Beauty Makeup

This Stinks: The Dangers of Perfume

Few know the dangers of perfume, but once you learn about them, you may never be a fan of fragrance again!

By Chere Di Boscio

Recently in some towns in North America and the UK, people who claim they are sensitive to scent have demanded a ban on toxic perfume in the workplace, hospitals, classrooms, and other public places. Amazingly, despite the apparently conflict with the rights of perfume lovers, many of these bans have been approved.

The reason behind this is the controversial claim that many people make to having Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a disorder that gives sufferers headaches, watery eyes, nausea, rashes and breathing difficulties when confronted with any kind of chemical: cleaning products, air fresheners, and, yes, perfumes.

Some doctors claim MCS isn’t a real syndrome; sufferers insist it is. There certainly must be some truth to their claims: after all, we all probably have an ‘enemy’ scent that makes us feel a bit nauseous (mine is ‘Angel’ by Thierry Mugler), and many people do complain of headaches after spending too long at the perfume counter in department stores.

So the question is: how can we smell delightful, whilst not making ourselves and others feel ill?

This Stinks: The Dangers of Perfume



The first step here is to realise that people who are sensitive to perfumes are usually most affected by sprayed scent: the chemical particles are diffused and inhaled, and are also more likely to land on the skin and hair of those who don’t intend to wear the perfume themselves. Scent that comes in dropper bottles is less likely to offend.

But that being said, both sprayed and dabbed fragrances – or even solid ones, for that matter, like those in scented candles – contain VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. These are simply are compounds that easily become vapors or gases that we end up inhaling, and they’re found in everything from perfumed products to pesticides.

Short term effects to VOCs can include:

  • Irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Visual disorders
  • Memory problems

Long-term exposure to various VOCs, on the other hand may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system
  • Cancer

In short, it’s important to note that all scents are likely emitting VOCs, and those VOCs can have some serious health implications.

Secondly, we have to realise that not all perfumes are created equal. Some, especially new scents, carry a far heavier chemical burden than others. Prior to the 1920s, perfumes were generally based on natural products only: flower and citrus oils, real musk, and spices. But in 1921, Coco Chanel was amongst the first to use synthetic aldehydes in a perfume, which she called Number 5. Since then, the chemicals industry has exploded, and most commercial perfumes carry very few natural ingredients indeed.

Danger in the Bottle?

The truth is, it’s very difficult to know what exactly is in not only perfumes, but any product with a scent, ranging from household cleaners to shampoo, because the complex formulae for perfume ingredients don’t have to be listed on the label by law (they’re thought to be a ‘trade secret). Instead, such ingredients are just simply noted as ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’, even though dozens of dangerous chemicals may comprise this single ingredient.

However, perfume ingredients can be so toxic that in America, the National Academy of Sciences targeted perfumes as one type of neurotoxin (or, chemicals that cause brain damage) that should be tested for their impact on human health. The Academy claims that as much as 95 percent of chemicals used in scent are petroleum derived chemicals capable of causing cancer and damage to the nervous system.

The worst chemicals, they assert, are parabens, synthetic musks and phthalates. All of these man-made chemicals are thought to be responsible for male reproductive damage, cancer, hormone disruptions, and even birth defects, and guess what? They’re predominant in many commercial brands of perfume and body sprays.


Scary Studies

It’s not easy to analyse exactly what top perfumes contain, since as mentioned, manufacturers are not obligated to say so by law. But the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a non-profit group with coalition members from the Breast Cancer Fund, Environmental Working Group, Clean Water Action, and other public and environmental health organisations, researched some top-selling fragrances – and they were startled at what they found.

Most products the looked at contain a dozen or more secret chemicals not listed at all on the labels, and multiple chemicals that are know to set off allergic reactions or disrupt hormones. Many have never even been tested for safety on humans.

All 17 of the popular fragrances tested contained chemicals not disclosed on the labels. Brands tested included:

  • American Eagle Seventy Seven
  • Chanel Coco
  • Britney Spears Curious
  • Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio (for men)
  • Old Spice After Hours Body Spray (for men)
  • Quicksilver (for men)
  • Calvin Klein Eternity
  • Bath & Body Works Japanese Cherry Blossom
  • Halle by Halle Berry
  • Hannah Montana Secret Celebrity
  • Victoria’s Secret Dream Angels Wish
  • Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow
  • AXE Body Spray for Men
  • Clinique Happy Perfume Spray
  • Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue

Here’s what the researchers found, on average:

  • Ten chemicals associated with allergic reactions like asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis were found in all the products. Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio contained 19 different sensitizing chemicals, more than any other product in the study.
  • Four hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to a range of health effects including sperm damage, thyroid disruption, and cancer. Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver, and Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow each contained at least seven different chemicals with the potential to disrupt the hormone system.

And those are just a few of the results, coming from just a handful of scents. The study didn’t even include things like the perfumes in scented candles, fabric softeners, air ‘fresheners’ or laundry detergents. Pretty scary stuff.


So, What Can You Do?

Even if your favourite commercial scent wasn’t listed above, chances are it probably contains at least some of the sensitising chemicals found in the brands above. The solution to avoiding illness from chemical scents is simple: choose organic brands of household cleaners and personal grooming products, which are forbidden by labelling laws to contain harmful ingredients.

As for perfumes themselves, it’s smart to opt for a more natural brand such as Abel Vintage, Coqui Coqui or Honore Des Pres. These are far less likely to cause allergic reactions or damage your health, but are sometimes a bit more expensive, as natural oils have become more costly than man-made chemicals.  Still it’s well worth it: you’re paying for quality ingredients rather than expensive advertising campaigns, which is the main reason behind the price of most commercial scents.

With more complex bouquets on offer from an increasing number of specialised companies, a healthier lifestyle has never smelled so sweet.

Further Reading

Chere Di Boscio

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