Fragrance: Intoxicating or Toxic?


The use of fragrance dates as far back as 3,000 B.C. by the ancient Egyptians, where perfumes, resins, and incense were made from plants like rose, henna, myrrh, juniper, and lily - which were also known for their various healing properties. However, today's fragrances are composed of over 3,000 synthetic chemicals that could be causing or worsening your health problems. Before you spray that irresistibly delicious-smelling perfume and walk out the door, let's explore what's really in that fragrance you are wearing, how it got there, and what you can do to detoxify your skincare - all while still wearing your favorite scents!

The Vital Role of Smell in Our Lives

Fragrance and smells are an integral part of our perception of the world and personal development. One of our bodies' most important senses, our brains link smells to our memories which means that scents often evoke personal memories and strong emotions. As explained by the Fith Sense (a charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders) When we smell something, that message is passed via nerves in our nose to a part of our brain called the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb processes the information about the smell and then sends it to the part of the brain called the Limbic System. The Limbic system is considered the "primitive" brain because of its important role in regulating basic functions such as emotion, mood, memory, and behavior and how it has helped us to survive as a species.

For example, bad smells can signal rotting food or a dangerous fire nearby and good smells can help us locate food and water. The smell of pheromones can even help us decide if another person is a biologically suitable romantic partner or not and the relationship between scent and memory is like nothing else. Everyone I know can recall a time when they caught a whiff of a scent that brought them back to a specific memory and associated emotion. Maybe the smell of a pie baking brings you back to happy memories of dinner at your grandma's house, or the smell of a certain cologne brings back unpleasant memories of your ex. Either way, scent is and always will be a part of our experiences, memories, and emotions in this world.

The History of Fragrance: 3,000 B.C. - Today

The use of man-made perfume has a rich and colorful history. According to the Perfume Society, the earliest evidence of humans creating fragrances was recorded in 5,000-year-old Hieroglyphs in Ancient Egypt. They believed that fragrance came from the sweat of the sun-god Rah and at-first, only priests used fragrance in religious ceremonies and to mask the scent of sacrificial offerings and mummification. Ancient Egyptians also recognized the healing properties of the aromatic plants they used to make fragrance and included them in salves and balms for soothing the skin, stress, and digestive discomfort. Queen Hatsheput was known to love the smell of Frankincense and Cleopatra was rumored to have the sails of her ship coated with perfume before setting sail to visit Mark Atony so that he could smell her arrival before seeing her. One of the best-preserved temples in Egypt, the temple of Edfu, even has a perfume room.

It wasn't long before the use of these fragrances spread and influenced Ancient Greece, Rome, Persia, and Mesopotamia, according to The earliest known chemist was a woman named Tapputi who was a royal perfume maker for the Babylonian King and who experimented with ground-breaking techniques using solvents such as alcohol to create lighter, further reaching scents that were similar to today's perfumes. In 2003, the remnants of an ancient large-scale perfume factory containing 4,000-year-old perfumes were discovered on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, also known as Aphrodite's Island.

However, after the fall of Rome, much of that knowledge was lost to Europe for the next few hundred years, and perfume and incense were used primarily in Ancient China, India, and the Middle East. It wasn't until the 13th century when European crusaders brought back fragrances from their travels to Asia that widespread interest in perfumes slowly spread to Italy, France, & England. Many of these aromatic herbs were used to protect against the black plague during the 17th century and during the 18th century, King Louis XIV of France even became known as the "perfume king" due to his extravagant use of perfume in the palace and for his guests.

The aromatic herbs used to create these perfumes were often expensive to obtain since they originated from other countries along the spice trade routes, and were often worth their weight in gold. Because of this, perfume was often a symbol of high status. All of this changed in the late 1800's when synthetic chemicals were created and introduced to the fragrance industry as cheaper alternatives than the real plant extracts - making them easier to manufacture on a larger scale and accessible to other classes of society.

Some of these chemicals included nitrobenzene, coumarin, citronellol, and synthetic violet and vanilla. The very first all-synthetic perfume was created in 1881, called Fougere Royale created by Paul Parquet. It contained a lot of coumarin, which could naturally be sourced from tonka beans, vanilla leaf, and woodruff, but the synthetic version was over 40 times cheaper. From then on, many more synthetic fragrances were created and fast-forward to 2015, the International Fragrance Association (IFA), lists 3,999 chemicals as being used by perfumers in their formulas for consumer purchase.

How are Fragrances Harming My Health?

A recent study was published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine earlier this year analyzing the prevalence of people diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) in the US and how it relates to asthma and exposure to fragrances. They concluded that MCS cases have increased by 300% in the past decade and that reducing exposure to scented products can result in decreased health and societal issues that people with MCS often deal with, such as missing work due to asthma and migraines.

