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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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What’s that smell? The not so sexy truth about fragrance

Posted on November 3, 2011

By Stacy Malkan

This essay is in response to: What are the health hazards of exposure to fragrances in consumer products and cosmetics? How can our regulatory system effectively address such hazards?

From Halle Berry’s signature scent to JLo’s Glow, the sleek perfume bottles promise love, joy, and celebrity appeal. But what they won’t tell you is what’s on the inside: complex mixtures of undisclosed chemicals linked to asthma, allergies, hormone disruption, and other health effects.

“Fragrance” is considered a trade secret by law, so companies are not required to disclose the chemical components that add scent to a wide range of personal care products. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, an estimated 80% of products – everything from colognes and body sprays, to shampoos, deodorants, and even make-up – contain fragrance. 

To shed some light on these unknown chemical exposures, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national coalition of health and environmental groups, commissioned tests of 17 brand-name fragranced products at an independent laboratory in spring 2010. The resulting study, “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance”, revealed that the 17 products contained, on average:

  • Fourteen chemicals not listed on labels due to the loophole in federal law that allows companies to claim fragrances as trade secrets. American Eagle Seventy Seven contained 24 hidden chemicals, the highest number of any product in the study.
  • Ten sensitizing chemicals associated with allergic reactions such as asthma, wheezing, headaches and contact dermatitis. Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio contained 19 different sensitizing chemicals, more than any other product in the study.
  • Four hormone-disrupting chemicals linked to a range of health effects including sperm damage, thyroid disruption and cancer. Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver, and Glow by JLo each contained seven different chemicals with the potential to disrupt the hormone system.

The study further revealed the widespread use of chemicals that have not been assessed for safety by any publicly accountable agency, or by the cosmetics industry's self-policing review panels. Of the 91 ingredients identified in the fragrances, only 19 have been reviewed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), and 27 have been assessed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which develop voluntary standards for chemicals used in fragrance.

The existing data and lack of comprehensive studies are cause for concern, because one thing we do know is that fragrance chemicals are inhaled or absorbed through the skin and many of them are ending up inside people’s bodies, including pregnant women and newborn infants.

A recent EWG study found synthetic musk chemicals Galaxolide and Tonalide in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants. These musk chemicals were found in nearly every fragrance analyzed for the “Not So Sexy” study.

Twelve of the 17 products in the study also contained diethyl phthalate (DEP), a chemical linked to sperm damage and behavioral problems that has been found in the bodies of nearly all Americans tested.   

Targeting Abercrombie & Fitch

If you’ve been into the clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch, you’ve seen the wall-sized photos of shirtless men with six-pack abs and you’ve undoubtedly smelled the strong stench of Fierce cologne – since, as part of the corporation’s branding, the stores are sprayed down with the cologne at regular intervals via air vents.

At the request of the non-profit group Teens Turning Green, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics included Fierce cologne in the cohort of products analyzed for the Not So Sexy Fragrance study.

According to the analysis, Fierce contains eight sensitizing chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions such as headaches, wheezing, asthma, and contact dermatitis – the types of effects commonly reported by people exposed to fragrances. According to a peer-reviewed paper published in the March 2009 Journal of Environmental Health, more than 30% of the general population and up to 37% of people with asthma report these types of negative reactions from fragrance products.

The lab tests also revealed that Fierce cologne contained diethyl phthalate, which is linked in recent human studies to sperm damage in adult men, abnormal reproductive development in baby boys, and neurological disorders in children. (Studies are referenced here.)

It is ironic that Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing efforts promote images of virile young men, while the store’s policy is to spray chemicals all over the place that may have a detrimental impact on male reproductive health. In September 2010, Physicians for Social Responsibility joined Teens Turning Green and many other groups – including Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, MomsRising, American Fertility Association, AllergyKids, and several state nursing associations, together representing 1.5 million members – in sending a letter to A&F CEO Mike Jeffries raising concerns about the health effects of the company’s fragrance-spraying practice. The company has yet to respond.

