Just the Facts – Fragrance

fragrance bottle

Do you know what’s in that smell?

Do you think the U.S. government tests “Fragrance” for safety? Think again. Under U.S. regulations, the mixture of ingredients used in fragrance can be listed simply as “fragrance” or “flavor” on consumer packaging.  “Fragrance” contains a complex mixture of many natural and chemical ingredients and is regulated as a “trade secret”.  This means companies are not required to disclose specific ingredients.[i],[ii]

No law in the U.S. requires disclosure of the specific chemical ingredients in consumer products or fragrances.[iv]

There are 3,000 – 5,000 chemicals used in fragrances.[iii]

The overwhelming majority of chemicals in use today have never been independently tested for safety.[i]

Some of the chemicals found in fragranced products are on the EPA hazardous waste list.[iv]

One in three people experience adverse health effects, such as migraine headaches and respiratory difficulties, when exposed to fragranced products.[xxi]

Over 50% of the US population would prefer workplaces, health care facilities and professionals, hotels and airplanes to be fragrance-free.[xxi]

Your skin is your largest organ and absorbs anything you put on it. In a scientific peer-reviewed study it was shown to have a 100% absorption rate for fragranced ingredients.[vi]

30% of the general population find scented products on others irritating.[vii]

Respiratory symptoms and synthetic fragranced products have a strong correlation.[viii]

Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors.[ix] The EPA has named indoor air quality as one of the top five environmental risks to public health.[x]

Fragrance policies in the workplace are among the top five inquiries The Society for Human Resource Management receives from its members.[xi]

15% of Americans have lost workdays or a job due to fragranced product exposure in the workplace.[xxi]

20% of American consumers will leave a business as quickly as possible if they smell air fresheners or other fragranced product.[xxi]

The term “fragrance” is a catch-all for thousands of different ingredients. Trade-secret laws protect perfume and cosmetic makers from divulging the specific formulas for their scents. Most any scented cosmetic, from perfume and cologne to body lotion and deodorant, will contain a group of petroleum-based chemicals called phthalates.[xxii]

Phthalates keep all a liquids various ingredients suspended and evenly distributed so fragranced scents can stick around.  Phthalates are known hormone disrupters and diethyl phthalate, found in 97% of Americans, is linked to sperm damage.[xxii][xxiii]

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 included insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives and certain air pollutants.[xii]

Acute toxic effects of fragrances can include neurotoxicity.[xxiv]

The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) voluntarily lists 2,993 ingredients that are reported as being used in fragrance.[xiii] Not all ingredients used in fragrance are published. Some of the ingredients found in fragrance have numerous links to health effects.[xiv] A few examples:

  • 1,4-dioxane: Classified as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” by the EPA. Adversely affects skin, liver, and kidneys.[xv]
  • Acetaldehyde: Adversely affects kidneys as well as reproductive, nervous, and respiratory systems.[xvi]
  • Chloromethane: Affects the kidneys, nervous system, and liver. Other effects may include dizziness, blurred vision, tremors, slurred speech, and nausea.[xvii]
  • Limonene: A Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) that can react readily with ozone to generate secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde.[xviii],[xix]

In a study testing pollution contamination of Washing State residents, all persons had at least 26 toxic chemicals in his or her body.[xx]



