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There’s Something Fishy With Fragrances

2010 January 5

So, I have what feels like a confession to make: I’m one of those people who gets headaches after being exposed to fabric softener-laced clothes dryer exhaust. And my throat closes up when I have to sit near someone on the Metro wearing way too much perfume/cologne/etc… (Luckily, I’m usually riding my bike where I don’t have to worry about fragrances as much as car exhaust and getting flattened.) So what’s the deal—am I chemically sensitive? Is that a diagnosable condition? Are all of us affected in some way by fragrances and I’m just more aware of the trigger? What about the long-term health effects of being exposed to volatile organic compounds found in some fragrances? There are a lot of questions surrounding multiple chemical sensitivity and fragrances, of which these are just a few.

Fragrances are ubiquitous in our modern society. It isn’t too hard to avoid them in my own home (as long as I don’t rent the unit right by the dryer vents, which I sadly have some experience with), by choosing fragrance-free or mildly- and naturally-scented cleaning and beauty products. Kids don’t have much choice, and add to that the countless public spaces where even I can’t avoid overpowering smells. That adds up to the potential for a lot of exposure to volatile organic compounds and other chemicals in fragrances over the stages of childhood (and adulthood).

It’s also very difficult to figure out what is in fragrances, since there is no disclosure required by the Food and Drug Administration or other regulatory agencies for the fragrances in a wide range of consumer products. One recent study found 10 volatile organic compounds designated toxic and hazardous by the EPA in six common air fresheners and laundry products. Here at EPA, the team at Design for the Environment is promoting less harmful alternatives for fragrance chemicals in cleaners and the Indoor Air Quality team is monitoring the scientific research on the topic. I hope that the EPA’s new approach to chemicals management will shed some scientific light on fragrances and their health effects, and protect people from potential harm.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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66 Responses leave one →
  1. Al Bannet permalink
    January 5, 2010

    I have always believed that perfumes are made with chemicals that insidiously provoke disease, and that’s why I shun them; and, in my opinion, underarm deodorants are one of the causes of breast cancer, because the skin in that area of the body is very sensitive. Most malodorous underarms are caused by unhealthy diet, so eat veggie, wash often, and you’ll be fine.

  2. Jan C permalink
    January 5, 2010

    There is definitely an overabundance of fragrance in the air. Some of us who are sensitive get migraines from perfumes that are over applied. I am also affected by dryer sheets, lotions, cleaning products, etc.. Why do manufacturers feel that we need to be bombarded by scents?

  3. Marliyn Lund permalink
    January 5, 2010

    Thank you so much for bringing up this important topic. I fight constantly with my cleaning lady who insists on bringing highly perfumed cleaning supplies into my home that also bother me as well. I have a daughter who is highly prone to eczema and once we started using natural, fragrance free cleaners, her eczema has been much more under control.

    Why is it that chemicals require no discosures? We wonder why the autism rate, cancer rates and other diseases are increasing so much? Don’t we think there might be a connection between the thousands of chemicals we’re exposed to? What can we do as private citizens to advocate to the congress to push harder for disclosures and importantly safety testing on every chemical we are exposed to?

  4. Jim-Bob Williams permalink
    January 5, 2010

    Some chemical sensitivities can be determined with allergy testing.

    In my family, we’re sensitive to orris root. Orris root is in all sorts of products. We avoid the perfume counters in department stores like the plague. Finding fragrance-free shaving cream, skin conditioners, and other products is a challenge. Greater disclosure would help.

    Thanks for the article!

  5. Joseph Zummach permalink
    January 5, 2010

    Kudos for addressing this topic, I have some of the above mentioned sensitivities, stopped using fragrances twenty years ago. And have moved to the country now and I’m much happier.

    The saddest thing is that the entire Rio Grand river south of the City of Albuquerque NM smells like the fragrance in laundry detergent from the effluent discharge. Some of these compounds don’t break down in the treatment plant and must be quite persistent in the environment. I think they should be banned from use starting with laundry products at least.

    Best wishes all

  6. Jackenson Durand permalink
    January 5, 2010

    I think that perfumes’ companies are doing progress in the way they are improving new fragrance. In this concern, we had being learned to wear this one over clothes; preventing any body contact.
    We do understand to avoid using any health and beauty chemicals’ composites in abundance quantity.
    We can always try to help others personalities around us by using others procedures like: Deodorants, bodies’ lotions etc.
    Many people are facing different kind of allergy, and we get that.

