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Making Sense of Scents

"Perfumes are increasingly used in an ever wider variety of fields, including perfumes proper, cosmetic products, hygenic products, drugs, detergents and other household products, plastics, industrial greases, oils and solvents, foods, etc. Their composition is usually complex - it involves numerous natural and synthetic sweet-smelling constituents, more than 5,000 of which are known. Perfumes may produce toxic, and more often allergic respiratory disorders (asthma), as well as neurological and cutaneous disorders." From the French Toxicology Journal, Ann Dermatol Vernereol, Vol 113, ISS 1, 1986, P.31-41

Of these ingredients, 84 percent have never been tested for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally. Chemcial Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, N. Ashford, PhD and C. Miller, MD, MS, 1991, p. 61

In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. The other groups include insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives and certain air pollutants. The report states that 95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxics and sensitizers, which are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace (Report by the Committee on Science and Technology. U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 1986) [Report 99-827]


The 20 Most Common chemicals Found in 31 Fragrance Products and Some of Their Health Effects

  • hexachlorophene
  • acetyl-ethyl-tetramethyl-tetralin
  • zinc-pyridinethione
  • 2,4,dinitro-3-methyl-6-tert-butylanisole
  • 1-Butanol
  • 2-butanol
  • tert-Butanol
  • Isobutanol
  • t-Butyl Toluene

Neurotoxic properties of chemicals found in fragrances have caused testicular atrophy in lab animals as well as myelin disease. The myelin sheath protects the nerves and does not regenerate. (Compiled from TOXLINE database of fragrances industry and medical journals.)

Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, Lupus, and Alzheimer's are all neurological disorders. Dyslexia is a neurological dysfunction. Could any of these neurological dysfunctions be caused by exposure to neurotoxic chemicals? Symptoms are often identical to chemical hypersensitivity. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is also a neurological dysfunction. Could fragrant fabric softeners or detergents emitting neurotoxic chemicals cause the neurological breakdown?


  • methylene chloride
  • toluene
  • methyl ethyl ketone
  • methyl isobutyl ketone
  • tert Butyl
  • sec Butyl

Compiled by comparing a list of only 120 fragrance chemicals from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and "Airborne Contaminants" June 1991, California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

Benzyl chloride, used in manufacturing perfumes, is a central nervous system depressant intensely irritating to eyes, and mucous membranes. The Merck Index, An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs and Biologicals. Benzyl chloride was added in January 1990 to California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 list of chemicals known to cause cancer. California EPA, Office of Environmental Helath Hazard Assessment.


  • methylene chloride
  • toluene
  • meythl ethyl ketone
  • methyl isobutyl ketone
  • ethanol
  • benzal chloride

Compiled comparing a list of only 120 fragrance chemicals from a 1991 EPA study, "Identification of Polar Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Microenvironments," presented at the 84th Annual Meeting of the Air & Waste Management Association in Vancouver, British Columbia, June 1991, and the EPA's Code 40 of the Federal Regulations, Ch 1, Section 261.33, listing hazardous waste site chemicals.

It is increasingly expensive to dispose of these chemicals properly. Why are hazardous waste chemicals being dispersed at great profit in consumer products to an unsuspecting public?


Methylene chloride, a known carcinogen that also causes autoimmune disease, is listed as one of the 20 most common chemicals found in fragrance products in the 1991 EPA study even though the FDA banned the chemical in all cosmetic and fragrance products in 1989. John Bailey, FDA, states there is no way to police the fragrance industry since it is unregulated and exempt from listing ingredients.

Limonene, also listed as one of the 20 most common chemicals, is a known carcinogen. The Merck Index cautions that Limonene is a sensitizer. Sensitizers have the capacity to cause Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).

Benzaldehyde, one of the 20 most common chemicals in the EPA's fragrance study, is a sensitizer. It is also a narcotic according to the Merck Index.

884 toxic substances were identified in a list (partial) of 2,983 chemicals used in the fragrance industry: "Many of these substances are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, breathing and allergic reactions and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities." 1988 study by U.S. House Subcommittee on Business Opportunities, chaired by Ron Wyden (D.OR) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The study found 314 fragrance industry chemicals known to cause biological mutation; 218 caused reproduction problems; 778 caused acute toxicity; 146 cause tumors; and 376 caused skin and eye irritations.

In a NIOSH study conducted by Syracuse Research Corporation, Report No. SRC TR 81-521, 1981, benzoin is named as a chemical used in fragrances found to cause enlarged lymph nodes in both male and female mice and enlarged spleens in males. Liver damage is also cited.

AMICUS Journal, Winter '89, Board of Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Research Counsel, the research branch of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that "15 percent of the population experiences hypersensitivity to chemicals found in common household products."