Meanwhile, Congress is poised to take action. In summer 2011, the Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced into the US House of Representatives by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). The bill would require companies to disclose the chemicals in fragrance, phase out the most hazardous chemicals from cosmetics, and ensure cosmetic ingredients are assessed for safety.

For more information about the Safe Cosmetics Act and how you can get involved in helping to pass this legislation, please click here.


A F Battershell said ..

Toxic Heat Wave! Summer 2016 I prefer a safe, relaxed home environment, who doesn't I suppose? But since moving into a common walls/apt situation I've become Air Phobic, arranging my so-called living space into zones which require strategically placed Monster Fans to help dissipate air weirdness. It's also a war of the Sprayers - their killer air fresheners vs. my citrus and mint concoctions. At times I have opened a window for 'fresh air' and clouds of neighbors'air freshener hit me in the face. What is a breather of air on planet earth supposed to do? I can't relocate. I shouldn't have to relocate. I could end up in a worse place where management enforces air fresheners in the the hallways. This particular building has four small apartment units.The AC system sends cocktails of neighbors' Febreeze air freshener, personal fragrances, toxic cleaners and more through AC vents - my AC recessed hall unit leaks the same vapors. I can't use the AC - it cooled well but I wasn't breathing much air, mostly sickening vapors. I have to wear a mask often. So, the vents are closed and the AC is off. The heat wave is on. It's 102 degrees today. My dogs and I are taking mini-baths to cope - but it's still 80 degrees at 11 pm. What planet do my apartment managers live on you might wonder: Apparently they live on Planet Denial, along with many neighbors who smoke cigarettes and spray Febreeze. (or perhaps some spray cigarettes and smoke Febreeze, I dunno.) And guess what? Horrific fragrances from the 60's and 70's seem to be back. Think heavily sweet, smoky, it-gets-into-your-clothes-and-hair. Shudder.Don't even think about commercial fragrance dispenser machines which all these idiots are using! I like that idea that was posted here: fight back with patchouli oil in a huge mobile dispenser! Management denies that there's any problem. Robotic property managers drone: Tenants smoke outside only. There is no problem here. Pay no attention to the smoker behind the curtain . . . Tenants smoke outside only. There is no problem here. Pay no attention to the smoker behind the curtain . . .

December 8, 2016
Donna said ..

Every place I go has some kind of smell. A hospital, a nursing home, a store and any place just about. I used to be able to shop online on now everything on the delivery and mail truck smell too. I have to put a small amount of bleach in loads of laundry too. I feel like a hermit. I use baking soda in my home to absorb the odors. I have asthma and allergies. I have to use unscented products to combat the problem. Even the airplane had a scent before taking off. Talk about chemical sensitivity. People are going to develop more of it with this happening. When they find out it is causing health problems.

November 8, 2016
afraid to give name said ..

