News & Events

Health effects of fragrances: a Q & A

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
May 2005 Edition

By Peggy Wolff, M.S., R.N.C.S

Do you know anyone who is bothered by fragrances? You probably do because more than 20 percent of our population now experiences adverse health effects when exposed to fragrances.

Why are fragrances such a problem? For two reasons. First, 95 percent of fragrances are synthetic compounds made from petroleum products, most of which have never been tested for human toxicity. Second, fragrances are made to be volatile, so the chemicals in these fragrances stay in the air and are readily inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

Are "natural" scents a problem? People who don’t feel well around synthetic fragrances generally don’t feel well around some essential "natural" oils such as civet, galbanum, and, in particular, patchouli oil.

What health effects can occur from fragrances? Minor effects include eye, nose and throat irritation, dry cracking skin, rashes and headaches. More serious health effects include vertigo, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, kidney and liver damage, blood pressure changes, central and peripheral nervous system changes, difficulty breathing and, in rare cases, death.

Who is particularly bothered by fragrances? People with allergies, asthma, compromised or immature immune systems and those who are chemically sensitive are most susceptible. Be aware that fragrances are a "barrier to access" for some health conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1992.

If you avoid wearing perfume/cologne, are you free of fragrances? Probably not. Fragrances are in almost all personal care and laundry products that most of us commonly use.

Did you know?

  • Fragrances are one of today’s major sources of indoor air pollution.
  • Fragrances, although under FDA jurisdiction, are one of the least regulated substances.
  • Some fragrances contain chemicals designated as hazardous waste disposal chemicals such as methyl chloride, toluene and ethanol.
  • Some municipalities like Shutesbury, Mass., and Halifax, Nova Scotia, have banned the use of fragrances.
  • Secondhand smells are as much a problem as secondhand smoke.
  • Some products labeled "unscented" may contain toxic "masking" fragrances.
    What can you do?
  • Avoid the use of synthetic fragrances and selected essential oils when at work or in public places.
  • Request fragrance-free classes, meetings, conferences, etc.
  • Educate other health care professionals, clients and the general public about the adverse health effects of fragrances.
  • If a particular fragrance is bothersome to you, speak up.
  • Subscribe to magazines that refrain from using fragrance inserts.
  • Write to the Office of Cosmetics and Colors, FDA, Washington, D.C. 20204, about any problems with fragrances and scented products.

You don’t have to go to a health food store to buy fragrance-free products. Local drug stores and grocery stores carry fragrance-free products. Read the labels; fragrances are usually the last ingredient listed.

Check out the Fragrance Product Information Network (Betty Bridges, RN) Web site for more information:

Peggy Wolff, M.S., R.N.C.S. is the Director of Healthy People & Healthy Places, which provides advocacy, counseling, and educational services related to complex health conditions, including environmental health issues. She can be reached at 413.253.2646 or