Scents Are Not What They Seem

(Cover Story, National AEHA UPdate, Spring1998)

Recently, a woman purchasing some vitamins at a scent-free health store handed paper money to the clerk, saying, “I spray my money with my perfume.  It adds a nice touch, don’t you think?”

The clerk, who suffers from chemical hypersensitivity, did not think so.  She experienced headache, weakness, brain fog and other symptoms as a result – but it could have been worse!


The volatility of fragrances is highly specialized.  Traditional perfumery has three ‘notes’ or levels of volatility.  The first note is the initial scent which is given off when the perfume is applied.  The second is the main scent which is the strongest and longer lasting, and the third note is a lingering scent which is usually less strong but long lasting.  The maker’s challenge is to blend the three notes to create a balanced effect that is pleasant throughout.  Usually perfume is made up of essential oils, aroma chemicals, and a base of alcohol, with fixatives used to slow the evaporation.(1) A good perfume was once designed to last 6 to 8 hours, but today, even some lotions have longer lasting fragrances than the perfumes of the past.

Soaps once had a recognizable “soap” smell, and people only wore perfume on special occasions.  In recent years, the use of added scent has skyrocketed to where any one individual can carry as many as 20 different scents from the products used or worn on any given day.  Wherever they go, each person leaves behind in the air a little bit of each fragrance, and creates an unseen “fog” of chemically laden air that contributes to Indoor Air Pollution levels..

Besides perfume and cologne, the list of products that can contain added fragrance is almost endless: aftershave, hair spray, soaps, fabric softener, lipstick, air fresheners, cleaning products, even car vinyl and kitty litter.

Scents are Not What They Seem

Since World War II we have embraced man-made chemicals for use in almost all aspects of our lives.  Using materials such as oil, coal, and natural gas, scientists continue to synthesize many never-before-in-existence chemicals and chemically based materials.  We use them to fill our needs for everything from medicines to fabrics, fertilizers to building materials and from perfume to space shuttle parts. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets applications for evaluation of an average of 50 new, man-made chemicals per day.  This rate far surpasses the ability to adequately test all of these chemicals for their safety to humans or the natural environment. (2)

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, is a very large family of chemicals which includes all the organic compounds containing carbon, and which readily evaporate into the air.  Although most are liquids at room temperature, they will easily enter air, and they greatly contribute to air pollution.(3) Man-made fragrance chemicals are part of the category of VOCs.

Most of today’s fragrances are 97% synthetic chemical, with as many as 7000 Volatile Organic Compounds (Some sources say 4000, others say 6000) used in the fragrance industry in combinations that make our neurosensors think we are smelling a particular scent.(4,5)  We can create everything from the strawberry scent of smelly markers to the lemon or pine smell of some cleaning agents – from scented garbage bags to copies of expensive French perfumes.(6)  Perfumed soaps contain between 30 and 150 fragrance ingredients, and scented cosmetics have between 200 and 500.  While as many as 700 fragrance ingredients can be used in a single perfume, some masking scents can use as few as one ingredient.  Some of these masking scents are designed to cover up unpleasant or unwanted odours inherent in a product, but some work by actually deadening our ability to smell the offending odour.  Masking scents, which can be potent by themselves, can cause considerable difficulties for those needing truly scent-free and less-toxic products. The smell of offending chemicals may be masked, but they are still present and capable of doing harm.

Of fragrance chemicals in general, “84% of these ingredients have never been tested for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally.”(7) In addition, no testing is done on the synergistic blends, the interacting combinations of fragrance chemicals, to determine if they may pose any threat to health.

Fragrance Chemicals as Toxic Substances

In 1989 the US National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) identified 884 of 2,983 fragrance chemicals as toxic substances.  Some of these were capable of causing birth defects, central nervous system disorders, cancer, eye and skin symptoms, and actually causing broad chemical sensitization (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity) (8)

Examples of toxic ingredients are:

Cyclohexanol, when inhaled it has a narcotic effect intermediate between the effects of benzene and chloroform. (9)

Limonene, one of the most common ingredients, is a known carcinogen and a sensitizer – capable of inducing Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

Toluene. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found 100% of perfumes it studied contained toluene.(10) “Toluene can effect you when breathed in and by passing through your skin, may cause mutations, may damage the developing fetus.  Handle with extreme caution.  Exposure can irritate the skin nose, throat, and eyes.  Higher levels can cause you to feel dizzy, lightheaded, and to pass out.  Death can occur.  Repeated exposures can damage bone marrow, causing low blood cell count.  It can also damage the liver and kidneys, can cause slowed reflexes, trouble concentrating, and headaches.”(11)

