Scents Are Not What They
By Karen Robinson,
B. Sc., B.Ed., B.F.A.
UPdate Fall 1997
woman purchasing some vitamins at a scent-free health store handed paper
money to the clerk, saying, “I spray my money with my perfume. It adds
a nice touch, don’t you think?”
who suffers form chemical hypersensitivity, did not think so. She
experienced headache, weakness, brain fog and other symptoms as a result
– but it could have been worse!
of fragrances is highly specialized. Traditional perfumery has three
“notes” or levels of volatility. The first note is the initial scent
which is given off when the perfume is applied. The second is the
main scent which is the strongest and longer lasting, and the third note
is a lingering scent which is usually less strong but long lasting.
The challenge is to blend the three notes to create a balanced effect that
is pleasant throughout. Usually perfume is made up of essential oils,
aroma chemicals, and a base of alcohol, with fixatives used to slow the
evaporation. A good perfume was once designed to last 6 to 8 hours,
but today, even some lotions have longer lasting fragrances than the perfumes
of the past.
had a recognizable “soap” smell, and people only wore perfume on special
occasions. In recent years, the use of added scent has skyrocketed
to where any one individual can carry as many as 20 different scents from
the products used or worn on any given day. Wherever they go, each
person leaves behind in the air a little bit of each fragrance, and creates
an unseen “fog” of chemically laden air.
Besides perfume and cologne,
the list of products that can contain added fragrance is almost endless:
aftershave, hair spray, soaps, fabric softener, lipstick, air fresheners,
cleaning products, even car vinyl and kitty litter.
Scents are Not What They
War II we have embraced man-made chemicals for use in almost all aspects
of our lives. Using materials such as oil, coal, and natural gas,
scientists continue to synthesize many never-before-in-existence chemicals
and chemically based materials. We use them to fill our needs for
everything from medicines to fabrics, fertilizers to building materials
and from perfume to space shuttle parts. The American Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) gets applications for evaluation of an average of
50 new, man-made chemicals per day. This rate far surpasses the ability
to adequately test all of these chemicals for their safety to humans or
the natural environment.
Compounds, or VOCs, is a very large family of chemicals which includes
all the organic compounds containing carbon, and which readily evaporate
into the air. Although most are liquids at room temperature, they
will easily enter air, and they greatly contribute to air pollution.
Man-made fragrance chemicals are part of the category of VOCs.
Most of today’s
fragrances are 97% synthetic chemical, with as many as 7000 Volatile Organic
Compounds (Some sources say 4000, others say 6000) used in the fragrance
industry in combinations that make our neurosensors think we are smelling
a particular scent. We can create everything from the strawberry
scent of smelly markers to the lemon or pine smell of some cleaning agents
– from scented garbage bags to copies of expensive French perfumes.
Perfumed soaps contain between 30 and 150 fragrance ingredients, and scented
cosmetics have between 200 and 500. While as many as 700 fragrance
ingredients can be used in a single perfume, some masking scents can use
as few as one ingredient. Some of these masking scents are designed
to cover up unpleasant or unwanted odours inherent in a product, but some
work by actually deadening our ability to smell the offending odour.
Masking scents, which can be potent by themselves, can cause considerable
difficulties for those needing truly scent-free and less-toxic products.
The smell of offending chemicals may be masked, but they are still present
and capable of doing harm.
chemicals in general, “84% of these ingredients have never been tested
for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally.” In addition,
no testing is done on the synergistic blends, the interacting combinations
of fragrance chemicals, to determine if they may pose any threat to health.
Fragrance Chemicals as
In 1989 the
US National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (HIOSH) identified
884 of 2,983 fragrance chemicals as toxic substances. Some of these
were capable of causing birth defects, central nervous system disorders,
cancer, eye and skin symptoms, and actually causing broad chemical sensitization
(Multiple Chemical Sensitivity).
Examples of toxic ingredients
Cyclohexanol, when inhaled it
has a narcotic effect intermediate between the effects of benzene and chloroform.
Limonene, one of the most
common ingredients, is a known carcinogen and a sensitizer – capable of
inducing Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.
