The big stink about perfume

6 years ago

On Monday  I started talking about one of the three biggest offenders in personal care products: hair dye. Today, we’ll explore the smelly truth about perfumes and colognes.

A lot of people are pretty serious when it comes to trying to smell good. If you walk into any public place, you’re bound to smell someone who’s covered in perfumed products.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing … strong perfume is better than foul body odor, right?

The difference between the two is that strong perfume is most likely hazardous to your health. The foul body odor isn’t. (Of course, if the odor is so terrible because of unsanitary physical conditions, it could become a hazard, too. But I digress.)

If a perfume doesn’t include natural fragrances – which many do not – it's made of dozens of chemicals. Three common toxins – oxybenzone (also labeled as benzophenone-3), eugenol, and coumarin – are found in the most hazardous perfumes. By the time a person douses himself or herself with the toxic scents every day, there’s a potential for huge problems.


Oxybenzone, or benzophenone-3, is easily absorbed through the skin and accumulates as a body burden. It’s banned from products in Japan. Oxybenzone is believed to cause photoallergic reactions – in other words, sunlight converts it to a chemical that acts like an allergen in the body. As a response, the immune system attacks in the form of an itch or rash.


Eugenol, a scent found in natural clove oil, can be manufactured synthetically. While it’s been associated with contact dermatitis and allergies, it also irritates skin, eyes, and lungs. (So THAT’S why your eyes water when you walk past a department store’s perfume counter!) Plus it’s a known human immune system toxicant.


Coumarin’s another naturally occurring scent that also can be manufactured synthetically. And, like eugenol, it’s associated with contact dermatitis and allergies.


And don't forget about phthalates. These colorless, odorless liquids often are hidden as the term “fragrance” on ingredient lists, as they help fragrances last longer. They accumulate as a body burden and are linked to birth defects, especially in males.

Safe alternatives

Not all fragrances are harmful. To make sure if your favorite scent is safe, check out Skin Deep’s Cosmetic Safety Database.

Some natural perfumes are available, as well as essential oils. If you choose to use a pure essential oil, be careful not to apply it directly to your skin. Dilute the essential oil first, either with vegetable oil or vodka.

And, like with the hair dyes, use common sense. If you notice any itching, burning, headaches, or rash when using a perfumed product, stop immediately.

Find out how to make healthy choices that happen to help the environment at

"Fragrance for Women.” Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database. "Perfumes & Colognes.” On Your Body. The Naked Truth Project. 

Photo credit
© Suppakrit Boonsat |

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