Common "Scents" about Fragrance

by Betty Bridges, RN

The Ecological Health Organization (ECHO), recently brought the following article to our attention. It is ECHO's goal to educate not only those with conditions like Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, but the general public, including the medical community. ECHO encourages the sharing of information and suggests that people always ask organizers of workshops and other events to provide a safe and accessible environment.

The use of fragrance has increased tenfold since the 1950s. The industry sales of fragrance materials used to scent products doubled between 1980 and 1989. This phenomenal growth means that exposure to the materials used in fragrance has increased as well. Fragrance is added to toiletries, cosmetics, household products, pesticides, and many other items. With this increase in exposure, problems associated with fragrance have emerged for many of those who may be sensitive.

Substances used in fragrance are volatile compounds that get into the air and linger. These compounds add to indoor air pollution and contribute to poor indoor air quality. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor air quality can cause headaches, irritation to eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, fatigue, forgetfulness, and a host of other symptoms. Longterm exposure to air pollutants can contribute to the development of cancer, respiratory conditions, allergies, asthma, chemical sensitivity, and other diseases.

In spite of the ubiquitous exposure, there is little regulation or monitoring of the use of fragrance or the materials that are used in them. Fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets and do not have to be revealed to the public or regulatory agencies. Regulation is fragmented, there are very few laws in place, and these statutes are rarely enforced. By all accounts, the fragrance industry is primarily self-regulated with little oversight.


Fragrance can enter the body through lungs, airways, skin, ingestion, and via pathways from the nose directly to the brain.

An EPA-sponsored literature review grouped fragrance, second-hand smoke, and formaldehyde together as triggers for asthma.

A significant number of asthmatics cite fragrance as a trigger.

Fragrance contributes to indoor air pollution and can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs.

As much as 15% of the general population finds fragrance a lower airway irritant.

Research suggests as much as 11% of the general population may have skin allergy to fragrance.

According to the information on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, fragrance is the number one cause of skin allergic reactions to cosmetics.

Scented products often contain several known skin sensitizers.

Materials used in fragrance (such as some phthalates) are suspected hormone disrupters.

Fragrance has neurological effects that can alter blood pressure, pulse, and mood, and have sedative effects.


Eighty to ninety percent of materials used in fragrance are synthesized, most from petroleum products.

Less than 1300 of the over 3000 fragrance materials in use have been evaluated for skin safety.

Industry testing focuses on skin effects and rarely evaluates respiratory, neurological, reproductive, or systematic effects.

The materials used in fragrance are not on the label and do not have to be disclosed to anyone, including regulatory agencies. The only way to avoid problematic materials is to avoid all scented materials.

Modern fragrance formulas often contain high concentrations of potent and long lasting synthetic materials with little history of use and little available health and safety data.

Modern formulations are designed to quickly get into the air and some fragrance chemicals linger on fabric and surfaces for months.

When a person has an adverse effect from fragrance, it is almost impossible to pinpoint the responsible ingredient.

Virtually every segment of the population has exposure to fragrance.