The Serious Dangers of Fragrances & How to Protect Yourself

Have you heard that artificial fragrances can be as bad for you as second hand smoke? It's true.

Let's talk about the dangers of fragrances, what you need to know, and what you can do about it.

White bottle spraying substance for dangers of fragrance post

Could your shampoo, perfumes, air fresheners, house cleaners, candles, and dryer sheets really be killing you?

It's true.

More than that, it's now being said that Fragrance is the New Second Hand Smoke, due to something called Phthalates (ph-thal-ates)

When I was a young girl, my parents both smoked.  I have distinct memories of asking them to:

  • "PLEASE roll the (car) windows down.
  • "Roll them down MORE please?"
  • I even cut up my mom's pack of cigarettes once in protest.

The smoke made me feel sick.  Reeeeeeeeally sick.

And it still does to this day.

I also couldn't stand artificial fragrances.  Whenever I passed through the perfume section of a department store, or went down the cleaning aisle of the grocery store, my head felt terrible. To this day, I try to hold my breath as much as possible in heavily-fragranced public restrooms -- it's not easy!

Anyway, I always felt like artificial fragrances weren't good for me, but I never knew that they could be as bad as that horribly demonized (and rightfully so) second hand smoke!

Well, turns out, it is.

What is "Fragrance"?

Fragrance is basically a catch word for all kinds of bad things.  It can be labeled as "fragrance" or "parfum" and the real ingredients don't need to be disclosed and have not been tested for safety (source).

"Fragrance" can be made up of 1, or 2, or even hundreds of chemicals. In fact, in 2010, there were 3,163 chemicals that could be part of the term "fragrance" on labels in the US. (source)

Up to 75% of the time, when there is a "fragrance" in an ingredient, there are legally hidden phthalates, which is not a good thing. (source)

In addition to phthalates, there also can be other nasty ingredients, including aldehydes, toluenes, and petroleum-derived chemicals that might be best to be avoided.

Let's find out more what the concerns are with these.

What are Phthalates?

Phthalates (pronounced "THAL ates") are solvents that are often used in cosmetics because they help fragrances last longer and also help lotions penetrate the skin.

Those are nice benefits, (who wants their perfume not to last as long, right?) but they are known endocrine disruptors that have been linked to:

birth defects
breast cancer (possibly)
infertility (source)
diabetes (source)
obesity (source)
autoimmune disorders (source & source)
and also autism and ADHD from exposure in the womb. (source)

These chemicals also STICK around, meaning they hang around on you and in the environment too. No bueno.

What Is an Endocrine Disruptor?

Your endocrine system (adrenals, thyroid, pituitary, sex hormones, and more) affect just about everything in your body.  So if you disrupt them, you disrupt everything and that can lead to weight gain, blood sugar issues, and more.

Think about that. What happens when you disrupt your adrenals and thyroid and sex hormones and pituitary gland? Sounds like we have an epidemic of that going on right now.

In fact, did you know that an estimated 20 million people in the US have thyroid disease? (source)

Oh, and they are not regulated in food or personal care products in the U.S.  Nice......

No thanks, I don't want these things in my products.

Alehydes, Toluenes, and More

Aside from phthalates, there are other troublesome ingredients that can be in artificial fragrances. The list is so plentiful, that to cover all of them would be quite difficult), but I will touch on these others briefly.

Aldehydes are linked to breathing problems, depending on the concentration. Note that the concerns are with levels higher than that which is normal for outdoors, and if one is using products with aldehydes in them, one would think that those levels would be higher. (source)

Toluene (methylbenzene) is linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, irritation (source) It is a neurotoxin and is largely sourced from petroleum crude oil. It can cause damage to the lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, and central nervous system, and can cause headaches, loss of muscle control, brain damage, memory loss, problems with speech, hearing and vision, and even death.

Other synthetic fragrance ingredients that are of notable concern are:

Acetaldehyde, which produces a fruity odor, but is a probable human carcinogen.

Acetonitrile, which can cause weakness, headaches, tremors, numbness, and nausea.

Styrene oxide can cause skin and eye irritation, and in animal studies, it is known to cause depression.

