Dangers of Synthetic Scents Include Cancer, Asthma, Kidney Damage and More

Posted by on November 19, 2016 in Hazards, Issues & Diseases, Health with 0 Comments

Synthetic Fragrances Cosmetics

By Josh Axe | Dr. Axe.com


The dangers of synthetic scents aren’t always evident, but we have the science to prove that everyone, regardless of age or health, needs to make avoiding fake fragrances a major priority.

A National Academy of Sciences report noted that 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil) and include benzene derivatives (carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. (1) Unfortunately, 30 years later, toxic ingredients continue turn up in products we use and breathe in on a daily basis. Some of the worst toxic ingredients used in lotions, shampoos, laundry detergents, cleaning products and so much more include synthetic scents, often listed as on labels as the elusive “fragrance.” And many on the list are known or suspected endocrine disruptors, compounds that tinker with hormonal health that can trigger weight gain and even set you up for diseases decades down the line.

Avoiding the dangers of synthetic scents is crucial and something I need you to share with your family and friends as your work fragrance avoidance into your own daily routine. When a company puts “fragrance” on the label, don’t be tricked. This is a catch-all term that actually can stand for thousands of different ingredients (literally, at least 3,000). And when you use a product containing “fragrance” or “parfum,” all of those mysterious ingredients are absorbed right into your bloodstream. These ingredients are predominantly made from chemicals and are just outright toxic for your health in so many ways.

While our allure with natural fragrances is baked into our DNA as a way to find food and mates, synthetic fragrances are completely unnecessary and are making us super sick in our modern-day world. Sure, drawing fragrances from nature has a long history in religious ceremonies, burials and a way to increase libido. But in this article, we’re focusing on the man-made fragrances that started emerging in the late 1800s. The dangers of these synthetic scents not only include short-term symptoms like allergies and respiratory distress, but also headaches, dizziness, nausea and brain fog. We’ll get into other, less obvious side (but super serious) side effects in a bit. (2) This serves as evidence that regardless of your age or health status, it is imperative that you avoid fragrance chemicals.

What Are Synthetic Scents?

Synthetic scents or “fragrance” represent an unidentified mixture of ingredients including carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals, and environmental toxicants. These artificial scents can can be found in all kinds of body care and cosmetic products as well as air fresheners, cleaning materials and laundry detergent. According to the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, hair products are especially problematic since over 95 percent of shampoos, conditioners and styling products contain fragrance as an ingredient. (3) I’m sure you’ll agree that we all want our hair to smell good, but we could do without the use of ingredients that can negatively affect our health.

Research conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found that there was an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products. But it doesn’t stop there — none of these chemicals were actually listed on the label! (4)

In general, there at least 3,000 ingredients that could possibly be used to form a product’s scent. That’s according to the online “Transparency List” put out by the International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group. This is a list of the of ingredients that perfumers say they use in their formulas for consumer products. (5) I encourage to take a look at list and see just how many chemicals we can possibly be exposed to every single day.

Dangers of synthetic scents - Dr. Axe

It may seem unbelievable, but the FDA does not even currently require fragrance and cosmetic makers to tell their customers exactly what they are using to scent their products. If companies are using truly natural ingredients then why be shy? Many will say that their formulas are proprietary and they don’t want other companies copying them. The FDA website also states how they legally cannot require companies to warn about allergens in cosmetic like they can with food. (6)

Are you wondering why companies would continue to use synthetic scents if they’re so bad for our health? The answer is straightforward — they are cheaper. Synthetic scents can be an extremely cheap way to give everything from shampoo to lotion to candles a desirable scent. Unfortunately, just because you enjoy a scent, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Serious Dangers of Synthetic Scents


According to the Breast Cancer Fund, when it comes to the prevention of cancer, avoiding synthetic fragrance is one of the main ways to help yourself since they so often contain hormone-disrupting phthalates and synthetic musks. (7)

The National Academy of Sciences endorsed the 2011 finding by the National Toxicology Program, a collaboration of scientists from several government agencies, that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based on “compelling evidence.” They also said that some studies would support “a strong argument [for] listing styrene as a known human carcinogen” (their italics, not mine).

Guess what? Styrene is included on that 3,000 or so list of possible ingredients that are used and allowed to scent products made for us, the consumers. Styrene is found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust. Doesn’t sound like it would smell too good, but shockingly, it’s actually being used in cosmetic sprays and liquids as well as cleaning products. According to the EWG, if a company doesn’t fully disclose that it contains styrene (which it most likely will not) then the only way you’ll know it’s present is if you use a gas chromatograph or mass spectrometer. (8)

Sadly, styrene is just one of many ingredients linked to cancer that are being used to create artificial fragrance. Phthalates are another group of  chemicals often disguised as “fragrance.” They are connected to cancer, endocrine disruption as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity. These dangerous synthetics are already banned from cosmetics in the European Union, but are still quite common in products produced and sold in the United States. Phthalates often hide under the “fragrance” ingredient, but they can also appear on ingredient lists as phthalate, DEP, DBP, and DEHP. Be sure to avoid all of those. (9)

Child Autism & Other Birth Defects

Most products that list “fragrance” contain a very unwanted ingredient when it comes to good health. I’m talking about phthalates, again. Research conducted by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center has demonstrated that fetal exposure to phthalates is linked with autism, symptoms of ADHD and neurological disorders. This why pregnant women have to be ultra careful when it comes to what products they are exposed to on a daily basis. The dangers of synthetic scents could be even more life-altering for a developing fetus.

