For 20 years or more, my mother kept her jewelry in a fawn-colored silk pouch embroidered with flowers and birds. When she died eight years ago and the pouch was handed down to me, I unzipped it and the familiar fragrance of her neck wafted from inside. It was the smell of my mom bending over to kiss me goodnight when I was a child and the smell I met rushing into the house and hugging her after I’d moved across the country, when both of us were much older. She loved a certain perfume, and her necklaces and bracelets carried its signature fragrance into the pouch where it lingered in the threads.
Even now, when I unzip the pouch, the smell of my mother wafts out. It’s faint, but oh so evocative.
My own story reveals the power — and the perils — of fragrance. Our sense of smell is uniquely wired to connect to both our memories and our emotions. Our olfactory bulbs are part of the brain’s limbic system, where the hippocampus, which helps us create memories, and the amygdala, which helps us experience emotion, also live.
Good or bad, aromas have the power to sweep us back to a moment in time and conjure the way we felt then. It’s possible that my mother chose her perfume because it evoked memories of her own mother or aunts. Perhaps it reminded her of the flowers in a garden near her childhood home in Nebraska.
Still, the scent of real flowers would not have lasted for eight years. Therein lies the peril.
Natural fragrances don’t endure nearly as long as the synthetic fragrance in my mother’s perfume. Two hundred or more of approximately 3,000 fragrance chemicals may have been used to create its signature aroma and staying power. Some of these ingredients have been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity, asthma, allergies, and other health concerns. Many haven’t even been tested.
That’s not a big deal when it comes to my rare encounters with the chemicals in my mother’s pouch, but it’s a very big problem when it comes to the many fragrance chemicals we’re all exposed to in our daily lives. Their omnipresence and potential toxicity can undermine our best efforts to guard our health and that of our loved ones.
This doesn’t mean we have to give up the pleasure of specific scents, but we do need to be discerning about their sources. And this can be tricky.
Tough to Avoid
Synthetic scents are part of the air we all breathe. In our homes, some 40 percent of all personal-care products are fragranced, and 96 percent of shampoos alone have added fragrance. Most cleaning products are also heavily scented. Then there are synthetic air fresheners, perfumed candles, and fragranced products of all kinds including laundry detergent, even toilet paper. Some products might boast claims like “natural fragrance,” “organic fragrance,” or “hypoallergenic,” but those designations have no legal definition — and are no guarantee that fragrance chemicals weren’t used.
Even if we do manage to avoid synthetic fragrances at home, we’re often ambushed by them elsewhere. Bus-shelter advertisements have been imbued with the fragrance of chocolate-chip cookies. Abercrombie & Fitch added an “olfactory logo” to its marketing strategy, spritzing stores with a signature fragrance, Fierce.
Because businesses understand that fragrance is a powerful motivator for sales and brand loyalty, it’s being added to ever more products — many of them bizarre. You can buy pacifiers that smell like vanilla and shoelaces that smell like cherries. You can buy showerheads that infuse your water with lemon, lavender, or jasmine. You can buy bacon-scented kitty litter. A number of companies sell cologne for babies. There is even an alarm clock that wakes you up with a burst of scent.
“Fragrances are a condiment for every product category,” says Jon Whelan, director of the documentary Stink!, which premiered in 2015.
Whelan’s film details his hunt to learn about the chemicals scenting the pajamas he ordered for his tween daughters from the retail chain Justice. He spent four years working on the movie, beginning with phone calls to Justice and moving on to hearings where chemical-industry lobbyists squared off with legislators over whether the public has a right to know which chemicals are in their products.
Among the facts that Whelan uncovered during his research, none were more shocking than this: Even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with regulating the safety of personal-care products, cannot ask companies about fragrance chemicals.
When Whelan sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the FDA for the ingredients in Axe body spray, the agency explained that it was legally prohibited from asking manufacturers about fragrance ingredients. “How can you regulate a product if you can’t even ask what’s in it?” he says.
This legal blind spot is the result of outdated laws. When legislators passed the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, regulations included a loophole for fragrance. This protected perfume manufacturers whose unique formulas were the souls of their businesses. But that loophole still exists today — even for the complex cocktails of chemicals in those new pajamas or the store where you bought them.
“Even the companies that make products like shampoo and dish soap are in the dark,” says Janet Nudelman, director of program and policy at the Breast Cancer Fund, which addresses the fragrance issue through the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
She explains that the industry that creates and supplies fragrances to such manufacturers doesn’t always tell them which chemicals the fragrances contain. Oversight is left to fragrance manufacturers themselves, who self-regulate through the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). They conduct their own safety studies, most of which have never been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, according to the 2015 report “Unpacking the Fragrance Industry: Policy Failures, the Trade Secret Myth and Public Health” by Women’s Voices for the Earth, a Montana-based environmental advocacy group whose work focuses on pressuring companies to remove known toxins from their products.