Other examples of the many neurotoxic or sensitizing chemicals commonly found in fragrances are: linalool, hexachlorophene, 1-Butanol, 2-Butanol, Iso-Butanol, and 2,4-dinitro-3-methyl-6-tert-butylanisole.(12)

A few chemicals, such as Musk AETT have been voluntarily removed from the cosmetics industry.  Research had found many adverse effects including permanent brain damage in test animals.  Most fragrance chemicals have undergone minimal or no testing.

Only a handful of chemicals are specifically banned from cosmetics, and regulatory bodies rely on manufacturers willingness to comply.  However, fragrance ingredients need not be included in ingredient list submissions even at government regulatory levels.

Methylene Chloride, a known carcinogen and cause of autoimmune disease, had been banned for use in all cosmetics in 1989.  It was one of the 20 most common chemicals found in fragrance products in a 1991 U.S. EPA study. (13)

Natural vs Man-made

Not just the man-made aroma chemicals are capable of causing difficulties.  A number of the natural ingredients such as patchouli oil, civet, orris root, galbanum, asafetida, and bergamot oil can also cause trouble, particularly for sensitive individuals.  Bergamot oil is classified as a hazardous substance and strong sensitizer much like formaldehyde.  That is, like formaldehyde, it is capable of causing Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in otherwise well people.(14)

You Are What You Breathe and Touch

One way that fragrance chemicals enter the body is through our skin, as with soaps or cosmetics.  Comparatively more research has been done on effects from direct skin/eye contact with cosmetics. According to an article in the Journal of Contact Dermatitis, allergy to fragrance is the most common cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis.  It goes on to say that the widespread use of fragranced materials in skin care and household products is probably the most important reason for the high incidence of fragrance sensitization.(15)  Fragrances applied to the skin do not only affect the skin.  They can penetrate and affect internal organs.

Each day we also breathe in multitudes of molecules from volatile synthetic chemicals including those from chemically scented products.  There is less research done on these effects, but the existing research, along with our common sense should alert us to be cautious.

What happens in our bodies when we take in chemicals?  Usually our bodies  recognize them to be foreign substances, and go through a process to minimize their harm or remove them from the body using what are called Detoxification Pathways.  However, many of these chemicals can do damage to our body cells along the way, or they may trigger adverse reactions in body tissues, organs, or systems.  Some are hard to remove and are stored in our fat cells or body organs; sometimes our detoxification pathways are blocked; sometimes the chemicals are transformed into more dangerous substances. (16)

Studies in Germany and Switzerland have found fragrance chemicals, which are environmental pollutants, in human tissues and breast milk.  An abstract by researchers Rimkus and Wolf states “The detection of nitro musk compounds in breast milk and in human adipose tissue is mainly due to the use of such substances as perfume in detergents from which they enter the sewage and finally the whole freshwater system.  Due to their low degradability and a high biological concentration factor, they enter the food chain without the toxicological investigations to date allowing any certain conclusions on the effect of such accumulation in the human organism or on the effect of accumulation in ecological systems.”(17,18)

Dr. James Miller of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has stated, “Chemicals do their damage to our systems one molecule at a time.  Even a limited exposure will cause some cellular damage requiring nutrients, time, and energy to heal.  If repeated injuries occur at an interval shorter than that required for complete healing, there will be an accumulation of injury.  This will eventually lead to organ malfunction and chronic symptoms.  It is the difference in our ability to repair minor chemical injuries that determines who will remain healthy and who will eventually develop Environmental Illness.   Since it cannot be determined who the susceptible individuals are until they have become sick, discretion would dictate that we make every effort to limit our chemical exposure to the absolute minimum.”(19)

Chemicals and the Nose

The nasal passages and the brain are very close together.  Dr. Tyler Lorig notes that human olfactory system is large and located very close to key parts of the brain.  “Pathways of the olfactory tract reach directly to the amygdala, hypothalamus, preperiform cortex of the brain.”(20)  Research by Dr. Iris Bell suggests that there can be a direct effect on the limbic system by toxic chemicals that enter the nose/olfactory system. (21)   Cocaine users are known to make use of this direct nasal pathway.

