Fragrance Is The New Secondhand Smoke | Eliminate Synthetic Fragrance To Improve Your Health

Fragrance is the New Secondhand Smoke | Branch Basics

Surely you’re familiar with one of these scenarios:

The Scented Candle That Won’t Go Away

You walk into a store full of scented candles. They smell so fresh and lovely, but a few minutes later, your nose starts to itch and you are starting to get a headache. You notice that you’re having a harder time focusing on anything and you start to feel light-headed.  You end up buying a candle and leaving, feeling better as soon as you walk out the door. A few days later, the smell of your new candle is on everything: your coat, your car, the living room – even when it’s not lit. The headache just won’t go away and you start to feel worn down and tired.

The Mist That Never Disappears

You spray a fine mist of air freshener all over that musty pile of backpacks in the mudroom. Your second-grader grabs his bag, now slightly wet and sweet-smelling, and starts to do homework, but is having trouble focusing. He’s getting a headache and starting to whine about wanting to play outside. Meanwhile, the fake scent of flowers dissipates as it numbs sensory receptors in your nose and starts driving your puppy a little crazy. Eventually, you can’t smell it anymore, but you’ve ingested it through your nose, lungs, and skin.

Fragrance Is the New Secondhand Smoke

If you’ve experienced anything like this and connected the dots, you know how insidious synthetic fragrance can be. It’s only human to seek out pleasant smells and to try to eliminate unattractive scents from our environments. However, the immediate and long-term effects of synthetic  fragrance exposure is hazardous to our health. Simply adding a pleasant smelling chemical to our bodies and air will not only affect our own health, but the health of the people (and pets!) who share the air with us.

The History of “Fragrance”

Trying to link the past with the present fragrance industry unfortunately reveals a radical disconnect and departure from the original therapeutic purpose and use of pure essential oils. Today’s synthetic fragrances are a far cry from the healing balms treasured so much by the ancient world that some were worth more than gold.   Instead of being medicinal, today’s fragranced products are associated with diabetes, obesity, autism, ADD/ADHD and hormone disruption.1 Sadly, the person wearing or using the fragrance is not the only one affected. Synthetic fragrance affects air quality for those sharing the space as well.

From pure to perverse, it is twisted irony that the word  fragrance has now gained infamy as the new secondhand smoke when the etymology of the word perfume comes from the Latin phrase, “per” meaning “through” and “fumus” meaning “smoke”.

The emerging awareness of this very “volatile” situation reveals problems much more pervasive and dangerous than tobacco smoke.2 Even washing clothes in detergents and fabric softeners containing fragrances releases toxic chemicals onto the skin and into the air all day long.  At night, sleeping in pajamas and on sheets washed in the same toxic materials has the same effect.  Because of this, people are awash in fragrances 24 hours each day.

Fragrance Is the New Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand Fragrance

When people go to a public place, they are sharing what is now being called “secondhand fragrance”. This is the combination of harmful chemicals being released into the public air space from air fresheners, cleaning products, and scented candles, plus all the products people are wearing (from hair spray, shampoo, clothes, to perfume, etc). Everyone is involuntarily breathing contaminated air even if they choose to not wear fragranced products. It’s time to clear the air and prioritize human health, not economic interest. Already, cities like Detroit have created Fragrance Free Zones, where perfume and aftershave are discouraged. There is a growing tension between two fiercely opposing camps: the National Perfumers Guild and Fragrance Houses versus the “Anti-Fragrance Activists.”3

What could be wrong with a beautiful fragrance? Nothing, if it is a genuine and authentic plant derived, unadulterated essential oil or an organic, wildcrafted scent oil. These oils have been effectively used for fragrance throughout history. However, since World War II, inexpensive, synthetic chemicals can produce fragrances that are abundantly available and can be terribly toxic.

What’s Actually in A Fragranced Product?

Today, fragrance is the elephant in the room. “Fragrance” or “parfum” on an ingredient list actually represents a trade secret fragrance recipe that could be made up of not just one or two chemicals, but hundreds of synthetic chemicals.4 These chemicals are selected from a reservoir of 5,000 ingredients.5 And of this large number of ingredients, none of them actually have to be disclosed or tested for safety.6

According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) study, 72% of products with the ingredient “fragrance” contained endocrine disruptors called phthalates.7 Phthalates have been linked to diabetes, obesity, liver and breast cancer, hormone disruption affecting fertility and development as well as linked to ADHD and Autism in first and third trimester prenatal exposure. The National Academy of Sciences, working with an expert panel, stated that there may be cancer-causing chemicals in fragrance recipes.8 Unfortunately, because of secrecy and a lack of transparency in labeling, there is really no way for a consumer to make informed decisions about fragranced products.9

Up to 95% of these the synthetic chemicals used to make fragrance recipes are derived from petrochemicals.10 These particular ingredients are known (according to a 1991 EPA analysis) to cause cancer, birth defects, nervous system disorders, asthma, and allergies.11 To make matters even worse for the unsuspecting public, many products labeled as “unscented” are actually the fragranced product with the addition of another masking fragrance.12

What about Natural Fragrance or Essential Oils?

