An Introduction to Fragrance Chemicals

Understanding the Toxicity of Perfumes

Choices of unnatural fragrances are unlimited.From Britney Spears’ Fantasy to JLo’s Glow, the sleek bottles promise love, wealth and celebrity appeal. But what they won’t tell you is what’s on the inside: complex mixtures of up to hundreds of chemicals that are not listed on labels. Fragrance is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t have to disclose their ingredients. Almost half the products in Skin Deep contain the generic term “fragrance.” Even “unscented” products may have masking fragrances — chemicals used to cover up the odor of other chemicals.

Some hidden hazards that may be lurking within synthetic-chemical fragrances include:

  • Allergens: Fragrances are considered to be among the top five known allergens, and are known to both cause asthma and trigger asthma attacks.
  • Phthalates: Product tests conducted by Consumer Reports in January 2007 found the phthalates DEP and DEHP in all eight of eight perfumes tested. The Not Too Pretty report found phthalates in 72% of personal care products, including fragrance-containing shampoos, deodorants and hair gels. None of the products listed phthalates on the label.
  • Sensitizers: One in ever y 50 people may suffer immune system dam- age from fragrance and become sensitized, according to the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products.

Once sensitized to an ingredient, a person can remain so for a life-time, enduring allergic reactions with ever y subsequent exposure. As far back as 1986, the US National Academy of Sciences identified fragrance ingredients as one of six categories of neurotoxins (chemicals toxic to the brain) that should be thoroughly investigated so we might better understand the impact to human health.18 But government and industry have been slow to demand or fund such research. The FDA has taken no action on a petition submitted to the agency in 1999 requesting fragrance components be listed on labels.


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