Musk tetralin (AETT) has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor. (source)

White bottle spraying a white substance for dangers of fragrance post

How Long Does It Take for Artificial Fragrances to Degrade?

The answer is--a LONG time.

Since there are so many components to artificial fragrances, it's impossible to list all of them, but some say that they last about 5 years, while in recent research I found one component lasts up to around 200 years!

Others Sounding the Alarm

I've listed common sense links above to all kinds of health issues, but the there are literally studies out there and large agencies concerned about this too. This breast cancer organization has sounded the alarm about toxins and cancer. And there's information linking toxic fragrances used during pregnancy to autism and more. (source)

Aren't Natural / Clean Products Safe?

If you've been shopping at your local health food store, surely you're not in danger, right?

Wrong!

I personally have been shocked to see the multitude of companies that are supposed to be "green", "organic", or "natural" that have these dangerous artificial fragrances in them. I think you'll be shocked too.

Here you are, shelling out extra money to get something that you think is clean and non-toxic, but really you are ending up with something that is mucking with your endocrine system big time.

Here is a listing of companies that tout themselves as being "natural", but some of their products are far from.

Melaleuca (contains "fragrance")
Mrs. Meyer's (contains "mixture of natural, high-quality essential oils and safe synthetic fragrance ingredients")
Babyganics (contains "fragrance" despite having "fragrance-free" on the label).
Nubian Heritage (contains "fragrance")
Jason
(contains "fragrance")
Alba Botanical
(contains "fragrance")

Now, I'm not saying that everything these companies make is a problem, but I was personally shocked to see synthetic fragrances in these lines and figured you might be too. Of course, that could change, but I am encouraging you to read the labels and see what really is in your products.

Natural Fragrance MIGHT Not Be Natural After All

I'll be sharing more about this later, but I have tried many products that said "Essential Oil Blend" or "Essential Oil" on the label, but believe me, something's not right there.

The scents are WAY too strong. And one company even owned up to me that "Essential Oil Blend" only meant that MOST of the fragrance ingredients were natural--HUH!?!?!?!?

DIY Recipe Concerns

There are loads of recipes on the internet that can help you save money by making things yourself, but some of those have unsavory ingredients too.

Be on the lookout for anything including Dawn Dish Soap (that's a pretty obvious one to avoid) or the more seemingly natural Fels-Naptha soap.  My mom used that soap a lot when I was young so I picked up a few bars thinking I would do some nice DIY projects, only to find that it contains that mystical "fragrance" too.

Bye-bye Fels.

How to Avoid Toxic Fragrances

So what's a person to do?

1.  First of all, READ YOUR LABELS.

If the label says "fragrance" or "parfum" contact the manufacturer and find out what that term means in this case.

Make sure you aren't buying products with phthalates or aldehydes, at the very least.

And even if it clearly says "fragrance-free" on the label, sometimes there still are synthetic fragrances in there. Sadly, misleading marketing is everywhere.

You REALLY need to be a detective here. I once bought a product that had "Fragrance (Essential Oil Blend)" listed on their label. I ended up having heart palpitations in the middle of the night from this product and had to wash my hair out! I contacted the company about this and asked them how that could be and they finally owned up that the "blend" wasn't entirely essential oils!!

Talk about deceptive marketing!!

2.  Return Products

Return any products containing phthalates, aldehydes, or any of these other problematic ingredients to the store where you bought them.  Tell them that you refuse to poison yourself, your family, and the environment with these toxins.

3.  Read labels and ditch products

Get rid of products like air freshening sprays and gels, scented cleaners (think dish soap, toilet bowl cleaner, window cleaner), laundry detergent and toxic dryer sheets, and personal care products with problematic fragrances. Not only do they likely contain phthalates, but they also contain industrial chemicals that can cause asthma attacks and more.

4.  Choose wisely

Learn to be an ingredient detective and find companies and products that you can trust.

There is more green-washing out there than not, but there are for sure some good companies out there that you can buy from with confidence.

Just be careful as more and more those "good guys" are getting bought up by larger companies without a reputation for "being green", so you really need to stay on top of things.