we live in an apartment bldg for 60 and over, in slc utah, where they use a fragrance on all 5 floors, in the summer the air conditioning was out for most of 6 weeks, and one day they put the fragrance in the air with no air flow and I literally couldn't breathe in the hall to get to the elevator, I have a partially collapsed lung, and chemical sensitivity, my neighbor has COPD and is using more of her asthma meds. The owners are not available and the women who manage this place said that hospitals use the same scent, the only thing is they use too much of it, here and will not listen to us. What are we to do. There's other problems here, and 2 residents complained and receive a noticed to vacate, so they went to low income attorneys who said, they can't make you leave for "disturbing", and they filed a form so that it couldn't be done. Why don't people care, we are all well over 60 here. I can't use dryer sheets, or walk in the soap section. These chemicals are invented all the time and EPA passes them off, but in reality, many people suffer from fragrances. The plug ins are awful, even babies have to breathe the noxious fumes from those at floor level where mom might plug it in to cover up a diaper smell. Fragranced liners for garbage cans? Yuck. All good perfumes changes their recepies years ago, when they quit using more expensive real flower essential oils. I have severe sleep apea, and can't wear my cpap, I lived in a place I rented which had mold spores in the basement, and over the years, my nose cavities swoll up permanently, now I need an operation on both cavities, the steroid nose spray doesn't work anymore, so I can't wear the cpap mask, I suffer with lack of sleep, so I take 5 hr energy things, and now there's probably a tumour on my liver I can feel sharp pains now and again, I have new insurance so new doctors will let me know. Back to these women here, because we don't know names of the owners of this place, we can't address it, managers here said the owners picked out the fragrance, I asked why they use it, to cover up food and body ordors, (right. I am afraid they will give me a notice to leave also, I am close to calling the healthy dept, they will send someone here, but if it isn't strong, doubt if they'll make a report, it's just enough to make those already ill more ill. I have never smelled anything in a hospital but clean air. In the summer the day they added the fragrance it was so strong in the hall I could taste it, and the manager denied all of it, in fact she had no idea we had no air conditioning it was in the 90's most days, someone complained big time, within 3 days it was fixed finally. Downstairs the fragrance is much stronger, but like I said with no air flow and for 6 weeks it was just awful. I don't want to move, I just can't, but I also know legally we shouldn't have to have this added to our air quality in this place, no it's not in the units. This is also non-smoking but people smoke on their balconies, I have a dog and leave the door to my balconey open, so I get to smell cigarette smoke. I am very concerned about my neighbor with COPD. She has no idea on what to do, she also complained and nothing was said, except that the owners want the fragrance.

October 28, 2016
Keith said ..

I live in an Assisted Living Facility (elderly/disabled long term care). Air fresheners, personal fragrances of residents and staff, harsh chemical fumes from chlorine based cleaners and Lysol disinfectants used on the same surfaces, by poorly trained staff with English language barriers. Spray disinfectants used in dining areas while people are eating. Nursing homes are as bad or worse.

October 21, 2016
James said ..

The area is poisonous now due to artificial perfumes from people and stores. Also every night people are burning something for bugs and/or logs with perfumes. Stores are using chemical cleaners, some wax product that causes poison on all products including raw food. And apartments and companies are using air freshers with strong perfumes. So all day and worse at night I have breathing problems, chest pains, headaches, rashes, and more.

October 3, 2016
Linda C said ..

I just tied my allergy issues recently to glade plug ins. Now with some research, I'm finding phthaates are everywhere!!!! It's unbearable for those of us who suffer now and others will have health issues later from some of it. No chemicals in public places should be allowed.

June 12, 2016
Nonsense said ..

People die from indoor pollution more than from all fragrance triggered activities in the world combined: steam while cooking (oil and other liquids, heating ready-to-cook food, etc), all cleaning odors (including tools labeled as 'eco' friendly), and lack of basic ventilation (which is slovenliness). It's surprising how many paid studies like this from special interests claim the harm found when there're way much more harm and threats every single time we're going outside: gas, coal, fumes - lot’s of things. Though shouting out loud may ‘influence’ awareness, bigger issue remains intact - number one lungs killer is OIL Industry, and most of human kind (incl. these people that wrote this piece of nonsense) do not bother fueling it giving away their money for oil! There’re many expensive alternatives to oil industry. But if people in spite of ‘doing research for money’ would research and reduce the cost of alternative energy, millions of people would be saved. So it’s up to everyone to choose their options: Abercrombie Cologne or killing lungs every single day in the street. BTW, please don't forget to notice what kind of cheap shit you eat too.

March 4, 2016
mary said ..

I am deeply concerned about stores and restraurants pmping through their air systems synethetic chemical fragrances. Is their legislation to at least demand disclosure before anyone enters the premises. It is one thing to chose to come in know exactly what you are being exposed to and another to be a guinea pig. Just someone seen as a gullible and manipulatable consumer of goods.