  7. Sue permalink
    January 5, 2010

    Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between real “perfume” and the artificial chemical scents used in colognes, lotions, potions, deodorants, detergents, dryer sheets, fabric softener etc. Perfume is alcohol scented with “essential oils” from flowers and plants. Artificial scents are chemicals cooked up in labs.

    I’ve used “unscented” Secret brand deodorant for years due to the wheezing that many chemical scents cause me. All of a sudden sometime last year the Secret “unscented” deodorant added “MASKING FRAGRANCE” without even warning people that the chemical is in there. It is no longer UNSCENTED. Ditto many other “unscented” brands. I sent a note to the manufacturer of “Secret” about it. NO reply.

    Can’t SOMETHING be done about this??

  8. sonja permalink
    January 5, 2010

    I use essential oils and look for it in the personal products I buy when I want something to smell nice. If there are petroleum-based fragrances in a product, they are guaranteed to give me a headache and a eczema-like rash (or worse, hives). I found that my clothes are soft enough without dryer sheets or softener so I don’t buy them. My opinion is that if we don’t buy the products then they won’t make them!

    Thanks for a great article!

  9. Matthew Davis permalink
    January 5, 2010

    In the instance of the management of some chemicals managed under the Toxics Substances Control Act, companies can claim confidential business information in order to not disclose many details to regulators. Check out the Washington Post article about this:
    Fragrances in personal care products are regulated differently, but the FDA allows for companies to declare trade secrets to avoid disclosing information.
    Certainly, you can contact your Congressperson and Senators to let them know how important you think chemical management reform is, and specifically the disclosure of ingredients to regulators and consumers. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    January 6, 2010

    This is a very important issue. I stay away from scented things and I notice that a number of the meetings I went to last year were fragrence free because of how sensitive some people are and the seriousness of the alergic reaction thatcan sometimes take place. I remember back in the 1960s the Surgen-General’s reports on smoking that proved what a serious health problem it really was. We need something similar on the impacts to exposure to fragrences. And we need disclosure of what is being used in the fragrences. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  11. Janet permalink
    January 6, 2010

    I am very allergic to fragrances and also to many chemicals. Depending on the substance, I can expect anything from a mild sinus headache to wheezing, to a full blown asthma attack.Now I have to say that I am a smoker – but I try very hard to be considerate of other people. However, these same people that will complain about the smoke, will be very offended if I ask them to please not marinate in their colognes (OK – I do word it more politely).

  12. Malika permalink
    January 6, 2010

    I am also very sensitive to the extra things that are meant to be a hygenic boost in society, ie. cleaning chemicals, harsh perfumes, etc. During some genetic testing, I was very surprised to learn that due to my senses, I was defined as a ‘supertaster’ and ‘super smeller’.

    Praise God!

  13. Jeff permalink
    January 7, 2010

    People should not be exposed to these products known to be harmful and have no useful purpose.

  14. Barbara Viney permalink
    January 7, 2010

    My biggest response is to the petroleum based products that are used to carry the fragrance. Look for mineral oil, glycern, petroleum, petrolatum. A little fragrance is nice, can be natural based and doesn’t need to be carried around in a cloud about a person by the petroleum based/chemical based carriers. Besides, a fragrance should draw people in to be closer, not push them away! Isn’t that the point – smelly body odor, dirty hair, stinky clothes, etc. will push people away just fine! Here’s to drawing people closer with essenial oils and natural fragrances!

  15. Al Bannet permalink
    January 7, 2010

    For their successful business eneterprise and millions, what else?

  16. Al Bannet permalink
    January 7, 2010

    A person’s diet has a big influence on how they smell.

  17. Barb Wilkie permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Thanks for this blog.

    In 1999, Betty Bridges and I developed the petition which EHN filed with the Food and Drug Administration — 99P-1340. We were hoping to at the very least to get that agency to require it’s WARNING label be affixed to all labels of all fragrances released to market without adequate testing. We paid for a lab analysis which served as the basis of that petition.

    That petition died and unnatural death, just as have so many people who have in serious ways been affected by fragrances, but their doctors were never savvy enough to realize petrochemical derived fragrances were the ultimate cause of their early death.

    Let alone, the chemical injuries like cancer, kidney failure, heart and blood pressure problems, strokes, ADD, reproduction problems, fetal development problems. Etc.

    Once people start to realize that they are constantly breathing in toxins which include carcinogens, hormone disrupters, irritants, kidney toxicants, mutagens, neurotoxins, sensitizers, and teratogens (capable of affecting embyros and fetuses) MAYBE they will leave the petrochemically derived fragrance products on the store shelves.