What might be "fragrance-free" one day, might not be so the next.

5.  Make your own products

Instead of buying products in the store that likely have questionable ingredients, try your hand at making homemade beauty products. For example, you can learn how to make an essential oil body spray, or a homemade body wash.

However, make sure to only use natural essential oils for your fragrances. Of course, you have to be very very careful to make sure that you are buying pure essential oils (that post shows you how to evaluate companies for purity) since many essential oils on the market have been adulterated.

You might think that using essential oils is limiting compared to being able to buy Snickerdoodle Cookie scented candies at your local Body Shop, but it's not.

For an idea of how creative you can be, look at this list of Holiday Essential Oil Blends--perfect for making your home smell festive. You can do similar blends all year round--without toxins.

6. Consider an ionizing purifier

An ionizer air purifier might help you deal with the effects of these fragrances.

A personal ionizer like this one has helped some people deal with the effects of fragrances. You can read the reviews to see some examples of how they can work. I personally really like these personal ionizers and am able to offer a nice discount it you would like to try them or anything else that they offer. Just contact me here in the comments area or at adrienne {at} wholenewmom {dot} com for a discount.

You could also put a small area purifier in your location to address fragrance. This purifier is compact and addresses scents well. Again, contact me for savings information.

Of course, avoidance is the best bet, but sometimes you just can't avoid this kind of thing easily.

Where to Buy Products Without Artificial Fragrances

Basically, find a company that doesn't have "fragrance" or "parfum", or if you really want to use a product that has those ingredients listed on the label, contact the company and do your homework.

Just make sure to read your labels.

AND reading labels might not be enough. I have been trying out the products of many so-called "natural" products, and my youngest is complaining that his head hurts from the smells-- and ONE of them even admitted that their labels were not honest. UGH!!!!!!!  More on this later.

I recommended Ava Anderson in my original post, but I decided to leave them as there were just too many issues with mislabeling and other things. They are now Pure Haven Essentials but--no thank you. Not after what I saw.

I spent a long time searching for a company that I could recommend wholeheartedly and I have a few companies that I am comfortable with.  The main one is Beautycounter

Here's more about Beautycounter:

overlay of beautycounter make up products

Beautycounter is transparent about their ingredients and uses no artificial fragrances, no phthalates and no aldehydes.

In my search for companies that I could trust, I found MANY other companies flat out lying about ingredients, including telling lies or making giant semantic leaps about the lingo related to the fragrances in their products. Some of them even have ingredients on their labels that don't exist!  

Not good.

I don't want these things in my home or on my body.  And I for sure don't want them on my kids' bodies.

Regardless of whether you choose to DIY, or buy products that are transparent like those from Beautycounter, please make a change for health.

Ditch the fake fragrances for good.

Your health and your family's health might truly depend on it.

Did you know about the risks of fragrances and where they lurk? 
Or was this a complete surprise to you?

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109 Comments

  1. My family has been avocation against this same issue for decades. Thanks for the article to support our claims.

    1. You are so welcome and thanks for doing what you do. I'm going to send this out on Nextdoor soon and ask people to consider what they are using and we are having our church inspected for mold and VOCs. Such a huge problem!

  2. My family has been avocation against this same issue for decades. Thanks for the article to support our claims.

  3. Yes I would like to get a purifier. The fragrance issue is probably both people and the building. The whole building is fragranced so it's probably coming thru the air ducts. Many other businesses are in the building so not sure what they are doing. Don't see any air fresheners visible

    1. That's tough. Really tough. You could go with the personal type around your neck or that small one I linked to. Happy to help w/ savings if you would like. I really like the technology behind that company. We use a lot of their products.

  4. What if you are stuck in a perfumed environment like at work? Is there anything that can be done to avoid the swelling and migraines? My eyes and nose, sinuses and face are swollen and painful from breathing whatever is perfumed at work.

    1. Good question. Ugh. Is it air freshener or others' scents? I have ionizing purifiers mentioned in the post that work great. The ones that are from the company that I work with really do a great job. Happy to help with a discount if you'd like to get one.

