What Dangers Can Perfumes & Other Fragrances Pose
to Your Health?


We have all been there. You are in a movie theater, on an airplane or in some other closed quarters that, for whatever reason, you are required to remain in. Then in walks that man or woman wearing way too much of the strongest — and usually worst smelling — cologne or perfume. Of course, they usually sit right next to you.

At best, this is an annoyance. But especially for those with chemical sensitivities, and also for everyone else, perfumes, colognes and other fragrances can actually harm your health.

The chemicals in your favorite fragrance may be making your friends, coworkers and family sick.

What are Fragrances Made Of?

About 95 percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic, petroleum-based compounds. For people with allergies or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), these chemicals can lead to allergic reactions like sneezing, itchy watery eyes, wheezing and headaches.

Other health conditions that can be exacerbated by fragrances, according to Tracie DeFreilas Saab, M.S., author of a comprehensive discussion, “Individuals with Fragrance Sensitivity,” include asthma, environmental illness (EI) and migraines.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t affected. An investigation into fragrances, perfumes and colognes by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found several areas of concern:

  • 16 percent of the products they reviewed contained ingredients that may cause cancer
  • 5 percent may contain harmful impurities linked to cancer or other health problems
  • 18 percent contained penetration enhancers that increase exposures to carcinogens and other ingredients of concern
  • 98 percent of products contained ingredients not assessed for safety in cosmetics or with insufficient data
  • 76 percent contained ingredients that are allergens
  • 13 percent of products posed other potential health concerns

Fragrances in the Workplace

The office is an example of closed quarters that you have no choice but to spend significant amounts of time in. Increasing numbers of employees are voicing their dissatisfaction with other employees’ irritating fragrances, and employers are facing the difficult decision of whether to implement a fragrance-free office.

Says DeFreilas Saab, employees with fragrance sensitivities may have the following symptoms:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hoarse voice or loss of voice
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tingling of the lips and skin
  • Muscle and joint pain

However, enforcing a truly fragrance-free work environment is a difficult task because so many products — from fabric softeners and dryer sheets from fabric softeners and dryer sheets to soaps to shampoos — contain them. Those who have tried say a voluntary fragrance-free program works better than a mandatory one.

For people who are sensitive, fragrances are more than just a bad smell. They can lead to headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing and more.

The Maine Department of Labor, for instance, recently adopted a voluntary fragrance-free policy for employees and visitors. “We want to educate our workforce and clients about the real effect chemicals and fragrances can have on individuals with sensitivities. Many people are unaware that the scents they use can actually make another person ill,” they said.

Ingredients of Concern

According to the EWG, the following ingredients are the most harmful ones to watch out for:

Butylated Hydroxytoluene: Cancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Propylene Glycol: Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Methylparaben: Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Tetrasodium EDTA: Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Propylparaben: Allergies & Other Health Concerns

PEG-7 Glyceryl Cocoate: Harmful Impurities, Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Diazolidinyl Urea: Harmful Impurities, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Tocopheryl Acetate: Harmful Impurities, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Octyl Methoxycinnamate: Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Octyl Salicylate: Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns

Disodium EDTA: Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Polyquaternium-10: Harmful Impurities, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Ceteareth-12: Safety Violations, Harmful Impurities, Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Ceteareth-20: Safety Violations, Harmful Impurities, Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Triethanolamine: Cancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns

Benzophenone-3: Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Sodium Laureth Sulfate: Penetration Enhancer, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Lactic Acid: Safety Violations, Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Benzyl Alcohol: Allergies & Other Health Concerns
Ethylparaben: Allergies & Other Health Concerns

Petroleum Distillate in Your Lip Gloss (and possibly in your furniture polish) Shown to Cause Tissue Disease!

Perhaps you have never heard of petroleum distillates before, or given them much thought if you have, but it is almost certain you’ve used products that contain them – perhaps daily. These compounds, which are also called hydrocarbons or petrochemicals, are extracted by distillation during the refining of crude oil, and they’re used as heating agents, propellants (gasoline) and solvents.

A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that being exposed to petroleum distillates increases the risk of developing undifferentiated connective tissue disease (UCTD), a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that involves a disorder of the body’s connective tissues.

UCTD could include symptoms from, or evolve into any combination of, connective tissue diseases like lupus, scleroderma, polymyositis, vasculitis, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome or fibromyalgia, yet has not met the official diagnostic criteria to be diagnosed as such.

Where are Petroleum Distillates Found?

Petroleum distillates are in hundreds of consumer products including:

  • Hair conditioner
  • Sunblock
  • Nail polish
  • Deodorant
  • Mineral oil
  • Lip gloss
  • Gasoline
  • Fertilizer
  • Furniture polish
  • Pesticides
  • Plastics
  • Paint thinners
  • Solvents
  • Motor oil
  • Fuels (propane, butane, diesel)
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Art supplies (oil painting medium)
  • Paste and liquid car waxes and polishes
  • Kerosene
  • Paraffin wax
  • Tar
  • Adhesives

According to the EPA, “Products that contain petroleum distillates should be used carefully. Wear gloves to avoid skin contact and avoid breathing vapors of volatile compounds.”


Hundreds of products, including lip gloss, nail polish and hair conditioner, contain petroleum distillates that the EPA says should be used with caution.

That’s because, in addition to raising the risk of UCTD, petroleum distillates can cause chemical pneumonia and can interfere with the lungs’ functions-even resulting in death-if inhaled or swallowed. They can also irritate the skin and cause sensitivity to light.

Can Petroleum Distillates be Avoided?

As it stands, the average household contains, in the form of chemical products, about 10 gallons of potentially hazardous petrochemicals. Many, many household cleaners are based on petrochemicals, and while manufacturers are required to include warning labels on products that contain them, a New York Poison Control Center study found that 85 percent of product warning labels are inadequate.

So, when you clean, always seek out natural non-toxic cleaners.

Further, petroleum distillates pose the greatest risk when they’re breathed in. According to the EPA, even small amounts can cause harm. That’s why ensuring that the air you breathe in your home is clean and free from toxins has become as important and necessary as locking your doors at night. Unfortunately, with all of the chemical products our society has come to rely on, indoor air can be two to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, says the EPA!

When it comes to reducing your exposure to petroleum distillates, avoiding noxious chemical cleaners and other chemical products and purifying the air you and your family breathe while indoors are two of the best steps you can take.

What to do if Fragrances Bother You

If you notice that you feel ill when exposed to fragrances, you’re probably better off seeking out fragrance-free varieties of all your personal care items, or at least choosing products that don’t contain synthetic fragrance.

Also, let your family members, coworkers and other people you see on a daily basis (and who wear fragrance that makes you feel ill) know that the chemicals in their perfume/cologne, etc. have this effect on you. Most people will understand and refrain from using the product around you — but be prepared to stand your ground if someone insists that they must wear their favorite fragrance.


Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Report

Business and Local Reports: Your Cologne is Making Me Sick!

Fragrance Sensitivity

Environmental Protection Agency: Petroleum

Household Products Database

American Journal of Epidemiology

Household Products Database