    Then we will start not only clearing the air, and our bodies, but also the water quite literally downstream . . . for those chemicals are not “washed out” in our waste water management practices.

    It’s going to take education and our government agencies charged with protecting public health some effort to start clearing the air. But we all, play a role in it too . . . Do not buy the products that have not been proven safe before being placed on the market. The industry has had it good . . . we have to prove a product is harmful. They can just make it and sell it and don’t even have to declare what they put in it. Have you seen their economic bottom line?

  18. Aim permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Hey, I noticed this too. I there is a smell in the “unscented” secret deordorant. I am having a hard time finding a good deordorant without any fragrance now. I hate to walk around without any. So, is it just more inexpensive to use a chemical to mask a fragrance product? Probably so, or perhaps they think we are stupid enough not to tell. Sorry – make me just a little peeved.

  19. Aim permalink
    January 7, 2010

    It’s not just the scent. It’s the chemicals that produce them. I really don’t smell the “fragrance”, I smell the chemicals associated to them and they are magnified to a point that is unbearable. This makes me dizzy and feeling sick.

  20. Larry Plumlee permalink
    January 7, 2010

    We have a non-profit support group in the DC metro area for people with chemical sensitivity. People vary widely as to dose tolerance to toxics.

  21. Matt permalink
    January 7, 2010

    Many pulbic buildings are posted as “fragrance free” zones, which helps with random contact. We could use more fragrance free choices in our consumer products, but the consumers are conditioned by advertizing and cultural norms. The next time a celebrity launches a new line they should be confronted with facts, maybe that will slow down the appeal to go into these ventures.

  22. Al Bannet permalink
    January 9, 2010

    Hopefully, but what about a scientific study to learn exactly what thealth risks are involved in using such products? The people need to know.

  23. Jonathan Gold permalink
    January 11, 2010

    As has already been mentioned, it is certain chemicals that are nowadays added to fragrances that often makes them triggers for our chemical sensitivities. And that not all fragrances are ‘chemical’ized.

    I just want to add the complementary experience: that not all the chemicals I am sensitive too have or are in products that have an odor. Sometimes I will run into one of these ‘invisible’ triggers: I know I am being exposed to something because I go into the reactive experience — headache, throat closing up, asthmatic-like symptoms, lips or nostrils burning sensation, etc. — and I will clear out of wherever it is I am when this happens. If I am with a friend when this happens they will always say: what was that? I didn’t smell anything at all? And they are always somewhat puzzled when I say: I didn’t smell anything either. But I knew I was reacting and needed to end the exposure as soon as possible. (I carry a 3M mask around my neck that I can very quickly pop into place, which affords some help but is not always effective.)

  24. Just A Thought From The Other Side permalink
    January 12, 2010

    And here in lies the real point. You smoke, I don’t, I love perfumes, fabric softeners and strong scented soaps. So where is the line… you may not smoke around me but I sure can smell it on you, it gives me headaches, it clings to you as much as perfume does to me. So do I get to say that because you smell bad to me you should stay out of public buildings? I can smell cigarettes in a car that is DRIVING in front of mine that’s how strong the smell of cigarettes are. The smell isn’t just in your clothes it’s in your skin, your hair, your breath. So not to sound overly unsympathetic to those who truly have health issues with ‘scents’ but where do you draw the line as to what degree you control others and what they wear, eat … do with their own bodies?

  25. The Green Nose permalink
    February 9, 2010

    DfE and their partners have made great strides in reducing “fragrance” overuse. For children, parents should avoid strongly fragranced products. Many traditional products like J&J Baby shampoo use very low levels while many bath shop type marketers over dose. These products are very easy to detect. Essential/ natural oils are not safer then synthetic blends and are composed of the same molecules. Just like overly spiced foods, these should be avoided.
    Fragrances do add enjoyment later in life, and indicate something we learn to be fresh & clean. You mentioned Dryer scents, these are totally unnecessary. They just reduce static. Next time you do wash, enjoy the small shock as a reminder how you helped eliminate waste.

  26. Red Vent permalink
    February 9, 2010

    Studies show that Indoor Air Pollution is far worse than outdoor, I just posted a vent on my Keep It To Yourself blog about that. Most fragrances contain thousands of chemicals and when there are enough people worrying various fragranced products it’s a veritable witch’s brew indoors! Why can’t the department of health issue a mandate to all states and counties that just like public health inspectors inspect eating establishments, they would inspect and measure indoor air quality to insure that the air is breathable by all of us?

