Perfume Pollution: When Hidden Allergens Attack

4 years ago

When you think of reducing air pollution most people think of billowing smoke stacks (important things for us to address as a nation), but rarely do we think of air pollution being apart of our morning routine. Cue: fragrance. 

Image: Rocker_44 via Flickr


I remember being a little girl and walking through department stores with my mom, who is allergic to perfume and fragrance. Sometimes people would spray her with perfume samples without asking, and she’d have a rash and headache for a few days. 

An important report was released on this very topic: Secret Scents: How Hidden Fragrance Allergens Harm Public Health. The report sheds light on how perfume and fragrances are a hidden sources of pollution and are threatening the health of many people like my mom.

Tens of millions of people are affected by fragrance allergies, but have no way of avoiding the ingredients that trigger those allergy attacks, because companies can keep fragrance ingredients secret under federal laws.

So what exactly are fragrance allergies and sensitization?

The authors of the report at Women’s Voices for the Earth, describe allergies and sensitization when physical symptoms including rashes, breathing problems, blisters and headaches after being exposed to a fragrance allergen.

It’s important to note that many other health problems can be linked to fragrances, especially for those with multiple chemical sensitivities or when we’re exposed to the toxic chemicals used to make those fragrances.

The problem for those who are allergic to fragrance are increasingly exposed to more of them in lotions, shampoo, air freshners etc., but there is little information to identify what is triggering the allergy.

As the report says:

A fragrance can be made up of hundreds of different chemicals. Imagine having a food allergy and being told nothing more specific than, ‘you are allergic to food.'

For more information on toxic chemicals found in common perfumes and fragrances, check out Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families information on phthalates.

The most common fragrance allergens used in cosmetic products include:

  • Geraniol: rose scent
  • Eugenol: spicy, clove-like aroma
  • Hydrocitronellol: floral aroma, suggestive of Lily of the Valley
  • A-amylcinnamal: jasmine-like scent
  • Cinnamal: floral scent
  • Isoeugenol: spicy, clove-like aroma

For common allergens used in cleaning products, check out the report here.

The main takeaways from Secret Scents include:

  • The European double standard: In the E.U., manufacturers of household products are required to disclose the presence of 26 common fragrance allergens. Many of these companies make the same products in the U.S., but don’t disclose allergens because it’s not required by U.S. law.
  • Doctors in the dark: Dermatologists face an uphill battle in identifying what is causing a patient’s reactions because companies don’t disclose fragrance ingredients, making it difficult for the patient to avoid the allergen in question.
  • The moisturizing paradox: Moisturizing lotion is commonly recommended to prevent flare-ups, but 83% of over-the-counter moisturizers contain fragrance.
  • Fragrance allergies are pervasive: A whopping 20% of the U.S. population is sensitized to an allergen, fragrance being one of the most frequently identified as causing allergic reactions.
  • Our children are paying the price: Studies are showing that children are more impacted by fragrance allergies. Check out my blog on a new line of perfume for babies by Dolce & Gabbana.
  • Women are impacted by fragrance allergies more than men: Because women are exposed to more perfumed personal care products and cleaners, we’re two to three times more likely to suffer from fragrance allergies than men. In addition, women dominated fields like cosmetology, household workers and stylist are frequently exposed to fragrance allergens.
  • Fragrance is hard to avoid: For example, fragrance is found in 96% of shampoos, 91% of antiperspirants, and 95% of shaving products.

So at the end of the day what needs to change?

For starters, we need better laws that require companies need to disclose fragrance ingredients (including allergens) to allow consumers to make healthy, smart decisions.

The good news is there are three bills working their way through Congress that would help address this problem.

The Safe Cosmetics Act would require cosmetic companies to disclose fragrance ingredients on product labels and company websites. The Cleaning Product Right to Know Act would require all ingredients of cleaners to be included on the label. Finally, the Safe Chemicals Act will increase the safety of chemicals used in a variety of consumer products and workplaces.

So while we wait for fragrances to label and get rid of nasty toxic chemicals, skip the perfume, scented lotion, air “freshners” and call your Senators.

Take action NOW!


Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @Lindsay_SCHF

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