National Institutes of Health, Issues and Challenges in Environmental Health, NIH Pub. #87-861"... allergic reactions and hypersensitivity diseases, for instance, are among the most costly of U.S. health problems afflicting at least 35,000,000 Amercians,"


72 percent of asthma patients in a study had adverse reactions to perfume, i.e., pulmonary function tests dropping anywhere between 18 percent and 58 percent below baseline from "Affect of Odors in Asthma," Chang Shim, MD and M. Henry Williams, MD, American Journal of Medicine, January 1986, Vol 80.

Toluene was detected in every fragrance sample collected by the Environmental Protection Agency for a report in 1991: "Toluene was most abundant in the auto parts store, as well as the fragrance sections of the department store."

Toluene not only triggers asthma attacks -- it is known to cause asthma in previously healthy people. According to Air Currents, publication of Allen and Handsbury's Respiratory Institute, division of Glaxo, Inc., asthma has increased in the past decade by 31 percent, and in the same period asthma deaths have increased by 31percent. Women, and those over 65, suffer the highest death rate from asthma.

Toluene-laced fragrance industry chemical products have become increasingly pervasive in the last ten years -- used not only in perfumes, but also in furniture wax, tires, plastic garbage bags, inks, hairgel, hairspray, and kitty litter. A Danish toxicological journal, Ugeskr Laegar, Vol 153, ISS 13, 1991, p. 939-40, found perfume in kitty litter to be the cause of asthma in humans. Toluene is also listed on California's Prop. 65 as a birth defect causing chemical, pg. 11.


  • watery or dry eyes
  • double vision
  • sneezing
  • nasal congestion
  • sinusitis
  • tinnitus
  • ear pain
  • dizziness
  • vertigo
  • coughing
  • bronchitis
  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • laryngitis
  • asthma
  • anaphylaxis
  • headaches
  • seizures
  • fatigue
  • confusion
  • disorientation
  • incoherence
  • short-term memory loss
  • inability to concentrate
  • nausea
  • lethargy
  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • depression
  • mood swings
  • restlessness
  • rashes
  • hives
  • eczema
  • flushing
  • muscle and joint pain
  • muscle weakness
  • irregular heart beat
  • hypertension
  • swollen lymph glands
  • and more

(Candida Research and Information Foundation, Perfume Survey, Winter 1989-90.)


No agency regulates the fragrance industry. According to John Baily, PhD, Director, Colors and Cosmetics, FDA, "The fragrance and cosmetic industry is the least-regulated industry. There is no pre-clearing of chemicals with any agency." The FDA has suggested the best method "to protect sufferers from odor sensitivities might be to curtail odor exposures under specific circumstances through local or state regulatory action." Bailey stated in a February 28, 1992 telephone conversation with Julia Kendall, Co-chair, Citizens for a Toxic Free Marin, that under current law, consumers would have to prove through expensive tests (he estimates $1,000,000) that the chemicals in a fragrance are causing specific symptoms before the FDA could require fragrance industry removal of a product. He states that fragrance industry lawyers would sue the FDA if it attempted to remove any fragrance from the marketplace even with thousands of "anecdotal" complaints.


James Cone, MD, MPH, a Berkeley-based indoor air quality consultant and former Chief of Occupational Health Clinic, San Francisco General Hospital, in Indoor Air Odorants, identifies physiological pathways of entry of synthetic fragrance molecules, naming them as one of five major contributors to indoor air pollution and then recommends a regulation be adopted to govern indoor air quality where specific point sources can be identified. "No person shall discharge from any source whatsoever such quantities of air contaminants or other material which cause injury, detriment, nuisance or annoyance to a considerable number of persons or to the public, or which endanger the comfort, repose, health or safety of any such persons or the public, or which cause, or have a natural tendency to cause, injury or damage to business or property."

Article: "One Woman's Perfume -- Another Woman's Poison", in Let's Live: "The chief reactions we see are those that affect the nervous system -- headaches, anxiety, depression. But anything can be affected, even diet and a personal intolerance for different foods. There are two major ways in which cosmetics and their chemical constituents can affect the body. One is through direct contact. Inhalation is the other major route for molecules of an active substance to enter the blood stream. "There is a route from the nasal passage into the nervous system," says Mandell... "It is the way, for instance, that inhaled cocaine has an effect on the brain."

For more information about synthetic scents, take a tour of EHN's website and the FDA Petition requesting the FDA require the their warning labels on fragrances released to market without adequate testing. http://www.ehnca.org

NOTE: "Making Sense of Scents" was compiled by Julia Kendall, borrowing from Irene Wilkenfeld's "Fragrance Facts" and from research contributed by Karen Stevens, Carol Kuczora, Milan Param, Richard Conrad PhD, Susan Nordmark, Susan Springer, Mary Ann Handrus, Susan Molloy, Sandy Ross PhD. Permission to post granted by Julia Kendall (1935 - 1997).


Why subject yourself to such harsh chemicals?  Our fragrances, body oils (all available online for purchase), are all natural products without the harmful chemicals! Be sure to check out our site, we have women's scents, men's scents, bath and body works type, candles, soaps, scrubs, lotions and oil burners all available for convenient, safe, online ordering.

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