Is Fragrance Bad For You? Personal Care and Cosmetic Products

Ever wondered what gives your favorite perfume its signature scent? Chances are, you will probably never know. Fragrance manufacturers are notoriously private about the ingredients behind their scented products. This makes it difficult to know what dangerous chemicals might be contained in fragrances with such healthy and natural sounding product names as “lavender and chamomile,” “summer breeze” or “sweet pea,” It also raises an important question: Could your favorite scents actually be bad for your health?

What chemicals are in fragranced products?

If you read the ingredients label on your personal care products, you will probably be faced with a long string of unfamiliar terms. These hard-to-pronounce chemical names can cause hidden concerns that you should be aware of. You will often see the words “fragrance” or “perfume” used as a placeholder for a wide range of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other toxic chemicals. The FDA requires cosmetics manufacturers to list ingredients on their product labels, but there is no federal regulation on what can be included under these terms. Companies are not required to disclose the ingredients that make up their scents because they are considered trade secrets.

VOCs are organic chemicals that are trapped inside some products during the manufacturing process. These harmful compounds evaporate at room temperature in a process called off-gassing, which can be a significant air quality concern. Some of the most common VOCs found in personal care products include ethanol, acetone, acetaldehyde and camphor, all of which are classified as hazardous or toxic under federal law (Steinemann, et. al, 2010).

Other toxic chemicals included in fragranced personal care products include parabens and phthalates. Parabens are man-made chemicals often used as preservatives in makeup, shaving creams, moisturizers and similar products. The CDC states that the effects of low-level paraben exposure are unknown, but some studies suggest that parabens may be harmful endocrine disruptors. Phthalates are a class of chemicals used as a solvent and stabilizer in fragrances. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, some phthalates may affect human reproduction and development. Many people choose to avoid personal care products that contain these two ingredients.

Effects of fragrance chemicals on air quality and health

When a fragrance’s chemical ingredients evaporate, they can be a source of both indoor and outdoor air pollution. One 2018 study even found that the use of household products—such as cleaning agents, personal care products, paints, and pesticides—is responsible for one-half of all VOC pollution in industrialized cities. This means that volatile consumer products create as much (if not more) air pollution than traffic emissions (McDonald, et. al, 2018).

The EPA warns that breathing in air pollution, such as VOCs and other toxic gases, can cause a broad range of adverse symptoms and health effects, including:

  • Irritation in the eyes, nose and throat
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system
  • Cancer

VOCs in popular fragranced products

Most people use scented products as a part of their regular personal care routine, which makes the impact of these products on indoor and outdoor air quality a cause for concern. Additionally, asthma and allergy symptoms may be triggered by exposure to fragrance chemicals. Below are some examples of the most popular types of personal care products along with their potential to off-gas harmful pollutants into the air.

Perfume and cologne: Perfumes and colognes are designed to evaporate readily at room temperature so that you and the people around you can easily smell them. Unfortunately, when you smell someone’s perfume, you are also inhaling any toxic ingredients that the fragrance contains. Perfume ingredients include diethyl phthalate (DEP)—used to stabilize the perfume and keep the liquid from settling—and a wide variety of VOCs including a-Pinene, a registered pesticide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.

Shampoo and conditioner: Shampoo and conditioner can contain parabens, formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, and ethanolamines, which are known skin irritants, according to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. These products can also include siloxanes, which are often used to make personal care products feel smooth and silky. When exposed to sunlight, these VOCs can react with other compounds in the air to create ozone and particulate matter, two types of air pollution.

Deodorant: Most deodorants contain parabens, phthalates and a wide range of VOCs. Deodorants and antiperspirants have so much potential to cause air pollution that the state of California has specific emissions standards for these products.

Laundry cleaning products: Fragranced laundry products, such as detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, and odor-removing sprays can contain VOCs, such as acetaldehyde, acetone, ethanol, a-Pinene, linalool and d-limonene (Goodman, et. al, 2018).

Nail polish: Dibutyl phthalate (DBP) is used by some nail polish brands to make the dried polish less brittle and help it stay on the nail for longer.

Other scented personal care products that may emit VOCs or other harmful chemicals include:

  • Hair dye
  • Lotion
  • Sunscreen
  • Makeup
  • Hair spray
  • Shaving cream

Special considerations for sensitive groups

VOCs in the air, such as those emitted by scented personal care products, can be especially harmful to certain sensitive groups. According to the CDC, VOC exposure during pregnancy can affect the health and development of the unborn child, leading to a variety of neurologic and developmental problems. The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that children, the elderly and those with asthma may also be more vulnerable to health effects caused by exposure to VOCs. Though there has not been much research on the effects of VOC exposure on pets, we do know that some VOCs may cause cancer in animals. Plus, pets have smaller lung capacities than humans, which may increase the health impacts of exposure to air pollution.

Air quality solutions

There are two ways to protect your household from the harmful ingredients hiding under the “fragrance” label of personal care products: Avoid these products altogether and/or install measures to improve the overall air quality of your home.

If you decide to switch to fragrance-free products, make sure to double-check the label. “Unscented” products may still contain small amounts of fragrances used to neutralize any bad odors that the item may otherwise have. “Fragrance-free” products should not contain any fragrances or perfumes.

Additionally, you can visit websites such as Skin Deep, a search database run by the non-profit Environmental Working Group. Databases like this one help consumers better understand the ingredients in their favorite personal care products so that they can make informed decisions while shopping.

To improve the overall air quality in your home, you can also:

  • Increase ventilation by opening windows and using exhaust fans in the bathroom and laundry room.
  • Use an air purifier to remove VOCs from your air. However, regular HEPA air purifiers are ineffective against gases, so look for an air purifier that can handle VOCs. Our solution, the Molekule air purifier, has been shown to destroy VOCs that pass through the device through its proprietary PECO technology.
  • Store higher-VOC products outside of the home or in a storage closet, and out of the reach of children and pets.

Many of the chemical compounds used to create scented personal care products are still being studied to determine their long-term health effects. The U.S. government currently considers these substances to be safe for use in cosmetics and related products. However, there is much scientific literature that suggests limiting exposure to VOCs and other potentially harmful chemicals. Ultimately, it is up to you, as a consumer, to decide which products you are comfortable bringing into your home and around your family.