Toluene. The US
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found 100% of perfumes it studied
contained toluene. “Toluene can effect you when breathed in and by
passing through your skin, may cause mutations, may damage the developing
fetus. Handle with extreme caution. Exposure can irritate the
skin nose, throat, and eyes. Higher levels can cause you to feel
dizzy, lightheaded, and to pass out. Death can occur. Repeated
exposures can damage bone marrow, causing low blood cell count. It
can also damage the liver and kidneys, can cause slowed reflexes, trouble
concentrating, and headaches”.
Other examples of the many neurotoxic
or sensitizing chemicals commonly found in fragrances are: linalool,
hexachlorophene, 1-Butanol, 2-Butanol, Iso-Butanol, and 2,4-dinitro-3-methyl-6-ter-butylanisole.
A few chemicals,
such as Musk AETT have been voluntarily removed from the cosmetics industry.
Research had found many adverse effects including permanent brain damage
in test animals. Most fragrance chemicals have undergone minimal
or no testing.
Only a handful
of chemicals are specifically banned from cosmetics, and regulatory bodies
rely on manufacturers willingness to comply. However, fragrance ingredients
need not be included in ingredient list submissions even at government
Chloride, a known carcinogen and cause of autoimmune disease, had been
banned for use in all cosmetics in 1989. It was one of the 20 most
common chemicals found in fragrance products in a 1991 U.S. EPA study.
Natural vs Man-made
Not just the
man-made aroma chemicals are capable of causing difficulties. A number
of the natural ingredients such as patchouli oil, civet, orris root, galbanum,
asafetida, and bergamot oil can also cause trouble, particularly for sensitive
individuals. Bergamot oil is classified as a hazardous substance
and strong sensitizer much like formaldehyde. That is, like formaldehyde,
it is capable of causing Multiple Chemical Hypersensitivity in otherwise
You Are What You Breathe
One way that
fragrance chemicals enter the body is through our skin, as with soaps or
cosmetics. Comparatively more research has been done on effects from
direct skin/eye contact with cosmetics. According to an article in
the Journal of Contact Dermatitis, allergy to fragrance is the most common
cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. Fragrances applied to the skin
do not only affect the skin. They can penetrate and affect internal
Each day we
also breathe in multitudes of molecules from volatile synthetic chemicals
including those from chemically scented products. There is less research
done on these effects, but the existing research, along with our common
sense should alert us to be cautious.
in our bodies when we take in chemicals? Usually our bodies recognize them
to be foreign substances, and go through a process to minimize their harm
or remove them from the body using what are called Detoxification Pathways.
However, many of these chemicals can do damage to our body cells along
the way, or they may trigger adverse reactions in body tissues, organs,
or systems. Some are hard to remove and are stored in our fat cells
or body organs; sometimes our detoxification pathways are blocked; sometimes
the chemicals are transformed into more dangerous substances.
Germany and Switzerland have found fragrance chemicals, which are environmental
pollutants, in human tissues and breast milk. An abstract by researchers
Rimkus and Wolf states “The detection of nitro musk compounds in breast
milk and in human adipose tissue is mainly due to the use of such substances
as perfume in detergents from which they enter the sewage and finally the
whole freshwater system. Due to their low degradability and a high
biological concentration factor, they enter the food chain without the
toxicological investigations to date allowing any certain conclusions on
the effect of such accumulation in the human organism or on the effect
of accumulation in ecological systems.”
Dr. James Miller
of the American Academy of Environmental Physicians has stated, “Chemicals
do their damage to our systems one molecule at a time. Even a limited
exposure will cause some cellular damage requiring nutrients, time, and
energy to heal. If repeated injuries occur at an interval shorter
than that required for complete healing, there will be an accumulation
of injury. This will eventually lead to organ malfunction and chronic
symptoms. It is the difference in our ability to repair minor chemical
injuries that determines who will remain healthy and who will eventually
develop Environmental Illness. Since it cannot be determined who
the susceptible individuals are until they have become sick, discretion
would dictate that we make every effort to limit our chemical exposure
to the absolute minimum.”