The fragrance industry has an expert review panel, but it only looks at information selected by IFRA. And it operates in secret. The industry claims it has a risk-management system for fragrance chemicals, but it places no restrictions on known carcinogens like styrene, pyridine, or benzophenone. There are also no restrictions on phthalates or the synthetic musks galaxolide or tonalide, which are both tied to endocrine disruption.
“It’s definitely the fox guarding the henhouse,” says Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth. “It’s a problem because they’ve got serious financial incentives to continue using these chemicals.” Not only are synthetic fragrances much cheaper than naturally derived ones, but manufacturers have invested heavily to achieve a certain look, smell, and feel to their products. They don’t want to risk squandering that investment or customer loyalty by tampering with their formulas.
Top that off with the fact that fragrances are being used in far greater quantities and in far more products than at any time in history, and it’s not surprising that companies are more invested than ever in keeping their production costs low.
The Hidden Story
Since at least the early 2000s, advocacy groups have been aware of the potential dangers of fragrance chemicals and have been conducting their own independent research. The need for action became clear after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report in 2000 on phthalates, a class of chemicals that are a common component of synthetic fragrance. They tested 289 adults and detected four phthalates in the urine of more than three-quarters of the test subjects.
This widespread contamination surprised scientists, but the demographics were even more alarming. Women of child-bearing age seemed to be getting the highest exposures — about 50 percent higher on average. No one could confirm why their exposure was so much higher, but some suspected that these chemicals were in the personal-care products they were using. (The average woman uses some 12 of these products each day.)
Phthalates are used by fragrance designers because they make smells endure. “Phthalates help the molecules stick to people and other surfaces,” says Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry and a cofounder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. “If someone leaves a room and you can still smell his or her fragrance, it probably has phthalates in it.”
Multiple studies have linked phthalates with reproductive damage. In lab animals, phthalate exposure has been shown to damage the testes, prostate gland, epididymis, penis, and seminal vesicles. They’ve also been linked to preterm births and, via prenatal exposure, to attention deficit disorder.
Phthalates don’t appear on product labels because they’re hidden behind the word “fragrance”; they’re part of that proprietary formulation. So, not long after the CDC issued its report, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) sent 72 products — including deodorant, hair spray, hair gel, mousse, lotion, nail polish, and fragrances — to an independent lab to be tested for the presence of the chemicals.
The lab found five phthalates in concentrations ranging from trace amounts to nearly 3 percent in 52 of the 72 products. The findings confirmed suspicions that personal-care items are a likely source of phthalate exposure, and the EWG published the results of these tests in the 2002 report “Not Too Pretty.”
In 2010 the EWG, along with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, released another report, “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance.” This revealed the results of additional tests on 17 popular perfumes, colognes, and body sprays. They found 38 chemicals that were not listed on the labels, including a phthalate linked to abnormal development in baby boys and sperm damage in men. They also found two synthetic musks associated with endocrine-system toxicity. Another EWG study in 2009 identified those musk chemicals in the cord blood of newborn babies, confirming that exposure can happen in utero.
The worst offender was American Eagle Seventy Seven, with 24 unlisted chemicals, followed by Chanel Coco, Britney Spears Curious, and men’s Giorgio Armani Acqua di Gio. And there could have been more chemicals: The lab sought out only certain types.
Safety assessments are usually based on a single exposure, but this can be misleading, since we’re exposed to low levels of a multitude of chemicals on a daily basis.
“Scientists typically don’t assess them in an additive way,” says Nneka Leiba, MPH, the EWG’s deputy director of research. “They don’t look at how these chemicals interact together, so we really don’t know the total effect.”
The Allergy Impact
Fragrance-contact allergy has become a global health problem, with up to 11 percent of people now sensitive or allergic to fragrance. (People sensitive to fragrance experience it as an irritant — they might sneeze or get a rash when they encounter a scented product. The truly allergic have a full-blown reaction that involves the immune system.) Many scientists attribute the rise to the prevalence of added fragrances in such a wide range of products and places.
The 17 products assessed in the EWG “Not So Sexy” report, for example, contained 24 known sensitizers, or chemicals that can provoke an allergic-type reaction. While IFRA recommends concentration limits for these sensitizers, each product in the study nonetheless contained an average of 10 such chemicals.
Conversely, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), the body that regulates cosmetics and nonfood products in the European Union, requires labeling for 26 sensitizing fragrance chemicals. With no similar requirement in the United States, people who react to a fragrance chemical don’t know what products to avoid, since the offending allergen can turn up in different products as part of different fragrances. It may even turn up as a solvent or a preservative in a product that does not contain added fragrance.
This creates issues for those suffering from such allergies. “I’d say that 10 to 20 percent of the people who come to see me with eczema are allergic to fragrance,” says Matthew Zirwas, MD, a dermatologist in Columbus, Ohio, who specializes in skin allergies. “It’s the biggest problem we see.”