  27. D.A. Colvin permalink
    February 9, 2010

    I’m severely asthmatic and chemically sensitive and all kinds of fragrances make me feel severely ill and debilitated. It’s gotten to the point where I have to work from home because I haven’t been able to find one fragrance-free work environment. It doesn’t matter if the fragrance is perfume, makeup, shampoo, moisturizer, air freshener, or laundry detergent. The moment the vapors are released into the air and enter my lungs, my life is turned upside down and I have to bolt for the nearest door to get some fresh air. Indoor air quality is atrocious and is far worse than outdoor air. Thank goodness there are people who understand this painful plight and truly care enough to raise awareness. Please visit my blog to read articles I’ve written about the health dangers of fragrance products. Thank you.

  28. Red Vent permalink
    February 9, 2010

    My wife and I have spoken with Betty Bridges amd have referred many people to the Fragrance Products Information Network. There is no doubt that the industry does not want to be regulated, it’s up to us the sufferers to pressure the proper agencies to bring forth some kind of regulation and it begins with the disclosure of the harmful chemicals in the fragrances. Please share this blog with all who need to be educated and I highly recommend you visit and share

  29. Kathleen permalink
    February 16, 2010

    Thank you for writing this article. My experience with these products is similar. I currently live next to a neighbor who’s dryer exhaust makes me very ill. I have contacted my city and state officials and my state senator, the EPA and Pollution Control Agencies. It seems I can do nothing about it as these products are legal and have no regulations on them or how they are vented.
    I have spoken with my neighbor and have asked in various ways for her consideration to no avail. She continues to contaminate my entire living environment.

  30. Kay permalink
    February 16, 2010


  31. Ann permalink
    March 3, 2010

    Yes many artificial scents contain neurotoxic chemicals that cause headaches, nausea, brain fog ect.. Has anyone also considered that scents can be obnoxious and agressive. The increasing use of strong odors in public places from stores to hotels indicates the economic rise of the lower classes with their primitive nature.

  32. Ann permalink
    March 3, 2010

    Artificial fragrances are neurotoxic. They are also obnoxious and agressive the mark of the primitive nature and taste of the lower classes.

  33. betty sams permalink
    March 8, 2010

    Have you tried the salt crystal deodorant? Great. No chemical at all.

  34. Liam permalink
    March 14, 2010

    Hi, I am definitely one of those people that is very sensitive to many fragrances. At work I’ve talked to co-workers and even the ADA about getting a fragrance free environment for at least those that want one, and it never goes anywhere. I’m lucky to be able to work from home as a solution, but it doesn’t seem fair.

    Just this weekend I was visiting someone and was assaulted everywhere in the house with fragrances. Scented oils to sprays to colognes. By the end of the second day I was in one of the worst migraines of my life – spinning with nausea and eventually vomiting. Someone drove me to another location that second night and I made it to sleep and woke the next morning alright. But still felt like I was recovering from a horrible hangover.

    I feel like my sensitivity to fragrances is getting worse as time goes on. Year-after-year it gets worse and I can’t find any solution but to just avoid the world. I’m feeling imprisoned in my own house.

    I sure hope the EPA or someone/anyone can investigate these fragrance/chemical companies and get to the bottom of what they are putting in their bottles and eventually our bodies and second-hand bodies much like myself. Please/Thank you!

  35. Manjuinath permalink
    May 29, 2010

    Unless the reasons for allergic reactions to fragrances, for example, are made clear, it is going to constant battle for everyone. Nevertheless, fragrance free zones can give some solace to people who are suffering from allergic reactions. Indeed, the risk of developing allergies should be reduced among our children. Controlled environment at home can mitigate the risk of developing allergies at the early age.

  36. Anthony permalink
    July 5, 2010

    Here is a list of just some of the chemicals found in fabric softeners and dryer sheets:

    Benzyl acetate: Linked to pancreatic cancer
    Benzyl Alcohol: Upper respiratory tract irritant
    Ethanol: On the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Hazardous Waste list and can cause central nervous system disorders
    Limonene: Known carcinogen
    A-Terpineol: Can cause respiratory problems, including fatal edema, and central nervous system damage
    Ethyl Acetate: A narcotic on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list
    Camphor: Causes central nervous system disorders
    Dryer sheets are particularly noxious because they are heated in the dryer and the chemicals are released through dryer vents and out into the environment. Health effects from being exposed to the chemicals in fabric softeners include:

    Central nervous system disorders
    Blood pressure reduction
    Irritation to skin, mucus membranes and respiratory tract
    Pancreatic cancer

  37. anthony cervelli permalink
    September 3, 2010

    Do you know of any support groups in the Cleveland ohio area

  38. Jim permalink
    September 16, 2010

    I know my grandfather was always so incredibly sensitive to fragrances. and it literally could have been anything from soap to perfume. It even prevented him from going to places he enjoyed going, such as church.