  5. What do you think of branch basics? For laundry and cleaning I have predominately switched to using their concentrate and scent as I wish with my own essential oils.

    1. Hi Anna. I think they are a great company. They shut down for awhile after finding that there was a problem with one of their ingredients--so that tells me that they have integrity. Personally I use the ozone washing machine attachment mentioned in this post to avoid laundry detergent completely. It's been great for us.

      1. Very enlightening! The foods we consume may be all wrong for us and causing health issues! I am going to try more gluten free products and find a good doctor whom I can trust.

  6. hi
    thank you for your article. since being treated for breast cancer i have become increasingly sensitive to fragrances of all kinds to the point of not being able to travel (airports/scented sheets in hotels etc.etc) much or even go to the cinema. i'm wondering if you know of any product/supplement/process that can help protect one from the affects of fragrances when they hit or help offset their affects. It would change my life if I could wear or take something that could protect me even short term eg as i walk through an airport...

  7. Since you mentioned Melaleuca as having "fragrances" with all of the nasty chemicals, I thought you might like to know where their fragrances come from. The following is from their website.
    Source:
    Naturally derived, Plant-derived, Organic Compound
    Purpose:
    Smell is one of our most powerful sense. We only select fragrances that adhere to our Safe Scent Standard, so we can help you have a pleasant and enjoyable experience.
    Why we chose it:
    We only select high quality essential oil and fragrance oils which are guaranteed to meet our Safe Scent™ Standard. All of our fragrance oils must meet the International Fragrance Associations (IFRA) standards that protect agains levels of irritation and sensitivity. Each is formulated with the utmost care and attention to safety. They undergo stingent testing for purity, quality, and all leave-on products undergo third-party sensitivity testing with a certified dermatologist.

    1. Hello Jane!

      I appreciate you chiming in.

      About those terms, they aren't that helpful since here are their definitions:

      Naturally derived means that some ingredients derived from nature have been used to artificially create a product delivered in an unnatural form.

      Plant derived means that the ingredient started out as a whole plant, but that doesn't account for how the plant is processed before it reaches its final form.

      Organic compound is any member of a large class of gas, liquid, or solid chemical compounds with a molecule that contains carbons.

      These terms all leave a lot of leeway for all kinds of components.

      So I would need a lot more information about the ingredients but seems that there is room for all kinds of artificial fragrance in there. Thanks!

  8. Hello:) great article... I am on the search for fragrance free products right now and cannot find many I am happy with.. particularly for my babies (shampoos, body washes) and also a body wash line for me and my fiancé . Are there any you stand behind?

    1. Thank you so much! Are you looking for totally fragrance free or just no artificial fragrances?

      I can help with either one. For the babies I would highly recommend Beautycounter. They are highlighted here: https://wholenewmom.com/beautycounter/

      Let me know on the body wash and the fragrances. I am sure we can find something good for you.

      Let me know what you aren't happy with too so I can help find something you will like.

      1. Thank you so much for the quick reply:) I will check out beauty counter for my babies .. that’s great! And is fragrance okay if it’s not artificial.. I just started learning about fragrance (Parfum) and I’ve been looking in absolutely everything (and I always thought I was buying healthier brands) and was so shocked to find Parfum in everything! Is it all bad Every time I see it? Or is it just if it’s artificial? If you send me some suggestions for body washes that are not unhealthy for our bodies then that is good enough for me 🙂

        1. You are so welcome. It's late here so I'm heading to bed but I will drop you a quick email as well b/c there is something going on currently that you might want to know about re: Beautycounter.

          There are a lot of companies that aren't being honest about fragrance--they will say "natural fragrance" or "essential oil blend" but there is something in there that is not safe / is artificial. My son reacted today to a popular "all safe" laundry detergent and we have both reacted to multiple hair products that advertise that they are all natural. One wrote "essential oil blend" on their label and when I had a terrible reaction they admitted that it was "essential oils blended with something else" -- can you imagine?!?!

          Parfum and "fragrance" on a label typically are not OK b/c you can hide so many things in there--it's not regulated.