February 21, 2016
Andrea said ..

I went into an anaphylactic asthma attack at Northpoint Mall due to Ambercrombie and Fitch! Though the store was on the upper level and I was below the odor was overwhelming and there was no escaping it by going into a different store! I ran to the outdoors, used my inhaler, took Benadryl, vomited several times, and collapsed! The over use of fragrance should be against the law! It is a health risk! All this just so I could do business with the Apple Store!

February 16, 2016
Cosmicflowers said ..

I want to join this interest group. The overuse of chemicals in public spaces is damaging to unsuspecting citizens.

January 30, 2016
christech said ..

this constant stench is becoming unbearable, please stop, im begging everyone to please knock it off already. All most every day I open the door or window and am forced to breathe these chemicals. Even with the doors and windows shut it permeates into the old house. I bought some new pants, they have been drenched in perfume, do I attempt to wash it out or return them. They are in plastic bag now. Hard to find comfortable pants that fit good. Even the new shirts are loaded down with perfume. When I left the mall and got home my arms and the shirt I was wearing smelled like perfume, WTF? I think maybe they pump it in the air. Had to shower. I hear many condos don't allow these chemically perfumed products because everyone complains about the stench. Well im thinking about leaving for a week while I pump patchouli oil into the air via old dryer. Maybe ill put my patchouli oil stench pumper into a truck and drive downtown and pump that crap into the air for all to enjoy all week until everyone says, Knock it off already!

January 18, 2016
clintk9 said ..

@christech god man I know exactly how your feeling. everyone on here, I know. this scented world sucks! cant even buy anything from anywhere anymore. have to wash everything I do buy from stores scenting air to employees with perfume/cologne on their hands touching my stuff. recently got medical marijuana in IL, went two 3 different dispensaries and everyone of them the people had perfume/colgne on thier hands and it got on my ID's and my containers I bought. severe headaches is main reason I need this stuff and cant get it with getting a headache. HATING LIFE right now!

January 17, 2016
christech said ..

I guess-timate that every night over a hundred thousand of the people in my town are pumping chemicals into the air via their cloths dryers. Imagine billions of people doing this every week across the continent. Why not just use crop dusters? Where are the chem trail conspiracy people? Why not just dump all the drums of perfume ingredients directly into the streams rivers and bays? That is where it all ends up, right? Maybe that is what is killing the bees? They ingest it every time they visit the chemically drenched flowers. So it would be legal to disperse via crop duster? Or if I set up a thousand of my own dryers in the middle of town. Or is it only legal to pollute the environment when you to dupe the consumer into doing it for you? Think about it! Knock it off already !

January 10, 2016
Erin said ..

I wish I could make whoever dreamed up Downy Unstopables eat them for dinner every night. It isn't enough for their clothes and everything fumigated by their dryer to stink for a week, it has to last TWELVE weeks. Give me a frickin' break, PLEASE!

December 26, 2015
christech said ..

THE SMELL IS KILLING ME< the whole neighborhood, almost every night. You people must really stink bad to soak all your clothes in that perfume stench. Hope it isn't the lady with a baby I see using this crap. There needs to be a law to protect these children and animals too. Stipid Fricking Humans, Knock it off allready

November 2, 2015
James Merz said ..

I am highly chemical sensitive, so I get headaches, breathing problems, dizzy and confusion, itchy and rashes, etc. The worse part now is scents are used on fire wood, logs. Almost every night the scents get around the neighborhood and into my house, badly. The local and state agencies cannot do a thing. Everywhere there is scents now, and they are worse than the days of smoking in your company. Try witch hazel for showers. And try vinegar and arm and hammer baking soda for washing clothes.

November 2, 2015
Donna Marie said ..