Unfortunately, the term “natural fragrance” or “essential oil” on an ingredient list does not necessarily mean it is safe. In a study analyzing 25 top selling products, researchers found that the “green”, natural, and organic fragranced products emitted just as many hazardous chemicals as regular fragranced products.13 That’s because most essential oils in consumer products are processed with a toxic solvent. In addition, essential oils containing terpenes such as pine and citrus oils react with ozone in surrounding air to create secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, and ultrafine particles.14 To ensure safety, essential oils in products should be verified as organic and wildcrafted and extracted without solvents. 15, 16

How can we help protect the public?

Fragranced products  are harmful to our health. Babies, children, the elderly, and those with cancer or other chronic illness are particularly at risk. The current demand for products that  “smell good” reflects the misinformed innocence of consumers. Awareness of this issue is in its infancy, but the good news is that action is already being taken to pave the way in educating and protecting the public. The American Lung Association has created a fragrance-free policy for workplaces and for schools. Harvard University teaching hospital is a model for promoting fragrance-free policies in their hospital.17 Brigham and Women’s Hospital has even initiated a campaign for fragrance-free health care.

The best way for individuals to influence the fragrance industry is at the cash register – this will ultimately provide the impetus for change in the marketplace.  Be proactive and only buy products that are unscented or have pure, safe essential oils. Even just removing all products with fragrance as an ingredient will immediately improve air quality in your home.  Take charge of your family’s health and wellbeing – ditch these synthetics! 

Clean Up Your Act Branch Basics: Fragrance is the New Secondhand Smoke

Join us to Clean Up Your Act. We are pledging the following:

  1. Don’t Buy Fragranced Products (unless contain pure organic essential oils)
  2. Ditch All Synthetic Fragrances
  3. Invest in Fragrance-Free, Nontoxic Alternatives

We’ve seen how quickly these changes can transform our health and our indoor air quality.  Join us to try to for yourself! And let us know how it goes for you – we love to hear from you!


Branch Basics Marilee Nelson The House DoctorsMarilee Nelson is an Environmental Consultant, Building Materials Specialist, Certified Baubiologist, Certified Baubiology Inspector, and Board Certified Nutritionist. Her research and experience with clients around the country ties acute and chronic illness with exposure to environmental stressors – chemicals in air, food and water and the increase in exposure to electromagnetic fields. She is dedicated to educating people about how a nutrient rich diet coupled with an environment free of products with synthetic chemicals is foundational to health.


Further reading:

What is a scent oil and how is it safer than other fragrances? Find about the differences: Wildcrafted Scent Oils. Curious about fragrances and other chemicals that might be lurking in your home already? Check out this article on the dangers of common laundry chemicals and what they do: Do You Know What’s In Your Laundry Detergent? Want to replace your air freshener? Our favorite DIY options are here: Nontoxic Air Fresheners | Remove Odors Naturally.

SAFE-SIMPLE-Clare-Wood-Branch-Basics-Minimalist-Mama-6Ready to streamline your routine? Read Clare’s tricks in Safe + Simple: Tips from a Minimalist Mama.

Going on a trip? Check out our Healthy Travel Guide for our favorite travel snacks and tips for preventing sunburn, jetlag, and more!

Want another trick for improving indoor air quality? Find out why we’re loving Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps! Keep reading about chemicals to avoid in your home: Common Chemicals to Avoid – A Branch Basics Series.

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118 Comments

  1. And people with Asthma. We can’t take any of it. Me and my family had to leave a movie theatre because a few women sat in the row in front of us and all had on 30 pounds of perfume and hairspray. Disgusting when you can taste it in your mouth.