A 2010 NY Times article interviewed Dr. Landrigan on the subject and he said that he is “increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.” He adds, “The crux of this is brain development. If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime.” (10)

A very interesting 2010 peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that women with higher levels of certain phthalates had children that years later were more likely to display disruptive behavior. (11)  It’s alarmingly true that fragrance materials have also been found to accumulate in human fat tissue and to be present in breast milk. (12)

Allergic & Toxic Bodily Reactions

Fragrances are one of the top 5 allergens in the world. (13) Allergic reactions can include headaches and migraines, difficulty breathing and sinus irritation just to name a few. Fragrance mixes are also a highly common trigger and therefore a test item for contact dermatitis, which is a type of allergic skin reaction. (14) In recent years, health reports show that allergies, sinus problems, migraines and asthma have all increased dramatically and many experts believe that there is likely a link between these rises and the increased use of products containing fragrance. (15)

Using animal models, a 1998 study published in Archives of Environmental Health looked at how fragrance products can produce toxic effects in mammals. They found that the emissions of fragrance products caused various combinations of: eyes, nose, and throat irritations; pulmonary irritation; decreases in airflow velocity when exhaling; and signs of neurotoxicity. This neurotoxicity was even worse when the animal subjects had repeated exposure to the scented products. (16)

Asthma & Other Breathing Difficulties

If you have asthma, you really don’t need anything in your control to get in the way of you breathing easily.  It’s extremely common for asthmatics to have difficult with perfumes, colognes and other scented products, especially when they contain artificial scents.

One study looked at patients with a history of worsening of asthma symptoms when they were exposed to cologne.  They found that the amount of air the patients could exhale during a forced breath declined by 18 to 58 percent below the baseline period during the 10 minute cologne exposure. (17)

I have no doubt in my mind that synthetic scents are the enemy of optimal breathing, especially if you have breathing issues to begin with like asthmatics. If you have asthma or any other breathing trouble then truly fragrance-free products are your best bet.

Better Alternatives to Dangerous Synthetic Scents

The good news is that if you are a careful reader, you can help yourself and your family to avoid the dangers of synthetic scents in all of the products you buy and use.

There are also many better options and ways to avoid the dangers of synthetic scents including:

  • Just do with fewer fragrances in general in your life. Putting a bowl of white vinegar on a countertop or windowsill can help with odor control. But focusing on cleaning up the source of odor should be first priority. Not covering it up.
  • Completely avoiding any product that lists fragrance, parfum, phthalate, DEP, DBP, or DEHP as an ingredient.
  • Look for products that use essential oils when you are looking for a scent.
  • Buying certified organic products, which are less likely to include artificial scents (but still read labels). Watch out for “limonene” or “linalool” on labels, too.
  • To provide a fresh, natural scent to your home or office, use fresh cut herbs and flowers and potted plants. Studies have even shown that the best houseplants that remove pollution  help strip indoor air of some toxic compounds.
  • Make homemade cleaning products since they are another huge source of synthetic scents.
  • Buy laundry detergent that is scented with pure essential oils or that is fragrance-free. You can also make your own homemade laundry soap.
  • If you are super sensitive or just don’t want to deal with smelling anything at all then choose fragrance-free or unscented products. Just make sure to still read labels carefully because sometimes companies will use other questionable ingredients to create that lack of a scent.
  • If you want to burn an occassional candle, use beeswax with a lead-free wick. But understand that any type of combustion will cause some level of particulate pollution in the home. (But at least you won’t get the toxic fragrance or petroleum chemicals.)
  • Question companies that don’t fully explain how their products are scented. Maybe you’ll get some additional information or at best, get them to think again before not fully informing their customers.

High quality, 100 percent pure essential oils are not cheap like synthetic scents, but for good reason. Essential oils are extremely concentrated. It takes a 1,000 pounds of handpicked flowers from an orange tree to produce the neroli essential oil, which has an incredible floral and citrusy intoxicating scent. Neroli is just one of many awesome options when it comes to essential oils.

Also, make sure to avoid synthetic scents with pet products, since the dangers of synthetic scents can be similar for animals.

Final Thoughts on the Dangers of Synthetic Scents

I really want to emphasize how important it is that you and your loved ones avoid the dangers of synthetic scents as much as possible. I also want to remind you again about what’s so much better than those fake smells — essentials oils. With so many scents to choose from and combine, the options are lovely natural scents are practically endless. They even make plug-ins now that use essential oils!

Once you get away from synthetic scents, you’ll very commonly find that your tolerance for them will go down greatly and they’ll just be so obviously fake. One of the best ways to protect your overally health is to choose products that are truly free of fragrance or ones that fully disclose their truly natural fragrance ingredients. Pregnant and breast feeding moms should be especially careful for the sake of themselves as well as their developing children.

You really have to read labels to know what you’re getting these days when it comes to everything, especially any scented product. If you have asthma or breathing problems and are currently using synthetic scents, you are very likely to notice a big difference when you remove these fake fragrances from your life. Some of the other health effects might be less obvious, but the science is there to demonstrate how the more you cut out the dangers of synthetic scents from your life the more you can hopefully decrease your chances of some serious and chronic health problems.

So toss those synthetic scents in the trash immediately and go smell a flower and remember how the best scents are truly all around us in nature, and bottled in essential oils too.

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