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

By Andrea DesJardins
Copyright 1997

Health & Environment Resource Center is pleased to present "Sweet Poison: What Your Nose Can’t 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, whereas our European counterparts are not. 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 certain product, but you can choose between 'spring fresh,' 'mountain fresh,' or 'lemon scented' versions of that 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. 

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