  2. Must applaud you for this!!! I’m in the business of educating on the dangers of synthetic fragrances and one of my biggest struggles today is the overuse of them in public everywhere we go. Setting foot in any public ladies room, and most stores has become ridiculous. My throat will often burn, because I am now sensitive to it, but I feel we have a right to not be involuntarily assaulted by carcinogens. I was recently sprayed on directly at the front door of a “natural” pet store with an automatic Glade death spritzer. Beyond frustrating. Keep up the great work; I’ll be following!

  3. Thank you so much for this, so well stated!
    Will be sharing this with my clients.
    I tell them all the time how synthetic fragrances and low quality essential oils are some of the most toxic things we can have in our environment.
    Great to have a wonderful cleaning product to recommend to them as well.

  4. This is the most informative article that I have read in years. It is everything that I have been suffering for years and now I understand why. Perfumes, air freshener or room sprays will give me a migraine headache in minutes. I work for a Health Care Organization and a few months ago a co-worker brought a air freshener to work that gave me a migraine everyday. I went to her first and explained that it triggered my migraines and would she please remove it. She replied no, she liked it and would be keeping it. I went to management and they informed me they could not make her remove it. I did finally convince my supervisor to move my work area away from her. Thank you for the information.

  5. I almost hate to admit after reading all of the comments from other readers, but I enjoy wearing perfume. I don’t do so to overwhelm a room. I believe my scent should be experienced by another if that person is close enough to feel the warmth from my skin.

    I’m a tad old fashion and do not like most of the trendy designer fragrances that are out there.

    I prefer perfumes by older established perfumeries like Guerlain. As Europe has higher standards than the good ‘o USA, is it possible that there are fragrances that are not toxic? If there is a source out there, I am interested.

    Thank you for not judging me.

    1. it doesn’t matter how much you are wearing or how light your fragrance is–it still can give those who are extremely sensitive headaches and other symptoms.

    2. It’s not the “smell”, it’s the chemicals. The chemicals are toxic and harm the people around you. Well you too of course but you’ve decided that you want to use them. You aren’t allowing those around you to make that choice. You are choosing for them. I hope you consider that.

      1. I have the same issue at work! The worst offender is the HR manager! I tell her it’s not the smell it’s the chemicals! I literally cannot breathe when I’m around her and all she says is I’m too sensitive!

  6. Working at the post office (mail carrier) we sort lots of sales flyers and magazines with scented inserts etc. One in particular would make my nose sting and give me a headache. Too damn strong!

    1. Drives me crazy to open my mailbox and already smell the fragrance from an insert in a magazine, bill or advertisement.

  7. Hello,
    I make perfume for a living.
    My studio cabinet is full of both synthetic and natural materials which I use every day at 100% strength.
    Am I worried about this? No.
    Am I worried for the three women who work for me? No. But I do take care that they never get 100% natural citrus or spice essential oils on their skin as these are the most likely to cause rashes.

    I use both natural and synthetic materials in my fragrances. They are all made of chemicals. Some are made by plants; some are made by people. Water – dihydrogen oxide – is a chemical. Rose essential oil naturally contains geraniol, phenyl ethyl alcohol, and around 500 other chemicals which make its beautiful smell. Sniff a rose and your brain is interpreting chemical signals.

    I realise that there is nothing at all I could write here that would help you to understand the science, or which would make you realise that you are dangerously mistaken, because you’ve already made up your mind.

    People love a scare story.

    Here’s how believing the piece above actually causes the headaches you state are caused by perfume. (I would encourage you to read the work of genuine scientists like Professor Thomas Hummer, anosmia expert – that’s loss of sense of smell).

    People who can no longer smell – anosmics – never get headaches from perfume, nor do they think they “can’t breathe” when there is a scent present. The same scents are there, they enter by the nose, but the brain can’t perceive them. People who worry that perfume will give them a headache will get a headache. But it’s not caused by the perfume; that is physically impossible now that perfume regulations only allow materials to be used at safe concentrations.

    The reason people get headaches from perfume is the stress of believing that they are about to get a headache. You personally have probably caused thousands of unnecessary stress headaches BT suggesting to people that they are in danger when they smell perfume.

    Your approach is irresponsible and panic mongering. You are personally causing concern, anguish and genuine pain. I suggest you stop it.