          The Beautycounter body wash is very nice--I think you would like it and it doesn't have any artificial fragrance in it at all. Hope that helps!

    2. Side note - there are a lot of moms who really like the Beautycounter baby line saying that it helped their kids not react when many other lines didn't work or caused reactions.

  9. As a medical professional it is concerning to read a pseudo-science article that dispenses seemingly informed medical council. On what basis are your conclusions drawn? What sources are you using? What background do you have to make the claims and statements you made?

    You have a large audience. Be careful not to overstep the scope of your credentials.

    1. Hi Joe. Thanks for reading. What claims are you concerned about in this post? There are many sources cited. I try to be thorough when I research topics. Are you saying that you think that phthalates are not a health concern? Thanks again and I look forward to your response.

      1. I just found it funny that while scrolling through the article there were adverts for products that you're telling us to stay away from. I guess money is money.

        1. Hi Michelle - so sorry about that. Yes, the ad thing is a conundrum. Without the ads I really wouldn't be able to keep blogging. My overhead is really high so I'm not sure what else to do. I work with a very ethical company and they are quick to act if anything is a huge issue. I keep doing my best to sound the alarm so that people know how we need to get back to real foods and ignore these toxic products! Thanks for your understanding and for reading :).

      2. I like how "Joe" posted a concern and then never actually dived into his issues. One must wonder if he is actually a doctor.

  10. Adrienne,
    I really enjoyed this article. I have a question about Pure Haven Essentials. I recently began using their products, but am curious to know now why you are not recommending them. Is there something I should be aware of?

    1. Thanks Karin. They are Ava Anderson rebranded with a different name. I worked with Ava Anderson and there were a load of problems including an executive embezzling products, then multiple labeling problems, missing ingredients in products (one of them was made in house). Their Chief Product Officer, Krupa Koestline, excused it away saying that when you blend ingredients in a cream that you can't test for the ingredients in the final product, which is not true. She also said that a GC/MS test was not the right kind of test for personal care products, but I spoke with a personal care product chemist at a very large corporation and he said that they use GC/MS testing all the time. I left the company due to all of these concerns in addition to others. I had built up a very nice team, but just couldn't support the company and recommend them to my readers any longer.

      Krupa Koestline went to Pure Haven Essentials and was there for quite awhile.

      I just sent an email to the lab that did the Ava Anderson testing and heard back that in fact they did use GC/MS testing to test for the essential oils that were listed on the Ava Anderson labels and they did not find them.

      Hope that helps.

    2. Karin,
      PUREhaven is a different company than Ava in that it took the mission of Ava and made it better. Our facilities are USDA certified organic with quality control that as far as I know, is second to none. Ava was a young girl with a mission and intent on getting out her message while providing products that were healthier. Please continue loving and using PUREhaven. Consider this...look at PUREhaven’s ingredients and look at Beauty Counter’s ingredients. Which do you need to not google what they are?

      1. Hi Robyn,

        Can you tell me what you think about Krupa's statements about the GC/MS test being the wrong test and her stating that you can't test for the presence of essential oils in a finished product after blending it?

        Thank you so much!

  11. Our family has been scent free for 20 years. Due to a chemical exposure my daughter and grand son reacte to everything you wrote about. They were recently on a flight when a passenger sprayed themselves with parfume. The world is full of fabric softener and smelly laundary soap. When company comes to stay we have to wash there clothes to try to remove the harmful smell so my kids do not get bronchitis or pneumonia . Any ideas to remove these chemical smells? Vinegar, lemon, nothing cuts it.

    1. Hi Anna - sorry for the delay in getting back to you. I just added some information about laundry to the post. I hope to have a full post on it in the future. Great question and it's something we deal with all the time!

    2. Anna,
      I would diffuse Purification essential oil from Young Living and wash items with Thieves Laundry Soap. Young Living is all about a healthy toxin free lifestyle. I've been highly impressed.