  39. Ethel Brown permalink
    September 22, 2010

    I am very sensitive to perfumes and other scents and I was told
    that I would just have to get use to it. I have a co-worker that puts on flower scent and I cant breath, headache, taste it, chest gets tight. It has gotten so bad that I cant sleep at night because it appears like I am double breathing. I am allergic to electromagnetic waves. The converter box and cell phones emit
    radiation/electromagnetic waves. I am absolutely miserable at times because no on understands these conditions and sometimes ridiculed.

  40. siaa permalink
    October 11, 2010

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  41. Anna permalink
    October 15, 2010

    Yes many artificial scents contain neurotoxic chemicals that cause headaches, nausea, brain fog etc and affect the nervous system. Has anyone also considered that scents can be obnoxious and agressive. The increasing use of strong odors in public places from stores to hotels indicates the economic rise of the lower classes with their primitive nature.

  42. Carol permalink
    October 24, 2010

    “Lots of public places”? I have never seen fragrance-free zones. Where are they?

  43. Carol permalink
    October 24, 2010

    Why is the EPA allowing newly synthesized “fragrance” chemicals, which are created to “not break down”, go on the market. They should be banned. They are extreme pollution. Also, with no safety data available, what are chemicals that are not breaking down through treatment plants, doing when they enter your body? Remember that they “don’t break down.”
    I agree with other comments. The EPA or other U.S. regulatory agencies should ban the use of fragranced laundry products. They are polluting the air from the dryer exhaust and from peoples’ clothing, and also polluting the effluent water into rivers, lakes, etc.. This is an unbelieveable problem caused by totally unnecessary chemicals. If someone does not stop it soon, we will be so polluted by it that it will be impossible to really clean the mess up.

  44. Carol permalink
    October 24, 2010

    Absolutely. I think that there should be a ban immediately on these hazardous compounds in laundry products. They are totally unnecessary.

  45. Anonymous permalink
    October 24, 2010

    Yes. Why can’t they ban this poison? Do we need a presidential mandate? This is ridiculous.

  46. CArol permalink
    October 24, 2010

    Can we form a coalition on this laundry problem? We are having to move ASAP in the next couple of weeks because of the same problem. The neighbor has now contaminated the interior of our home with the toxins, and I stay sick. I contacted the same contacts as yourself. The EPA has not helped at all. Contacted the local health department, and they basically keep up with STD counts and “medical problems.” I explained that this is clearly a medical problem, and they said that they can’t help.

  47. Anonymous permalink
    October 24, 2010

    There is a misunderstanding of “allergy.” Allergy is when the body over reacts to an otherwise non-toxic substance. In this case, the comments above indicate a reaction to a toxic substance, not a non-toxic substance like ragweed or pollen.
    Where are these “fragrance free zones”, and how can you enforce these when peoples clothes are permanently contaminated now with lingering fragrances formulated to never leave the clothing, even after multiple washings? There was a recent article published in 2010 where fragrance scientists discuss mass spec. analytical test development for detecting fragrance on the surfaces of cotton towels after washing. These new chemicals will not leave the clothing.

  48. Carol permalink
    October 24, 2010

    There is some misunderstanding of the term “allergy.” Allergy is when the body overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance such as pollen or cat dander. This article, and the comments, address the body’s reaction to toxic substances. This is an altogether different subject. Where are “fragrance free zones?” Not sure how they can be enforced, unless the toxic laundry fragrances are taken off of the market. People have to wear clothing, and the new fragrances in the laundry products are synthesized to not come out of your clothes even after multiple washings. I called one of the big corporations and asked how to get rid of residual chemicals that smelled, and they said “it may require washing more than once.”

  49. Rita Arguello permalink
    November 7, 2010

    I found myself renting a duplex apartment and inhaling softener from my neighbor. It affect my nerve system for a few days, therefore, I asked my nb what she use, it is Tide with softener. I asked her to stop using that bc it is a hazardous for my health. I tried to make my landlord to fix the problem. If vapor are coming into my apartment, steam should also leaking. The problem is not only the VOC but the bio-hazardous. I requested the state to inspect the building but they said it meets the standard code of maintainance. It is very frustated situation, since I am aware of the EPA indoor air quality guideness. I am moving, obviosly.

  50. Rita permalink
    November 7, 2010

    I did not intent to have my fullname.

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