Although sensitivity to fragrances are becoming more commonly recognized and most medical facilities now require employees and patients to refrain from wearing scented products, many people are still surprised to hear that fragrances are actually harmful to the average person - whether they have an allergy or sensitivity to synthetic fragrance or not. The majority of ingredients in fragrances are linked to cancer, endocrine/hormone disruption, Autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, neurological disorders, kidney damage, asthma and respiratory disorders, allergies, contact dermatitis, migraines, and more. This is likely because 95% of fragrance ingredients are derived from petroleum, according to the National Academy of Sciences, and they carry the risk of toxicity from polycystic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's) which can have carcinogenic effects.

In my previous article, on toxic skincare products, fragrance was listed as one of the David Suzuki Foundation's top 12 "Dirty Dozen" ingredients to avoid when reading ingredient labels. Although it's often listed as a single ingredient, "fragrance" is actually a blanket term that covers any combination of the 3,000+ chemicals that companies currently use to manufacture their signature scents. Since there's not enough time for anyone to research all of those chemicals, here are the top four that seem to be the worst offenders and what makes them so toxic:


In 2000, the CDC tested 289 people and found that their blood levels were surprisingly high in phthalates. Phthalates are also known as "plasticizers" and are typically found in synthetic fragrances, solvents, and plastics. They are known endocrine disruptors, which interfere with the proper functioning of your body's hormones, and studies have linked them to reproductive development issues in young boys and decreased sperm count and sperm motility in men which may contribute to today's high rates of infertility (infertility is not always the ladies' problem!).

The Journal of Environmental Research conducted an analysis of the current literature on Autism and phthalates and concluded that the available studies show there is definitely evidence of a correlation between exposure to phthalates and the development of Autism, but more research is still needed on the topic to rule out exposure to other environmental toxins as contributing to these findings.

An article on PBS discusses how phthalates are already banned in the European Union and nine other countries including Japan, Argentina, and Mexico. In the US, phthalates remain unregulated in cosmetics and most plastics, but they have been banned from the production of children's toys. This doesn't seem effective enough if the skincare products people are putting onto their children contain phthalates anyways. If there is enough evidence for other governments to ban phthalates altogether and for our government to worry about the effects of phthalates on children, they should at least regulate all aspects of where children might come into contact with phthalates and not just their toys.

Synthetic Musks:

Think twice before you put on perfume when heading out on your next date. That sensual, musky scent often found in fragrances advertised to attract romantic partners and to "set the mood" was historically sourced from the anal pheromone glands of the Musk Deer and other animals (ew!). Today, synthetic musks are used to obtain a similar scent in fragrances and are at least no longer obtained from animals.

However, it's not a perfect solution, as there are studies that suggest synthetic musks are carcinogenic and are disruptors of the hypothalamic-ovarian hormone pathway and could play a role in infertility and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). It's proven by the same studies that synthetic musks are stored by the human body in breast milk and fatty tissue, so the toxicity will build up over time, even if you don't use fragrances often. Because of this, it is important for pregnant and nursing women to be extra careful to avoid using synthetic fragrances or their infants will also be more at risk of toxin exposure. It's also recognized that synthetic musks can cause nerve cells to break down in the spinal cord, brain, and peripheral nerves, as written in a report submitted to Congress in 1986.


You may already recognize this ingredient from your biology classes as a kid. Formaldehyde is a chemical most commonly recognized as being used to preserve dead animals and cadavers for dissection, burial, or other purposes. It is already reported by the CDC to be able to cause cancer with repeated exposure - even at levels too low to cause symptoms.

Being an excellent preservative, cosmetic companies have found sneaky ways to indirectly use formaldehyde as a preservative in personal care products despite the research around how harmful it is. They get around this by adding other chemicals to their products which, as they are exposed to water in the product over time, slowly release small amounts of formaldehyde as a by-product as they degrade. Some of these formaldehyde-releasing chemicals to keep an eye out for include:

  • DMDM hydantoin

  • Imidazolidinyl urea

  • Diazolidinyl urea

  • Quaternium-15

  • Bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol )

  • 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane

  • Hydroxymethylglycinate


In 2014, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed suspicions that styrene can cause cancer. Usually found in cigarettes, car exhaust, and foam cups, it's also used in a variety of fragrances from cosmetics to cleaning products. In addition, it's toxic to red blood cells, the liver, and to the brain - when inhaled. Styrene, along with many other chemicals, can only be identified in a product by using mass spectometry, unless it's directly mentioned on the product ingredient label (not likely).