    1. “People love a scare story.”
      Not all people love a scare story; I for one hate scare stories. But this is not a scare story. It is bringing awareness of a real and valid concern for many individuals, including myself, and a way of bringing the topic to other’s attention. The manifestation of different symptoms, not just headaches, is not a psychological phenomenon as you suggest, but a physiologic process which science has yet to find answers regarding the specifics. I suspect the immune system is significantly involved and science is constantly learning new things about health, including the immune system daily. So anyone with any fixed idea is “dangerously mistaken.”
      You may not be concerned for yourself or your workers. Everyone has different threshold levels for different chemicals, including phthalates (there is a lot of scientific literature on phthalates as endocrine disruptors) and since health is multifactorial, it is often difficult to associate a direct cause and effect between individual factors. Symptoms may be subclinical or they may not manifest until later.
      I appreciate you use some natural materials in your products. Most of the time sensitivities are to synthetic components, as our bodies have a difficult time adapting to the ever increasing amount of new chemicals every year. Those of us who are sensitive would appreciate your developing all natural, non-synthetic products.

    2. Did you know that people go into severe asthmatic attacks when people wear Parfums near them? Have you ever seen someone almost die, because someone is wearing Parfums or the fragrance (synthetic chemicals) of hair spray is closing their airway? This is a very REAL situation people have to deal with. It is not a scare article. One does not get a headache or sneezing or itchy eyes or swollen throat, lungs and throat burning by “thinking they are going to”.
      These are physiological changes to the body, not psychological.
      As a Respiratory Therapist, I have seen my fair share of these reactions to fragrance, the synthetic chemicals and the like. When a patient has the door closed and a sign that says not to wear parfum or fragrance, it is to be taken SERIOUSLY! I have seen a woman almost die due to Anaphylaxic shock. A care giver went into this patient’s room, had fragranced hair spray on, not parfum, and the patient immediately started getting the reaction. She was worse than when she came in for her original malady. Sent to ICU after our medical team went to work on saving her. This is no joking matter and should not be taken lightly!
      You are running a business. That’s fine, but take note, your products are not for everyone. Situations like the one I mentioned, do happen frequently Maybe it would be a wise investment to go synthetic free in your business.

  8. Does anyone know of a lawyer in the Chicago area that has been successful in getting a company to go fragrance free in the workplace? I suffer from this greatly and my HR dept says they cannot help.

  9. Not sure if anyone pointed this out, but I didn’t notice it mentioned, specifically, in the article; using liquid softener products in a dryer, which leave a harsher residue than dryer sheets. This particular odor hangs on forever, even after washing something multiple times the strong softener smell remains. I gave my daughter wool balls to use in her dryer, as a replacement, but she doesn’t like them. She actually likes the smell the softener leaves on her clothes. YUK!

    1. You can use Essential Oils on the wool dryer balls to add fragrance to your clothes.
      After the clothes are dry, place a few drops on a dryer ball, then run dryer on Air Fluff for 5 to 10 minutes. This is wonderful and the scent lasts for days. I love Lemongrass or Lavender. I use Young Living essential oils.
      I am an independent sales consultant for Norwex, and we don’t add fragrance to our cleaners. They are all enzyme based. No irritation to lungs, or eyes.
      I’m so glad I have read this article. Trying to reduce harmful chemicals is a major movement! Educating people takes a long time. Getting people to change their lifestyle is very hard. Baby steps though.

      1. Katharine,people will whine about the oils too.Maybe everyone should just find their own individual ways to deal with it? I worked in an office for years,where people routinely microwaved popcorn,It smelled like warm dog urine to me,and permeated the whole building.My solution? A small desk fan.You cant make everyone in the world cater to a whiny few.If someone is sooooo “scensitive”?Then what do they do when tge lawns get mowed? Or the flowers bloom? Nah,I dont buy it.i think ts just a few folks trying to be ‘special”.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. As someone who has chemical sensitivities, I’m made very ill from fragrances. Thanks for such a great post. I’m sharing it!!!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the informative post. I suffer from chemical sensitivity and my daughter found this post and shared it with me. I am so glad to see this issue getting talked about more and consciousness being raised about this issue. So many people have no idea how they are being affected.

  12. “Benzoin oil is extracted from the resin of a seven years and older tree by solvent extraction and yields about 65-85 % oil.” is a sentence I found to tell me what is this oil. It was listed as an ingredient in a product that someone had recommended in the comments. I have come to learn that “solvent” means run the other way as it is usually a petroleum distillate. Not good for ANYONE, especially those with MCS, lupus, migraine, etc etc. and especially children.

  13. I have suffered from scents in the office for a while now. Perfume closes up my ears and I lose my hearing. After extensive research, I have found that not only is Florida a right to work state, but there is nothing to protect me against the awful experience.