  12. Hi Adrienne,

    Thank you so much for putting the energy into this website. Any information is important on this subject and you have done a wonderful job covering the bases. I have an EPA list of over 3,000 fragrance chemicals-they are listed under pesticides-because that's what they are. I tried to send you the link but its outdated, but please email me and I will send you the doc. It'll make you sick but not as sick as breathing perfumes! All we can do is inform people. And they will likely argue and criticize and keep wearing the stuff, but over time even small numbers are better than none and small voices may eventually be heard loud and clear. Thanks again for contributing yours.

  13. I guess the fact that your post is mainly about phthalates and you listed Melaleuca as a company that had phthalates and were far from being healthy is what I was saying you should update. People who read this post would just assume that ALL their products have phthalates and are bad, when in fact they really aren't.

    Did you happen to call Melaleuca and ask about those other chemicals you're concerned about? I feel like that's the responsible thing to do if you're going to say bad things about a company. Just curious. I know they have proprietary information (understandably) but I bet they can answer that if you ask about specific chemicals.

    I know that Melaleuca at least puts color in some of their products because that is what their consumers want and they listen to their consumers. They do extensive testing on that, including their fragrances. Most people just don't like whatever color the ingredients make or the smell of essential oils.

    I know that colors are a huge marketing thing too. Most people don't want to buy lavender for example and not have it be purple. Or lemon and it's not yellow. Not necessarily to make more money, it's just what people want and like. Did you know that in the fragrance industry they make light bottles for lighter ethnicities and darker bottles for dark ethnicities? It's very interesting what color does to people. I'm more concerned about food dyes in food though. I haven't seen much as far as dyes getting absorbed.

    1. Hi again, Erin!

      I just spent a bunch of time and updated the post so it would have more thorough information on fragrances. Thanks for the comment that led me to do that!

      If you would like to contact Melaleuca that would be fine with me and just update me about what they say about the other fragrances in there. I am not opposed to all synthetic fragrances, but I think that most are best to be avoided. What do you think?

      If their synthetics are pretty clean, that's a good thing but not sure why they need to use artificial colors when color isn't necessary for their products--do you have any thoughts on that? It's not like color cosmetics where the color is the main function. Isn't there another option? As for what customers want, are companies like Mrs. Meyers and other non colored product companies not doing well in comparison? I'm not sure about that and don't know how to find that out. I personally prefer non colored products.

      Did you mean that people don't like the scent of essential oils? I'm a little confused b/c I thought that Melaleuca's main point was to be a tea tree oil based company. Am I mistaken about that?

      Re: the dyes being absorbed, yes they are absorbed. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25599186

      Thanks for a thoughtful comment and please do let me know your thoughts.

  14. Hey Adrienne!

    I just wanted to let you know that I did actually call Melaleuca and their products do not contain any phthalates including ones labeled with "fragrance". They also said that they use essential oils whenever they can and it's labeled as "fragrance (contains essential oils)" or "fragrance (essential oils)".

    Just to let you know if you wanted to update your list of companies. 🙂 Melaleuca products do not give me headaches like other products does like Tide or Febreeze, they do not contain phthalates, and so that's good enough for me!

    1. Hi there, Erin!

      I'm glad to hear that there aren't any phthalates in there. When a company writes fragrance (essential oils) I have no problem with it, but fragrance (contains essential oils) I might. I actually knew that phthalates were a huge concern, but I since dug into another company and found out that there are others notably aldehydes, toluene, substances derived from petroleum and others so I am not sure that I would be comfortable unless I could see the list of ingredients, which is what I got from the other company.

      I don't understand why the company adds colors to some of their products when they really aren't needed for function, as would be the case w/ color cosmetics. Do you have any thoughts about that?

      I will add that I of course would prefer something like Melaleuca over Febreeze (ugh) but I don't have the whole story yet. Hope that helps and feel free to update me.

  15. Tell me about it. I've been subjected to two neighbors who continually use scented candles and other air freshner products. I'm 1/2 dead and about to lose my mind by now.
    Fire Safety-Believe it; or not, I got another chemical junkie neighbor. An accomplished liar too. https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2017/4/30/1655364/-Believe-it-or-not-I-got-another-chemical-junkie-neighbor-An-accomplished-liar-too
    He thinks he's hurting me. He is, but he's sitting in the same room, breathing this poison in.