[i] Urbina, I. (2013, April 13). Think Those Chemicals Have Been Tested? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/14/sunday-review/think-those-chemicals-have-been-tested.html?_r=0
[ii] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm388821.htm
[iii] Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) (2007).  Fragrance Free! Creating a Safe Health Care Environment. Courseserver.com. http://www.courseserver.com/mna/
[iv] Steinemann AC. Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients.  Environ Impact Asses Rev (2008), doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2008.05.002.
[v] Caress SM and Steinemann, A. (2009). “Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population,” American Journal of Public Health.  March 2009.  Vol. 71, Iss. 7; pg. 46-50.
[vi] Robinson, M. K., Gerberick, G. F., Ryan, C. A., McNamee, P., White, I. R., & Basketter, D. A. (2000). The importance of exposure estimation in the assessment of skin sensitization risk. Contact dermatitis, 42(5), 251-259. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10789838\nhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1034/j.1600-0536.2000.042005251.x/asset/j.1600-0536.2000.042005251.x.pdf?v=1&t=i38wblgd&s=d018527ec6fad6def1339040915c0280a67c8f22
[vii] Caress SM and Steinemann, A. (2009). “Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population,” American Journal of Public Health.  March 2009.  Vol. 71, Iss. 7; pg. 46-50.
[viii] Eberling, J., Linneberg, A., Dirkson, A., Johansen, D., Frolund, L., Madsen, F., Nielsen, N., osbech, H. (2005). “Mucosal Symptoms Elicited by Fragrance Products in a Population-based Sample in Relation to Atopy and Bronchial Hyper-reactivity.” Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Vol. 35: 75-81.
[ix] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  1989.  Report to Congress on indoor air quality: Volume 2. EPA/400/1-89/001C.  Washington, DC.
[x] “Indoor Air Quality: What You Can’t See Can Hurt You”.  April 25, 2014.  http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/indoor-air-quality-what-you-cant-see-can-hurt-you-256690121.html.
[xi] Noguchi, Y. (2015, September 22). What’s that smell?! When workplaces try fragrance bans. National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2015/09/22/442189543/what-s-that-smell-when-workplaces-try-fragrance-bans
[xii] (1986, September 16). Report 99-827. Report by the Committee on Science and Technology. U.S. House of Representatives.
[xiii] IFRA ingredients. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2016, from http://www.ifraorg.org/en-us/ingredients#.VsFbt9ATy5-
[xiv] Steinemann, A. C., MacGregor, I. C., Gordon, S. M., Gallagher, L. G., Davis, A. L., Ribeiro, D. S., & Wallace, L. A. (2011). Fragranced consumer products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31(3), 328-333.
[xv] Technical Fact Sheet – 1,4-Dioxane (January 2014). United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-03/documents/ffrro_factsheet_contaminant_14-dioxane_january2014_final.pdf.
[xvi] CDC (2015). Acetaldehyde. NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0001.html
[xvii] Technology Transfer Network – Air Toxics Web Site Methyl Chloride (Chloromethane) (January 2000). United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from https://www3.epa.gov/airtoxics/hlthef/methylch.html
[xviii] Steinemann, A. C., MacGregor, I. C., Gordon, S. M., Gallagher, L. G., Davis, A. L., Ribeiro, D. S., & Wallace, L. A. (2011). Fragranced consumer products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 31(3), 328-333.
[xix] Huang, Y., Ho, S. S. H., Ho, K. F., Lee, S. C., Gao, Y., Cheng, Y., & Chan, C. S. (2011). Characterization of biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) in cleaning reagents and air fresheners in Hong Kong. Atmospheric Environment, 45(34), 6191-6196.
[xix]Schreder, E. (2006). Pollution in People: A Study of Toxic Chemicals in Washingtonians. Seattle: Toxic-Free Legacy Coalition. Retrived January 3, 2017, from http://pollutioninpeople.org
[xxi]Steinemann, A. (2016). Fragranced consumer products: exposures and effects from emissions. Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, 9(8), 861-866. doi:10.1007/s11869-016-0442-z
[xxii]Heid, M. (2015, February 11). You Asked: Is Perfume Bad for Me? Retrieved from Time Magazine Web site: http://time.com/3703948/is-perfume-safe/
[xxiii]Scheer, R., & Moss, D. (2012, September 29). Scent of Danger: Are There Toxic Ingredients in Perfumes and Colognes? Retrieved from Scientific American: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/toxic-perfumes-and-colognes/
[xxiv]Anderson, R. C., & Anderson, J. H. (1998). Acute Toxic Effects of Fragrance Products. Archives of Environmental Health, 53(2), 138-146.