Researchers have found that even at levels below the ability for us to detect their presence common VOCs can have measurable effects on the body. (22,23,24)  Using commercial perfume products to supply odours, Dr. Lorig concluded in a series of studies, that “The experiments described here provide clear evidence that undetected odors alter neurophysiology and behaviour.”(25)  For people who have developed chemical Sensitivity, dramatic and, for some, even life threatening effects can be experienced at extremely low levels of exposure. (26,27,28)


The body process called “adaptation” can allow those not yet chemically hypersensitive to remain unaware of the harm that is being done to their bodies.  It works somewhat like this:  When we first enter a room, we can smell odours, notice dust, etc.  but after a while we don’t notice them anymore – our bodies have adapted to them.  Another example, when people first try smoking cigarettes, they choke and fight to resist the irritation.  Next time, it isn’t so bad, and soon smoky air is tolerated well by the body.   We now know that many harmful effects of smoking are not the immediate ones, but the ones which show up years later in the form of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and many other illness.  Damage is done slowly, over time and with little or no awareness of any harm being done.  Many of the same chemicals found in cigarette smoke are also found in man-made fragrances. People who are adapted to toxic products or places can often continue for years without recognizing cause and effect.

Pulitzer Prize winner Rene Dubois said, “The greatest danger of pollution may well be that we shall tolerate levels of it, so low, as to have no acute nuisance value, but sufficiently high, nevertheless to cause delayed pathological effects and to spoil the quality of life.” (29)

The fact that hundreds of chemicals, some of which are toxic, are combined to form unknown compounds with unknown effects is just part of the risk from man-made fragrances.  It is their volatility that makes synthetic fragrances particularly potent.  We can avoid a food which harms us by not eating it.  But invisible toxic chemicals which float in the air are almost unavoidable.  Products whose sole purpose is to reach our noses and be inhaled into the body so we can experience their smell provide a direct “hit” through the olfactory tissues to the brain.  They can not be seen and many are capable of producing adverse effects at below detectable levels.  These characteristics make them of particular risk to people already suffering from Chemical Hypersensitivity.

Airborne Chemical Pollution and Health

Symptoms provoked by fragrances include: watery or dry eyes, blurred vision, sneezing, nasal congestion, sinusitis, tinnitus, ear pain, dizziness, vertigo, coughing, bronchitis, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, headaches, seizures, short term memory loss, nausea, inability to concentrate, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, depression, disorientation, incoherence, fatigue, mood swings, restlessness, rashes, hives, eczema, flushing, muscle and joint pain, muscle weakness, irregular heartbeat, hypertension, swollen lymph glands, asthma, and anaphylaxis, (sometimes causing death).(30)

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 70% of all asthmatics develop respiratory symptoms when exposed to perfumes.(31)

Living in a Fragranced World

“Unscented”, “fragrance-Free” “Hypoallergenic”, “natural”, “Green” “Floral”, “outdoor fresh” and “Environmentally Friendly” are words that sound good but have no legal definition.  They are used in industry virtually without restrictions.  Buyer beware.  “Scent-free” may only mean that the product has less scent than a scented version of the same product from that manufacturer.  Fragranced items may have at least .15% added, but Industry Canada allows Scent-Free labelling on products which contain .06% fragrance added as a masking agent.(32)   To people who are chemically sensitive, there is little difference between .06% and .15%, and we may be mislead into buying a product that could be harmful to us.  Check the label for “fragrance” listed with the ingredients, but to be sure, use your nose, (with caution!).

From public demand, more fragrance-free products are becoming available.  Still, finding truly scent-free products can be a challenge.  Because other harmful materials may be present in a product, and because of individual sensitivity, some fragrance-free products may not be tolerated well if used directly by sensitive individuals.   These same scent-free products may or may not pose a problem if worn by someone nearby, such as a co-worker.  Also, sometimes the scents from products used at home or after hours can be carried on the clothing or hair of individuals and inadvertently cause problems for a sensitive co-worker.

