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Toxic Chemicals in Perfume

I know lots of people love their favorite perfume, BUT please take a minute to read this post: I want to make sure you know what’s in your daily dose of perfume or cologne (and a multitude of other fragranced-products!), what it can do to your health and safer alternatives.  Have you ever questioned whether it could be could for anyone to be inhaling all of those chemicals as they are sprayed or as they linger?

Read on to learn what’s in those synthetic fragrances and the potential health hazards.

(And this fragrance information applies to the synthetic fragrances in all fragrance-filled products – not just the ones sold explicitly as fragrances such as perfumes, colognes, body sprays and air fresheners. Fragrance is added to a wide range of products such as shampoos, soaps, deodorant, lotions, makeup, laundry products, household cleaners, and candles (among others). Even “unscented” products may contain “masking fragrances”, which are chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals.)

What’s in my favorite perfume/cologne? 

Unfortunately, currently it is hard for consumers to know exactly what they are spraying onto themselves. This is because “fragrance” is considered a trade secret by law, so companies are not required to disclose the chemical components that add scent to perfumes and the wide range of personal care products. So although “fragrance” looks like it’s just one ingredient on a label, it’s more likely a blend of many ingredients.  This means that a regulation that was designed to conceal ingredients from the eyes of corporate competitors also conceals them from consumers who might want to know that a “fragrance” contains synthetic, preservative, or allergy-provoking substances. (Companies could of course disclose their ingredients without giving away the specific amounts and the formulation process—and some do.)

BUT, while we might not know exactly what chemical concoction each specific fragrance contains, we do know that they all contain LOTS of chemicals that have either been associated with negative health effects OR haven’t been assessed for safety!

In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics commissioned an independent lab to analyze 17 popular, name-brand (including many celebrity-endorsed) fragrance products to determine the chemicals they contained.  The majority of chemicals found in these fragrances had never been assessed for safety by any publicly accountable agency in the U.S., or by the cosmetics industry’s self-policing review panels.  (You can see the full list of fragrances tested here — among the ranks of the worst health-offending fragrances included American Eagle Seventy Seven, Coco Mademoiselle Chanel, Britney Spears Curious and Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio for men)… Here’s just the opening lines of the report showing what they found:

The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. 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.

I highly recommend taking a look at this informative and eye-opening report before you make your next spray or put on your next fragranced personal care product — you may be surprised to discover what’s in your favorite scent.  (Just a teaser for the report – Halle by Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow contained the most hormone disrupting chemicals of the fragrances tested, and Chanel, Halle by Halle Berry and American Eagle Seventy-Seven contained the most chemicals not assessed for safety by the government or other industry).

But doesn’t the government regulate cosmetics to ensure they are safe?

Sadly, in the U.S. not really.  The United States cosmetics law does not give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to require safety testing for fragrances or to approve fragrances prior to their sale. And the FDA does not systematically review the safety of cosmetic and fragrance ingredients.  According to the FDA’s website: “FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices. Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives.”

The United States is far behind other industrialized countries when it comes to cosmetic safety. To date, the FDA has banned or restricted 11 chemicals for use in cosmetics, while 1,373 chemicals have been banned or restricted from cosmetics sold in the European Union.

Can perfumes really have an effect on us?

Yes!  When fragrances/perfumes are sprayed, the minute particles are inhaled into the lungs, and when they are applied on the skin, they are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream (don’t believe that what you put on your skin gets into your body? Just think about how nicotine and birth control patches work).  And studies confirm that these chemicals are getting into our bloodstream. A study conducted by the Environmental Working Group found synthetic musk chemicals — galaxolide and tonalide, which were found in all but one of the 17 fragrances analyzed in the 2010 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics tests — in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants. How did it get there? From the bloodstream of their mothers.  And a 2009 study of Austrian college students found that those individuals who used the most perfume and scented lotions also had the highest levels of synthetic musks, including galaxolide and tonalide, in their blood.

What’s the problem with these chemicals that are lurking in synthetic fragrances and getting into our bodies?


Synthetic Musks

Preliminary research suggests that the synthetic musks (galaxolide and tonalide) are hormone disruptors — basically this means that they interfere with the normal functioning of hormones in the body.  Some do this by preventing the body’s naturally occurring hormones from taking action and others mimic the activity of the body’s natural hormones disrupting normal body functions.  For example, many mimic estrogen and bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors, thereby sending the estrogen signal at the wrong times and to the wrong tissues in the body.  Depending on the dose and timing, exposure to hormone disruptors has been linked to a wide range of health problems including an increased risk of cancer, especially breast and prostate cancers, reproductive harm (infertility and birth defects), and metabolic issues such as thyroid problems, diabetes or obesity. (Scientists are still trying to understand the human health implications of lifelong, cumulative exposure to mixtures of hormonally disruptive chemicals. The greatest concern is that these chemicals, through their ability to mimic or disrupt natural estrogen, testosterone and thyroid pathways in the body, may impair basic body functions.)  Not to mention that these musks have an environmental impact – they have been found to be toxic to aquatic life in numerous studies and can accumulate in the food chain.


Phthalates are another class of chemicals that are found in fragrances and have also been linked to hormone disruption — causing those same nasty health issues mentioned above… A recent study tested the urine of pregnant women and found women who used perfume had phthalate concentrations 167 percent higher than non-users, and another recent study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital linked phthalates to an increased risk of premature birth; for men, increased phthalate levels have been linked to infertility and decreased sperm count, and for children phthalates have been linked to obesity, asthma, behavioral problems, genital changes in boys and early puberty in girls.

