hypertension, swollen lymph glands, and more. (Candida Research and Information Foundation, Perfume Survey, Winter 1989-90)


No agency regulates the fragrance industry. According to John Baily, Phd, Director, Colors and Cosmetics, FDA, "The fragrance and cosmetic industry is the least-regulated industry. There is no pre-clearing of chemicals with any agency."

The FDA has suggested the best method "to protect sufferers from odor sensitivities might be to curtail odor exposures under specific circumstances through local or state regulatory action."


James Cone, MD, MPH, a Berkeley-based indoor air quality consultant and former Chief of Occupational Health Clinic, San Francisco General Hospital, in "Indoor Air Odorants" identifies physiological pathways of entry of synthetic fragrance molecules, naming them as one of five major contributors to indoor air pollution and then recommends a regulation be adopted to govern indoor air quality where specific point sources can be identified. "No person shall discharge from any source whatsoever such quantities of air contaminants or other material which cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to a considerable number of persons or to the public, or which endanger the comfort, repose, health or safety of any such persons or the public, or which cause, or have a natural tendency to cause, injury or damage to business or property."


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992 guarantees access to disabled to institutions, such as government agencies, libraries, doctor's offices, retail stores, and many others. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/Environmental Illness is recognized as a disability by The Social Security Administration and HUD. Fragrances are a "barrier to access" to MCS/EI disabled, since breathing is affected. Breathing is a "major life activity" as defined by the ADA. Fragrance bans meet the "reasonable accommodation" clause of the ADA, since elimination and substitution are not expensive.

Postal Regulations, Domestic Mail Manual, 124.395 Fragrance Advertising Samples (39 USC 3001 (g) April 1990), states that fragrance strips for mailing "cannot be activated except by opening a glued flap or binder or by removing an overlying ply of paper."

California AB 2709 (as of January 1, 1992) states that "fragrances contained in any newspaper, magazine, or other periodically-printed material, published or offered for sale, or contained in any advertisement - mailed or otherwise distributed - shall be enclosed in a sealant sufficient to protect a consumer from inadvertent exposure to the cosmetic - including, but not limited to, the inadvertent inhalation thereof."


The Health Risks of Twenty Most Common Chemicals Found in Thirty-One Fragrance Products By a 1991 EPA Study

Compiled by Julia Kendall, Co-Chair, Citizens for a Toxic-Free Marin; Phone: (415) 485-6870

Reference: Lance Wallace, Environmental Protection Agency; Phone: (703) 341-7509

Excerpts from "Health Hazard Information"

References: Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)

Principal chemicals found in scented products are:

ACETONE (in: cologne, dishwashing liquid and detergent, nail enamel remover) - On EPA, RCRA, CERCLA Hazardous Waste lists. "Inhalation can cause dryness of the mouth and throat; dizziness, nausea, incoordination, slurred speech, drowsiness, and, in severe exposures, coma." "Acts primarily as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant."

BENZALDEHYDE (in: perfume, cologne, hairspray, laundry bleach, deodorants, detergent, vaseline lotion, shaving cream, shampoo, bar soap, dishwasher detergent) - Narcotic. Sensitizer. "Local anesthetic, CNS depressant"... "irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs, and GI tract, causing nausea and abdominal pain." "May cause kidney damage." "Do not use with contact lenses."

BENZYL ACETATE (in: perfume, cologne, shampoo, fabric softener, stickup air freshener, dishwashing liquid and detergent, soap, hairspray, bleach, after shave, deodorants) - Carcinogenic (linked to pancreatic cancer); "From vapors: irritating to eyes and respiratory passages, exciting cough." "In mice: hyperanemia of the lungs." "Can be absorbed through the skin causing systemic effects." "Do not flush to sewer."

BENZYL ALCOHOL (in: perfume, cologne, soap, shampoo, nail enamel remover, air freshener, laundry bleach and detergent, vaseline lotion, deodorants, fabric softener) - "irritating to the upper respiratory tract" ..."headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drop in blood pressure, CNS depression, and death in severe cases due to respiratory failure."