Environmental Impact of Artificial Fragrances

Synthetic fragrances aren't only harmful to humans, they are harmful to other animals and our environment as well. Particularly synthetic musks which not only bio accumulate in human tissue, but in the tissues of aquatic animals as well. All of the fragrance that washes down the drains in our showers is not filtered out by waste water treatment, so it ends up accumulating in the oceans. In this way, we also receive more exposure from eating seafood that has bio accumulated these chemicals and we continue to bio accumulate them as well in our bodies while continuing this harmful cycle by continuing to use these products. Air pollution has also been a major concern due to the volatile nature of fragrances and how they break down in the air when they are sprayed and contribute to damaging the ozone layer, particularly in aerosols (which are more regulated now) and formaldehyde-containing products. And of course many animals have also been harmed in the making of fragrances and cosmetics in general, whether it was for testing the safety of ingredients or for harvesting the pheromone glands to obtain a "musk" scent.

How to Spot & Avoid Artifical Fragrance in My Personal Care & Home Products

Words to look out for on product labels include "fragrance","fragrance oils", fragrance blends", "perfume", "parfum", and "aroma". These seemingly harmless terms encompass all the 3,000+ chemicals mentioned above that could be in the personal care and home products you are using without your knowledge. A report by the David Suzuki Foundation mentioned that on average, there are 14 ingredients per product that are not listed on the product label and that are also chemicals linked to allergic reactions and hormone disruption. You might be wondering: If these fragrances cause so many health problems, why doesn't the government restrict their use in cosmetics? I'm thinking the same thing! Unfortunately, there is a loophole in the FDA's Fair Packaging and Labeling Act that doesn't even force companies to list their protected proprietary blends of fragrance and flavoring, let alone control what they can use in those blends.

If you think that choosing products that are advertised as "fragrance-free" will keep you safe, then think again. In response to consumers seeking out more unscented products, companies often use additional chemicals to mask the scent of the other ingredients, so there are no discernible strong scents when smelling the products, however they have the same, if not more than the harmful chemicals present in their scented products. For this reason, it is extremely important to read labels carefully and only choose products that clearly list what botanical extracts or essential oils make up their fragrance blend (and are trustworthy enough to know they listed every ingredient without leaving anything out), or that don't list any fragrance components at all (because at the very minimum, the word "fragrance" must be used if there is anything used for that purpose).

Fragrance & scent-masking chemicals can be found in all of the following products and more:

  • Body lotions, creams, serums, perfumes, deodorants

  • Shampoos, conditioners, hair sprays, gel, styling products

  • Soaps/cleansers, bath bombs, bath salts, masks, scrubs

  • Nail polish, makeup, body powders

  • Cleaning products, detergents, scented candles, air fresheners, dryer sheets

Healthy Alternatives to Artificial Fragrance

People have been making naturally scented, non-toxic fragrance for thousands of years. In my opinion - if it ain't broke, don't fix it! During the past couple hundred years we've tried the "cheaper" alternative, and it turns out it's more expensive if you include health care costs from the harm it is causing to your health. Let's rediscover the wonderful scents that mother nature has already gifted us. Here are some alternatives to using products with artificial fragrances:

Essential Oils (highly concentrated volatile oils extracted from plants):

  • Purchase products from trusted companies and small businesses who only use pure essential oils to scent their products like my skincare products.

  • Use products rated by EWG to have a low exposure safety rating. The "ingredient" fragrance is listed as an 8/10 and any products containing it will have an overall rating higher than 1 or 2.

  • Dilute your favorite essential oil blend into a carrier oil, such as apricot or olive oil, and dab on wrists and neck for perfume.

  • Put a few drops of your favorite essential oil blend on onto lava bead jewelry or a terra cotta pendant and wear for however long the scent is desired.

  • Use diluted essential oils to scent your homemade personal care (oil based) and cleaning products

Hydrosols (aromatic water which is a byproduct of the distilling product used to extract essential oils):

  • Use hydrosols as scented mists for your hair and body and for a refreshing facial toner.

  • Add to your homemade personal care (water based) and cleaning products for fragrance.

  • Boil herbs in distilled water to make your own herbal scented water to use like you would a hydrosol.

Truly Unscented Products

  • Purchase products from trusted companies and small businesses who don't use any fragrance components at all, whether natural or synthetic, or to mask other ingredient scents.

  • Make your own personal care and cleaning products that don't contain any scented ingredients.


Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or medical professional. This post is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical conditions or diseases. If you or a loved one are suffering from any symptoms or illness, please seek proper diagnosis and treatment with a physician.