Fragrance sensitizers don’t affect everyone — just people with a genetic inclination for this allergy, Zirwas explains. For them, once the sensitizer triggers the immune system to make cells to fight that substance, every subsequent encounter will activate those cells and cause inflammation, redness, swelling, and itching. “It’s as if someone snuck poison ivy into your shampoo or moisturizer or soap,” he says.
These uncomfortable allergic rashes are often treated using steroids — which can cause further damage. Sharon Jacob, MD, a dermatologist and associate clinical professor of pediatrics and medicine at University of California, San Diego, sees children with contact dermatitis who have often been treated with large doses of steroids, and she says the outcomes can be shocking. “Sometimes they’ve gotten steroid shot after steroid shot, and by the time I see them, they’re in wheelchairs or on crutches because their bones are so brittle,” she says.
Given the known health risks of synthetic fragrances and the inevitability of exposure to them in places beyond your home, it’s wise to eliminate them from where you live whenever possible. But you can still enjoy some fragrances in good health.
If you have a particular product you love and you’re wondering about its safety, check the EWG online database at www.ewg.org/skindeep. It rates more than 64,000 personal-care products for chemical hazards, including fragrance. And the organization is in the process of rolling out its EWG Verified program. Products with this label meet EWG’s safety and disclosure standards, including all the chemicals that create fragrance.
You can also enjoy fragrances the way humans have for most of their existence — through essential oils from plants.
The word aromatherapie was coined in the late 1920s by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé. But psychologist Rachel Herz, PhD, who has studied the effects of aromatherapy, notes that for millennia people have used essential oils from plants to treat both physical and psychological health. Today’s aromatherapists work in that tradition, using scents for pleasure and for healing. The best practitioners extract essential oils with steam.
“Essential oils and synthetic fragrances are as different from each other as whole food and processed food,” says Valerie Bennis, a certified aromatherapist and founder of the Essence of Vali line of natural aromatic products.
Her comparison is especially apt. Like whole foods, essential oils are more expensive than synthetic–fragrance chemicals and less amenable to standardization — lavender from France yields a different oil than lavender from Bulgaria, for instance. Like wine, they reflect their connection to earth, sun, and rain, since their qualities may change slightly from year to year based on weather. Because essential oils are potent, fragrances derived from them can also cause allergic reactions — like sneezing or watery eyes — in people who are sensitive to fragrance.
Beyond the occasional mild allergic response, the effects of essential oils on health are overwhelmingly positive. Aromatherapists believe that essential oils impart healing as well as pleasure, and a number of scientific studies support this belief. In 2010, German researchers found the smell of jasmine was as effective as valium in relieving anxiety and promoting sleep among lab mice. Studies also indicate the positive effects of other fragrances: Lavender soothes anxiety; orange reduces stress; and peppermint oil can ease digestive troubles.
More and more research points to the clinical applications of aromatherapy, too. For instance, a 2007 study found that lavender aromatherapy helped reduce the need for opiate painkillers for patients undergoing bariatric surgery. A 2012 study showed that peppermint oil was more effective than antiemetic medications in quelling postsurgical nausea and vomiting. Aromatherapy can even help caregivers manage the demands of their jobs: A 2008 study showed that a topical application of lavender and clary sage reduced stress among intensive-care nurses.
Not surprisingly, research has also found that pleasant fragrances simply make us feel good. This makes perfect sense to Mandy Aftel, a Berkeley perfumer and author of Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent. She sources essential oils from trusted purveyors across the world. When she settles into her workshop to blend and bottle her products, she can feel her spirits rise.
“I get very happy smelling these materials and being in contact with them,” Aftel says. “They lift my mood every time.”
As for me, I probably won’t be able to resist sticking my nose into my mother’s pouch as the scent of her perfume becomes fainter and fainter. But I’m no longer willing to buy a bottle of her perfume and dab the synthetic fragrance on my wrists. I can connect to my memories of her in other ways.
My mother was also a wonderful gardener and she had a hedge of star jasmine in our California backyard. I remember the fragrance blowing in through my bedroom window as I tossed in my childhood bed, fighting sleep. I don’t fight sleep anymore, but maybe now I can plant a hedge of my own near my room or bring home some jasmine essential oil — to evoke life with my first family and add more sweetness to the life I live now.
Photography by John Kuczala
5 Foundational Essential Oils
Safe and helpful uses for aromatic oils.
These essential oils are commonly deployed for therapeutic use. Unless you have a severe fragrance allergy, they can be wonderful to use around your home — just be sure to mix them with a neutral carrier oil, like jojoba or sweet almond oil, if you plan to apply them to your skin.
Jasmine: This floral essence, used in perfumes for centuries, has calming and aphrodisiac qualities.
Lavender: Perhaps the best-known herb for aromatherapeutic benefits, lavender has restorative and relaxing effects. Good for calming anxiety and promoting sleep.
Orange: The bright scent of orange essential oil can cheer and refresh.
Peppermint: Useful for alleviating fatigue, a whiff of peppermint oil can have a vitalizing, cooling effect.
Sandalwood: Part of many traditional spiritual rituals, the warm scent has a centering, grounding effect.