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Perfume ingredients don't come up smelling of roses

Reviewed by SarahK October 23, 2010 8 Comments
If you are an avid reader of this site, chances are great that you are also an avid reader of the bottles that your beauty products are packaged in. You probably read the list of ingredients on your moisturizer, lipstick, mascara, exfoliator, toner…and those just cover your face, a small percentage of your body. I’ll bet that you’re also pretty good about checking out what’s in your shampoo, body butter, and hand lotion, as well. But be honest – are you as particular about your perfume as you are about other products?

If you’re anything like me, the answer is no. Then again, I’m not a big perfume person. But I am one to spritz here and there when I go to a party or feel like my perfume is as old as I am, and needs to be used already. Regardless of how frequently you add a little fragrance to your daily beauty routine, it is important to know exactly what you are spraying onto your skin and, therefore, both soaking in and inhaling.

Surprisingly (or not, depending on how skeptical you are of those who govern and guide us when it comes to cosmetic products), the FDA says that cosmetic companies can use the general term “fragrance,” without actually divulging what comprises that fragrance, in the name of trade secrets. So when you look at the ingredients on your perfume bottle and see the word “fragrance,” know that the word actually represents multiple, hidden ingredients. And don’t think buying something “unscented” puts you in the clear; that’s just another word and another way for companies to incorporate fragrances into products without actually using the world “fragrance.”

And being mysterious and secretive aren’t fragrance’s only problems. It is also extremely hazardous to your health. According to the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products, the fact that thousands of people are becoming sensitized as a result of exposure to fragrance is “a major consumer health problem.” Once sensitized, people may suffer severe and life-threatening allergy and asthma attacks every time they are exposed to the fragrance. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, there was an average of 10 sensitizers in each product they tested.

In addition, the Environmental Working Group found 38 secret chemicals in 17 name brand perfumes; American Eagle Seventy Seven had 24 such chemicals, Coco Chanel had 18, and Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio had 17. The average perfume product tested contained 14 hidden chemicals that were not listed on the label. Many of the chemicals have not been assessed for safety in cosmetic products. And that’s not all; the EWG found 12 different hormone-disrupting chemicals in the tested products, with an average of four in each product.

In addition to allergens and phthalates (the chemicals linked to hormone disruption), the word “fragrance” also includes neurotoxins and synthetic musks. These musks, found in high concentrations in the bloodstreams of those who use perfumes and other products with fragrance, are known to mimic estrogen, cause cancer, and disrupt the endocrine system. Frighteningly, it is not easy to rid your body of musks, as they are persistent and bioaccumulative (stay in the body); in fact, they have been found in the umbilical cord blood of U.S. newborns.

Other studies of note include one that strongly links a popular chemical used in perfume called myrcene to cancer, and other that compares fragrance in the workplace to second-hand smoke. While this may seem dramatic to some, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan certainly doesn’t think it is too dramatic. In 2008, the Court allowed Susan McBride to proceed with her claim that a co-worker’s perfume and room deodorizer impacted her ability to work. She brought her claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, maintaining that she has suffered from a life-long sensitivity to perfumes and other scented items. McBride settled with her employer for $100,000.

Still, there are two sides to every story. As much evidence as there is linking various chemicals in fragrances to everything from cancer to reproductive problems, the Fragrance Materials Association begs to differ. A few years ago, the FMA came out with an information sheet entitled The Truth About Phthalates, which essentially claimed there is no proof of any negative effects of using diethyl phthalate. The FMA backs its assertion with the supportive stance of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel and study results published by the American Chemistry Council’s Phthalates Esters Panel, among other evidence.

Still, I don’t think it’s too paranoid to be wary and downright suspicious about what is in your perfume. Considering there is no way to know exactly what the word “fragrance” means without sending your perfume off to a lab for testing, I’d toss or, at the very least, limit my usage of any product with the word “fragrance” on it.

Luckily, there are some, albeit a limited number of perfume-producing companies, that fully comply with and have signed The Compact for Safe Cosmetics. The products listed below come from companies approved by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, have been made with at least some organically grown ingredients, and do not include “fragrance” as an ingredient.

Mountain Girl Botanics Essential Spritz Lavender Meadow ($9.99)

Ingredients: Water (Aqua), Aloe barbadensis (Aloe vera) juice, essential oils

Welstar Baby Smiles Air & Body Spray ($9.95)

Ingredients: Distilled water, Rose hydrosol, essential oils of Palmarosa, Geranium, Tangerine and rose

Body Organic Creamy Coconut Body Mist ($14.99)

Ingredients: Water, Organic Coconut Extract, Organic Clarified Lemon Juice
  • June 1, 2012

    by jc

    what's really interesting is a product can say it's fragrance free yet be loaded with 'essential oils' which are 'chemicals' in themselves, as well as fragrance!

  • October 28, 2010

    by Danika Carter

    Yes, it's all pretty bad. There's not much safe about conventional perfumes & colognes. I had to tell my husband if he was going to spray his cologne in the mornings not to do it in the master bathroom because the chemical stench would wake me up every morning...and our daughter sleeps with us and I didn't want her breathing it in.

    I was really glad when Miessence came out with a line of Certified Organic Botanical Perfumes. All are certified to food-grade standards and rate 0-1 in safety on the Skin Deep database.

    Several of the perfumes are unisex so theres something safe for men, too. You can see the perfumes at

    You can see the Skin Deep ratings at

  • October 27, 2010

    by Jaysie

    Thanks SarahK - I bookmarked it.

  • October 26, 2010

    by SarahK

    Jaysie, here is a link to a list of safer perfume products:

    sorry it's so long!

  • October 24, 2010

    by Jaysie

    Sunday - Your experience with a co-worker is really interesting. One of my aunts became very sensitive to fragrances in her later years when she developed multiple allergies to various foods and substances. She, too, was not bothered by tobacco smoke or other natural though potent smells, but she could not wear synthetic fabrics and was sick for several days after visiting a relative who had moved into a brand new house - the new carpeting fumes got to her. We probably would be horrified to realize how many secret lab chemicals we're exposed to every day.

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