Chemicals and the Nose
passages and the brain are very close together. Dr. Tyler Lorig notes
that human olfactory system is large and located very close to key parts
of the brain. “Pathways of the olfactory tract reach directly to
the amygdala, hypothalamus, preperiform cortex of the brain.” Research
by Dr. Iris bell suggests that there can be a direct effect on the limbic
system by toxic chemicals that enter the nose-olfactory system. Cocaine
users are known to make use of this direct nasal pathway.
have found that even at levels below the ability for us to detect their
presence common VOCs can have measurable effects of the body. Using
commercial perfume products to supply odours, Dr. Lorig concluded in a
series of studies, that “The experiments described here provide clear evidence
that undetected odours alter neurophysiology and behavior.” For people
who have developed chemical Hypersensitivity, dramatic and, for some, even
life threatening effects can be experienced at extremely low levels of
The body process
called “adaptation” can allow those not yet chemically hypersensitive to
remain unaware of the harm that is being done to their bodies. It
works somewhat like this: When we first enter a room, we can smell odours,
notice dust, etc. But after a while we don’t notice them anymore – our
bodies have adapted to them. Another example, when people first try
smoking cigarettes, they choke and fight to resist the irritation.
Next time, it isn’t so bad, and soon smoky air is tolerated well by the
body. We now know that many harmful effects of smoking are not the
immediate ones, but the ones which show up years later in the form of lung
cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and many other illness. Damage
is done slowly, over time and with little or no awareness of any harm being
done. Many of the same chemicals found in cigarette smoke are also
found in man-made fragrances. People who are adapted to toxic products
or places can often continue for years without recognizing cause and effect.
Prize winner Rene Dubois said, “The greatest danger of pollution may well
be that we shall tolerate levels of it, so low, as to have no acute nuisance
value, but sufficiently high, nevertheless to cause delayed pathological
effects and to spoil the quality of life.”
The fact that
hundreds of chemicals, some of which are toxic, are combined to form unknown
compounds with unknown effects us just part of the risk from man-made fragrances.
It is their volatility that makes synthetic fragrances particularly potent.
We can avoid a food which harms us by not eating it. But invisible
toxic chemicals which float in the air are almost unavoidable. Products
whose sole purpose is to reach our noses and be inhaled into the body so
we can experience their smell provide a direct “hit” through the olfactory
tissues to the brain. They can not be seen and many are capable of
producing adverse effects at below detectable levels. These characteristics
make them of particular risk to people already suffering from Chemical
Airborne Chemical Pollution
by fragrances include: watery or dry eyes, blurred vision, sneezing, nasal
congestion, sinusitis, tinnitus, ear pain, dizziness, vertigo, coughing,
bronchitis, difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, headaches, seizures,
short term memory loss, nausea, inability to concentrate, lethargy, anxiety,
irritability, depression, disorientation, incoherence, fatigue, mood swings,
restlessness, rashes, hives, eczema, flushing, muscle and joint pain, muscle
weakness, irregular heartbeat, hypertension, swollen lymph glands, asthma,
and anaphylaxis, (sometimes causing death).
According to the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 70% of all asthmatics develop respiratory
symptoms when exposed to perfumes.
Living in a Fragranced
“Hypoallergenic”, “Natural”, “Green” “Floral”, “Outdoor Fresh” and “Environmentally
Friendly” are words that sound good but have no legal definition.
They are used in industry virtually without restriction. Buyer beware.
“Scent-free” may only mean that the product has less scent than a scented
version of the same product from that manufacturer. Fragranced items
may have at least .15% added, but Industry Canada allows Scent-Free labeling
on products which contain .06% fragrance added as a masking agent.
To people who are chemically sensitive, there is little difference between
.06% and .15%, and we may be mislead into buying a product that could be
harmful to us. Check the label for “fragrance” listed with the ingredients,
but to be sure, use your nose, (with caution!)
demand, more fragrance-free products are becoming available. Still,
finding truly scent-free products can be a challenge. Because other
harmful materials may be present in a product, and because of individual
sensitivity, some fragrance-free products may not be tolerated well if
used directly by sensitive individuals. These same scent-free products
may or may not pose a problem if worn by someone nearby, such as a co-worker.
Also, sometimes the scents from products used at home or after hours can
be carried on the clothing or hair of individuals and inadvertently cause
problems for a sensitive co-worker.
Have you ever
noticed that perfumes do not generally come in plastic bottles? Some will
actually dissolve plastic. Scents also pass through cardboard, so
enough scent has to be added to compensate for what is lost while it sits
on the shelf. This loss is the characteristic scent of the detergent
isle. Note that a scent-free product can pick up the scents from
Chemical Control by Government
What is being
done to limit the harm from such forms of indoor air pollution? Cosmetics
and perfumes “control” is presently being transferred from Health Canada’s
Therapeutic Products Directorate to the Bureau of Product Safety, under
the Environmental Health Directorate. Currently, manufacturers of
products to be sold in Canada send ingredient information to the Directorate,
which then notifies the company if “unacceptable” ingredients are listed.