  14. Just found this on FaceBook through a fellow member of MCS, which is Multible Chemical Sensitivity Group. I intend to share this information on FaceBook. Thank you so much!

  15. It’s funny, but my whole adult life I have been using perfumed soap in the shower and fragrance free soap to wash my face. When I got married, my husband decided that in order to make it easier, instead of buying two different soaps, we should just buy the fragrance free and then all of us could use it, while I would still have it to use on my face. A few years later, I purchased the perfumed soap by mistake and decided to use it to not waste money. As soon as I lathered up, my nose started to hurt and it hurt my eyes. I realized that I could no longer tolerate that poison perfume.

  16. Great article! I get asked a lot about why my skin looks so young at my age, and I can attribute a portion of that to using UNSCENTED products and very minimal perfumes since I was 18 (over 20 years ago) when I learned about the damage that scented products and perfumes can have on your skin. Making that change (as well as having asthma and allergies though not to chemical scents) certainly make it a challenge to be around anyone using them. I gag and have a hard time breathing around anyone that does, especially when they are close like in an elevator or bus. Thanks for helping to spread the word about the effects of fragrance and synthetic chemicals!

  17. OSHA also took on the passive smoking fraud and this is what came of it:

    Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence: Third Edition

    http://www.nap.edu/catalog/13163/reference-manual-on-scientific-evidence-third-edition

    This sorta says it all

    These limits generally are based on assessments of health risk and calculations of concentrations that are associated with what the regulators believe to be negligibly small risks. The calculations are made after first identifying the total dose of a chemical that is safe (poses a negligible risk) and then determining the concentration of that chemical in the medium of concern that should not be exceeded if exposed individuals (typically those at the high end of media contact) are not to incur a dose greater than the safe one.

    So OSHA standards are what is the guideline for what is acceptable ”SAFE LEVELS”

    OSHA SAFE LEVELS

    All this is in a small sealed room 9×20 and must occur in ONE HOUR.

    For Benzo[a]pyrene, 222,000 cigarettes.

    “For Acetone, 118,000 cigarettes.

    “Toluene would require 50,000 packs of simultaneously smoldering cigarettes.

    Acetaldehyde or Hydrazine, more than 14,000 smokers would need to light up.

    “For Hydroquinone, “only” 1250 cigarettes.

    For arsenic 2 million 500,000 smokers at one time.

    The same number of cigarettes required for the other so called chemicals in shs/ets will have the same outcomes.

    So, OSHA finally makes a statement on shs/ets :

    Field studies of environmental tobacco smoke indicate that under normal conditions, the components in tobacco smoke are diluted below existing Permissible Exposure Levels (PELS.) as referenced in the Air Contaminant Standard (29 CFR 1910.1000)…It would be very rare to find a workplace with so much smoking that any individual PEL would be exceeded.” -Letter From Greg Watchman, Acting Sec’y, OSHA.

    Why are their any smoking bans at all they have absolutely no validity to the courts or to science!

  18. E-cigs contain perfume! I’m battling with my work to ban them in my work area because they cause me to have a severe reaction with not being able to breathe, heart racing, and dizziness. If someone walks by me shortly after “vaping”, same thing. I don’t know why anyone would want to “smoke” perfume.

  19. I live in England and I’m having the same problem with synthetic fragrances. I had been ill on and off for a long time but I couldn’t figure out the cause. Last year I got so ill I was finally allergy tested at the Royal London Hospital, in London and the test showed positive mainly to fragrances. When I was first told I remember I started to cry. I remember thinking, okay, I may be allergic to some of the fragrances in the products I’m using but surely they couldn’t be making me this ill – I was wrong. When I got home I started to research all the information I could and I found the synthetic chemicals I was told to avoid were being used in everything, including food. I was also amazed to find the side effects of these chemicals are well known to many in the scientific and medical community.
    I knew then that the only way to be sure what was making me ill was to go as fragrance and chemical free as I could and to follow an elimination diet. I chose a diet designed by doctors in The Royal Prince Albert Hospital, Sidney, Australia called The Failsafe Diet and I replaced all my fragranced products with fragrance free, this included personal care, laundry and cleaning prodcuts – I also changed the products my family were using to fragrance free. I changed my diet and stopped eating foods that contained additives and ate and drank only foods that were allowed on the diet. After just five days I began to feel well and by the sixth and seventh day I felt better than I had felt for years.
    Nearly one year on I still follow the diet and through the process of elimination and re-introduction I have found that I am salicylate and amine sensitive but I have to do all I can to avoid synthetic fragrances.

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