Have you ever noticed that perfumes do not generally come in plastic bottles?  Some will actually dissolve plastic.  Scents also pass through cardboard, so enough scent has to be added to compensate for what is lost while it sits on the shelf.  This loss is the characteristic scent of the detergent isle.  Note that a scent-free product can pick up the scents from nearby products. (33)

Chemical Control by Government

What is being done to limit the harm from such forms of indoor air pollution?  Cosmetics and perfumes “control” is being transferred from Health Canada’s Therapeutic Products Directorate to the Bureau of Product Safety, under the Environmental Health Directorate. Manufacturers of products to be sold in Canada send ingredient information to the Directorate, which then notifies the company if “unacceptable” ingredients are listed.  It is left to the company to comply with removal, and there is no testing or substantial follow-up.  Individual fragrance ingredients are not required to be listed at all, even at this government level.  Instead, only the word “Fragrance” need be provided on the ingredient list.(34)

Health Canada’s new Federal Cosmetics Regulations which are expected to be passed soon, will order “complete ingredient listing” on labels.  However, as is currently required in The United States and Europe, this “complete ingredient listing” will not demand a complete list of fragrance ingredients, but only the word “fragrance”.  Fragrance chemicals are exempt from close scrutiny.

According to John Baily, director of the U.S.FDA Colors and Cosmetics Division, (1992) “The fragrance and cosmetic industry is the least regulated industry.  There is no pre-clearing of chemicals with any agency”, and that the fragrance industry lawyers would sue the FDA if it attempted to remove any fragrance from the marketplace even with thousands of “anecdotal” complaints. (35)

Twenty-one years ago the U.S Congress’ Toxic Substances Control Act gave to the manufacturers the responsibility to test chemical substances for their toxicity.  A report from the Environmental Defense Fund states that “today, even the most basic toxicity testing results can not be found in the public record for nearly 75% of the top-volume chemicals in commercial use.”(36)  A common, and apparently acceptable, statement on vast numbers of Material Safety Data Sheets is, “THE CHEMICAL, PHYSICAL, AND TOXICOLOGICAL PROPERTIES HAVE NOT BEEN THOROUGHLY INVESTIGATED.”

The perfume industry continues to aggressively market chemically produced odours, convincing the public that to have a truly clean house it must smell like pine, or to have really clean clothes they must smell “outdoor fresh”.  To attract a mate one must have a “signature” scent.  Meanwhile those same scents, some containing unregulated neurotoxins, carcinogens, and sensitizers become part of our physical environment and impact on our health.  Those of us who have become chemically hypersensitive know this all too well.

What can you do?

+ Purchase truly fragrance-free and less-toxic products, and inform your grocer, pharmacist, and other vendors of your buying preference.  Encourage friends, family, and colleagues to do the same.

+ Write letters to editors and politicians.  Give support to government and industry regulations which recognize the potential for harm from Volatile Organic Compounds.  For example, the still-to-be-passed Nova Scotia Department of Labour Regulations on Indoor Air Quality, and the new U.S. ASHRAE-62,1989 Guidelines.

+ Write or call Industry Canada and Health Canada to express your concerns – perhaps about the need for accurate product labelling, about the health risks of the use of masking scents in products labelled “Scent-free”, or about the use of perfume strips in magazines.

+ Request of magazines containing fragrance strips that they cease the practice.

+ Obtain and circulate the new AEHA Guide to Less Toxic Products,  (See ad in this issue) and consider joining the AEHA or other organizations working toward similar goals.

+ Encourage Fragrance-Free/Less-Toxic workplaces and public buildings:  Voluntary programs tend to work the best, but scent-free policies can help provide strength, consistency, information, and support.  Fragrance chemicals are not the only contributors to indoor VOC levels.  For a truly chemically-reduced and safer environment, VOCs from such things as glues, paints, white-out, room deodorizers, chemical cleaners, and many more, also need to be limited.

A fragrance-free environment can benefit even healthy, normal people, but is a necessity for those who have become Chemically Sensitive.  When other people’s choices are involved, protecting oneself from adverse reactions to pollutants is sometimes not easy.  Some sensitive people protect themselves by increasing ventilation, by wearing an activated charcoal filter mask, or by using a portable air filtration device.  Each of these precautions is only partially effective.  Controlling the pollution source is still preferable.

In Conclusion:

We are finally making the connection between the abundance of synthetic chemicals, the pollution of the earth, and people’s health and quality of life.  We are learning that health, behaviour, and learning ability can be affected in even normal people by even low-levels of environmental pollutants.  While this chemical pollution makes daily life difficult and often hazardous for people who have developed Chemical Sensitivity, the potential for otherwise healthy individuals to become sensitized is also a significant and very real risk.  Many places are already voluntarily reducing low-level chemical exposures through scent-free and less-toxic policies.  Much progress is being made, but there is still much to be done.

Karen Robinson
Healthy Schools Editor, National AEHA UPdate



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