It is left to the company to comply with removal, and there is no testing
or substantial follow-up. Individual fragrance ingredients are not
required to be listed at all, even at this government level. Instead,
only the word “Fragrance” need be provided on the ingredient list.
Health Canada’s new Federal Cosmetics
Regulations which are expected to be passed soon, will order “complete
ingredient listing” on labels. However, as is currently required
in The United States and Europe, this “complete listing” will not demand
a complete list of fragrance ingredients, but only the word “fragrance”.
According to John Baily, director
of the U.S. FDA Colours and Cosmetics Division, (1992) “The fragrance and
cosmetic industry is the least regulated industry. There is no pre-clearing
of chemicals with any agency”, and that the fragrance industry lawyers
would sue the FDA if it attempted to remove any fragrance from the marketplace
even with thousands of “anecdotal” complaints.
years ago the U.S Congress’ Toxic Substances Control Act gave to the manufacturers
the responsibility to test chemical substances for their toxicity.
Rachel’s Environment & Health Weekly recently told of a report form
the Environmental Defense Fund, that “today, even the most basic toxicity
testing results can not be found in the public record for nearly 75% of
the top-volume chemicals in commercial use.” A common, and apparently
acceptable, statement on vast numbers of Material Safety Data Sheets is,
“THE CHEMICAL, PHYSICAL, AND TOXICOLOGICAL PROPERTIES HAVE NOT BEEN THOROUGHLY
The perfume industry continues
to aggressively market chemically produced odours, convincing the public
that to have a truly clean house it must smell like pine, or to have really
clean clothes they must smell “outdoor fresh”. To attract a mate
one must have a “signature” scent. Meanwhile those same scents, some
containing unregulated neurotoxins, carcinogens, and sensitizers became
part of our environment and impart on our health. Those of us who
have become chemically hypersensitive know this all too well.
What can you do?
+ Purchase truly fragrance-free and
less-toxic products, and inform your grocer, pharmacist, and other vendors
of your buying preference. Encourage friends, family, and colleagues
to do the same.
+ Write letters to editors and
politicians. Give support to government and industry regulations
which recognize the potential for harm from Volatile Organic Compounds.
For example, the still-to-be-passed Nova Scotia Department of Labour Regulations
on Indoor Air Quality, and the new U.S. ASHRAE-62, 1989 Guidelines.
+ Write or call Industry Canada and
Health Canada to express your concerns – perhaps about the need for accurate
product labeling, about the health risks of the use of masking scents in
products labeled “Scent-free”, or about the use of perfume strips in magazines.
+ Request of magazines containing
fragrance strips that they cease the practice.
+ Obtain and circulate the new AEHA
Guide to Less Toxic Products, and consider joining the AEHA or
other organizations working toward similar goals.
+ Encourage Fragrance-Free/Less-Toxic
workplaces and public buildings: Voluntary programs work the best, but
sometimes, only a mandatory scent-free policy may come close to working.
Fragrance chemicals are not the only contributors to indoor VOC levels.
For a truly chemically-reduced and safer environment, VOCs from such things
as glues, paints, white-out, room deodorizers, chemical cleaners, and many
more, also need to be limited.
When other people’s choices are
involved, protecting oneself from adverse reactions to pollutants is sometimes
not easy. Some sensitive people protect themselves by increasing
ventilation, by wearing an activated charcoal filter mask, or by using
a portable air filtration device. Each of these precautions is only
partially effective. Controlling the pollution source is still preferable.
We are finally
making the connection between the abundance of synthetic chemicals, the
pollution of the earth, and people’s health and quality of life.
We are learning that health, behaviour, and learning ability can be affected
in even normal people by even low-levels of environmental pollutants.
While this chemical pollution makes daily life difficult and often hazardous
for people who have developed Chemical Hypersensitivity, the potential
for otherwise healthy individuals to become sensitized is also a significant
and very real risk. Many places are already voluntarily reducing
low-level chemical exposures through scent-free and less-toxic policies.
Much progress is being made, but there is still much more to be done.