CAMPHOR (in: perfume, shaving cream, nail enamel, fabric softener, dishwasher detergent, nail color, stickup air freshener) - "local irritant and CNS stimulant" ..."readily absorbed through body tissues" ..."irritation of eyes, nose and throat" ..."dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles and convulsions" "Avoid inhalation of vapors."

ETHANOL (in: perfume, hairspray, shampoo, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid and detergent, laundry detergent, shaving cream, soap, vaseline lotion, air fresheners, nail color and remover, paint and varnish remover) - On EPA Hazardous Waste list; symptoms: "...fatigue; irritating to eyes and upper respiratory tract even in low concentrations..." "Inhalation of ethanol vapors can have effects similar to those characteristic of ingestion. These include an initial stimulatory effect followed by drowsiness, impaired vision, ataxia, stupor..." Causes CNS disorder.

ETHYL ACETATE (in: after shave, cologne, perfume, shampoo, nail color, nail enamel remover, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid) - Narcotic. On EPA Hazardous Waste list; "...irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract" ..."may cause headache and narcosis (stupor)" ..."defatting effect on skin and may cause drying and cracking" ..."may cause anemia with leukocytosis and damage to liver and kidneys" "Wash thoroughly after handling."

LIMONENE (in: perfume, cologne, disinfectant spray, bar soap, shaving cream, deodorants, nail color and remover, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid, air fresheners, after shave, bleach, paint and varnish remover) - Carcinogenic. "Prevent its contact with skin or eyes because it is an irritant and sensitizer." "Always wash thoroughly after using this material and before eating, drinking, ...applying cosmetics. Do not inhale limonene vapor."

LINALOOL (in: perfume, cologne, bar soap, shampoo, hand lotion, nail enamel remover, hairspray, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, vaseline lotion, air fresheners, bleach powder, fabric softener, shaving cream, after shave, solid deodorant) - Narcotic. ..."respiratory disturbances" ... "Attracts bees." "In animal tests: ataxic gait, reduced spontaneous motor activity and depression ... development of respiratory disturbances leading to death." ..."depressed frog-heart activity." Causes CNS disorder.

METHYLENE CHLORIDE (in: shampoo, cologne, paint and varnish remover) - Banned by the FDA in 1988! No enforcement possible due to trade secret laws protecting chemical fragrance industry. On EPA, RCRA, CERCLA Hazardous Waste lists. "Carcinogenic" ..."Absorbed, stored in body fat, it metabolizes to carbon monoxide, reducing oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood." "Headache, giddiness, stupor, irritability, fatigue, tingling in the limbs." Causes CNS disorder.

a-PINENE (in: bar and liquid soap, cologne, perfume, shaving cream, deodorants, dishwashing liquid, air freshener) - Sensitizer (damaging to the immune system).

g-TERPINENE (in: cologne, perfume, soap, shaving cream, deodorant, air freshener) - "Causes asthma and CNS disorders."

a-TERPINEOL (in: perfume, cologne, laundry detergent, bleach powder, laundry bleach, fabric softener, stickup air freshener, vaseline lotion, cologne, soap, hairspray, after shave, roll-on deodorant) - ..."highly irritating to mucous membranes"... "Aspiration into the lungs can produce pneumonitis or even fatal edema." Can also cause "excitement, ataxia (loss of muscular coordination), hypothermia, CNS and respiratory depression, and headache." "Prevent repeated or prolonged skin contact."

Unable to secure MSDS for the following chemicals: 1,8-CINEOLE; b-CITRONELLOL; b-MYRCENE; NEROL; OCIMENE; b-PHENETHYL ALCOHOL; a-TERPINOLENE

Relevant Facts:

95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxics and sensitizers - capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace, Report by the Committee on Science & Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 1986. (Report 99-827)


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