Have suffered anaphlaxic shock twice due to the perfumes of other office workers. Now have to carry an epi pen everywhere. Finally, the have stopped wearing it as lawyers had to get involved. An absolute health risk

October 26, 2015
christech said ..

The smell is unbareable in the air today, there must be a law about obnoxious odors, if I start calling the police two or three times a week because of the smell maybe they will be forced to stop! I can't go places either without sitting down and getting that stench on me. Takes about 10 washings to get most of it out

October 4, 2015
Jan said ..

These fragrances have caused me to become very ill and my life has changed forever. No longer can I travel or go into other peoples home. No movies, no plays, no church, no travel, no new car, no gathering where a group of people are. Also with this illness you must explain it and explain it and it can wear you down. People do not want to understand this and the stores just keep pumping and pumping the shelf with more toxins and people just are not getting that they are causing themselves and the family and friends illness. Have you thought where does cancer come from or why peoples organs fail them? To bad our government cannot get off its BUTT and get the loop whole fixed so we can have a safer world and less sick people. These companies are making very big bucks because people do not study on what they purchase.

April 4, 2015
christech said ..

Hey any advice anyone, I've lived in the same place for 10 years in a college town with hundreds of different neighbors through the years. NEVER have I had to breath so much stench perfume. Should I call the police? Should I set up a dryer outside and put stinky stuff in in and turn it on? What is going on? After my first comment here more stink is coming from other direction now. Driving up the street I smelled some really bad perfume stench a little different. At the store it stunk too, all those people using different offensive laundry products in the same place. I went outside for some fresh air after eating,it smells really bad. Im getting old, I can't move easially. Can't open a window to air out after cooking. Summer time is coming up, not enjoying life.

March 17, 2015
christech said ..

Ok I can't take it anymore ! The stench in the neighborhood has reached deathcon 10. Red alert all humans, we are being targeted with perfume weaponry. What a perfect way to deploy their chemical weapons of mass stench upon the masses. Pump it into the air, it will cover and coat every blade of grass and living organism and every human dog etc. It will permeate into every household and coat the sinuses of any who dare to venture near or breathe. Would it be ok if I made every one in the neighborhood breathe a offensive odor weather they wanted to or not. Why is this different? I could do that but I think the police would stop me? WTF, The smell is in my nose and the taste is in my mouth, how long must I breath this.

February 11, 2015
christech said ..

My last rant. I could go on for a hour about this topic and how it's making my life miserable. I went outside today, it was foggy, the toxic stench coming from the apartments next door was horrendous. It just hung in the air like a poisonous gas I could not get away from. I took a shower and had window cracked open, was wondering why I felt sick. The whole neighborhood stunk, I had to get in my car and leave the area. Went to thrift store, never again? People on buses cabs etc. Poor poor people, poorer than me, and people without their own washing machines have to use laundrymats. What about all the animals and children forced to breathe this %$@&. When I mentioned poor dogs to my brother I think they were offended. They stopped for a bit but now they are back at it. They use this to cover up the dog smell? Is this animal cruelty? They have super noses. All the poor babies and kids being slowly poisoned by this stuff and not being able to say, knock it off already!

January 7, 2015
christech said ..

Ban this stinky laundry perfume already! It gives me headache! Had to go to laundry mat and the stench left by others ruined my clothes, cant get the smell out after many washings. Can't go to restaurant and sit where others sat, can't go to brothers house. This toxic smell is offensive. I'm going to start wearing wolf urine all over my clothes and sit everywhere and offend everyone unless this stops. I don't care about terrorists as much as I do this chemical stench that is being forced upon me for profit. Knock it off already!

December 30, 2014
Annelie said ..

It should be world wide ban on fragrance use in the areas where People work and where the Public have Access. Getting astma attacks due to others vanity and fragranced cleaning, scent marketing, airfresheners, incense, fragrance candles, essential Oils and so on is no fun and no joke.

February 15, 2014
Laura said ..