Although some phthalates are being phased out of cosmetics due to consumer pressure (Yay!), diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many products, including fragrances.  In the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ 2010 study (the one in which they commissioned an independent lab to test the 17 popular fragrance products), they found DEP in 12 of the 17 fragrances.  Product tests conducted by Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP (which is banned in Europe) in each of eight popular perfumes they tested.  And in case you were wondering… yes, DEP does get into and pollute the body — in fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found DEP in 97 percent of Americans tested!  Recent epidemiological studies have associated exposure to DEP with a range of health problems, including sperm damage in men, and prenatal exposure of DEP to attention deficit disorder in children. And a 2013 study even identified DEP as being associated with insulin resistance and oxidative damage in the elderly.

Allergens and Sensitizers

Not only do many of these chemicals in fragrances disrupt our hormones, but they can also wreak havoc on our skin and lungs — they can cause contact dermatitis (a seriously red and itchy rash) or other allergic reactions like a headache or asthma. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrance is the biggest cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. (the AAD claims that it’s up there with nickel and poison ivy.) Additionally, many people suffer immune damage from fragrance and become “sensitized”.  This means that the person remains sensitive to that chemical, experiencing allergic reactions every time they are exposed to it.  In fact, fragrances are considered to be among the top known allergens and are known to both cause and trigger asthma attacks. (The European Union has actually designated 26 fragrance chemicals as allergens requiring labeling on cosmetic and detergent products.) The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ 2010 study  found that there was an average of 10 sensitizers in each fragrance tested (all 17 of them).


According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, in 1986, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins (chemicals that are toxic to the brain) that should be thoroughly investigated for impacts on human health. Sadly, this further research has not been demanded or funded. The FDA has still taken no action on a petition submitted to the agency in 1999 requesting that the ingredients in fragrances be listed on labels.

What You Can Do Today to Protect Yourself, Your Family and Others

  1. Avoid Synthetic Fragrances:  This is the best way to protect your health.
  2. Natural Fragrance Alternatives: Avoiding chemical-laden perfumes doesn’t mean we have to forgo beautiful scents. There are natural alternatives you will love! If you are looking for a healthier scent option, try essential oils instead of synthetic fragrances. But since you’re putting it on your skin, try to find pure organic therapeutic grade essential oils, which are free of synthetic fragrances and other chemicals. There are several great brands of therapeutic grade essential oils out there. One I really like is Young Living since they are 100% pure and pesticide/chemical free. Essential oils made from all natural ingredients are a fabulous alternative to synthetic fragrances (and many have health promoting properties)!
  3. Choose products with no added “fragrance.” Watch out for the words, fragrance, perfume and parfum on labels, and consider eliminating synthetic fragrances and fragranced products from your routine.  Simply read the labels on the products you buy and if you’re unsure, the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep advanced search is a great resource to find products that do not include synthetic fragrance.  They even have a mobile app so you can use it right in the store. And be aware, even products advertised as “fragrance-free” may contain a masking fragrance full of chemicals — so it’s best to check the labels to avoid chemicals such as parabens, phthalates and petroleum byproducts.
  4. Take a stand for your health! Of course just by choosing products without fragrance you not only help yourself and your family, but you also make a difference with your dollar – manufacturers will listen!  And if you want to do even more, you can also help support laws that will protect our health — for example you can sign the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ petition to Congress.

I love that Bastyr University where I am attending school has a fragrance-free policy on campus!

Bastyr fragrance free

Looking for Sources and More Information?

Report: “Not So Sexy” (2010)
Science: Synthetic musks
Science: Phthalates
Environmental Working Group Skin Deep product search: Fragrance-free cosmetics
Skin Deep topic: Fragrance
Beyond perfume: Fragrance in cleaning products
Environmental Working Group: Myths and Facts about Cosmetic Safety 

Hope this was helpful. Please let me know in the comments below what you think, and please be sure to share this post and make sure your friends and family know about the health hazards of their perfumes/colognes and fragrances! 

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5 Responses to Toxic Chemicals in Your Perfume and Cologne? Not Smelling So Nice Anymore

  1. I wish I had known about toxic chemicals in my colognes several years ago. I was quite an avid user of them, including scented moisturizers that you can in those scent gift packs (they often sell cheaper than just the cologne themselves)… it sounded like an awesome deal at the time.

    As a serious gym goer, and health freak in general, I didn’t realize that years of spraying this stuff was really messing with my hormones. It only occurred to me after I investigated every part of my lifestyle to see what the root cause might me. I developed acne a few times, but never really thought anything of it. I just used this great brand vitamin A cream and it would disappear in days. However, about 2 years down the track, it escalated to a whole new level. I started getting more serious acne on my face and body, and once they disappeared, I started getting “boil” type acne. It was like rounded bubbles of puss underneath my skin which were extremely painful.

    I was prescribed an antibiotic for 6 months… and extended it to a year, because as soon as I got off it the acne would eventually come up again. It has taken almost a year on accutane to clear my skin up. That’s how powerful the chemicals in these things are. I have switched to organic brands and my skin has never been better.

    – HOP

    • Toxin Detective says:

      SO glad that you switched and your skin got better! I had the same experience. Definitely powerful chemicals in those things!

  2. Patti says:

    Currently struggling at work due to “scents” people insist on wearing. Wish it would be mandatory that they educate themselves …this is a great place to start! Maybe if they had their blood tested they would think twice about exposing themselves and others!

    • Toxin Detective says:

      I agree – wish that the education about this would be mainstream!! Hopefully we can help spread awareness!

  3. Crazzy says:

    How can i remove or hide strong chocolate scent
    Pls tell me how its remove
    Which chemical can recover any chocolate perfume

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