Another problem caused by the over-use of perfumes is contact dermatitis. About ten years ago I suddenly found the skin around my eyes all red and itchy. Nothing seemed to make the condition go away, and the first allergist to whom I went for help only made things worse. Finally I went to a dermatologist who tested me for contact allergies. It turned out my skin now reacts in this negative way to fragrances in soaps, laundry detergents, etc. I switched to a fragrance-free laundry detergent, but when the company started making that super-concentrated, I started reacting to that too.

November 29, 2012
Janet said ..

The 2012 FeBreeze Ad is quite insulting to people, too. as if we live in those environments. Is that what they think of people? didn't perfumes used to made from natural flower oils? are there any left or is it all chemicals?

November 27, 2012
Annabelle said ..

That's what's wrong with my stepdad!!!

August 8, 2012
Karen said ..

Heavily fragranced Las Vegas Casinos left me subjected to Migraines, Endometriosis & Asthma. (neurotoxicity, endocrine disrupting and respiratory effects)

April 13, 2012
noname said ..

I've been operating a kiosk outside of an Ambercrombie and Fitch for 4 months and I have had terrible reactions to the perfume from watery eyes, puffy and swollen face and eyes and itchy skin. Also I'm starting to find it hard to take a deep breath not from the smell but because my lungs hurt.

November 30, 2011
Richard Weiskopf MD said ..

Very informative. Thank you

November 7, 2011
Kriscerz said ..

It shouldn't even come to disclosure. I should be allowed to decide whether or not I want to breathe a scent or not. Elevators with heavily-perfumed people are enough to trigger an asthma attack in me. I have to literally run past fragrance counters in department stores. I love the clothes that Abercrombie & Fitch (and others) put out, but can't go into the stores because I react to the fog when I get within 15 feet of the storefronts. And these same people have the nerve to complain about secondhand smoke...

November 6, 2011
Catherine Thomasson, MD said ..

Thanks for the action item!

November 6, 2011
Jacques Padawer Ph.D. said ..

In the last century, margarine made from various oils was white. To make it look like butter it included a packet of yelow die, else it was sold pre-mixed. That die was called "butter yellow." It eventually was found to cause liver cancer and was then removed from the market. It's not just fragrances we should worry about, but all the dyes that are present in foods and drinks.

November 5, 2011
gale said ..

I hope Florida representatives like Ander Crenshaw (my representative) will act to protect consumers from these toxic substances in cosmetics!!

November 5, 2011
Claire B. said ..

These "Fragrances," have an Oily Base, from Coumarin, a plant family from Central America. It is Cummulative. Damages the Liver, and maybe the Kidneys too. I believe I am Permanenly Ill from having used a Very Heavily Fragranced Deodorant Soap for 32 Years!!! Will need to have portion of Liver Biopsied where enzymes for Blood Coagultion is produced. Suffering Very Poor Health.

November 4, 2011
aspen said ..

I love wearing perfume for my own pleasure but have found that fewer and fewer perfumes are gentle enough to tolerate. I remember when most were floral or woodsy but along about 1965-1970 all that changed with the introduction of artificial musks and ambers. Perfume became stinky and harsh and the beautiful old scents were "improved" and degraded for the modern world. New scents were offered under the old names--what a cheat! Now I always wonder when I wear perfume if I am giving someone an asthma attack or a headache. For this reason I rarely use a perfume made after 1960-1970. A few can still be found on Ebay, and sometimes they even smell fresh.

November 4, 2011
Kwanza said ..

How do we deal with this? Seems these fragrances are ubiquitous and short of not purchasing shampoos, cleaning products, and everything else we need, how can we eliminate exposure???

November 4, 2011
Lin Kaatz Chary said ..

I particularly appreciate the spotlight on men's fragrances, because too often the issue is seen only as a "women's" issue. Strong aftershave and "fragrances" are as much of a menace as any other contaminated cosmetics and baby products!

November 4, 2011

Comments closed.