alive logo

Fragrance Facts


Fragrance Facts

What do Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Elizabeth Taylor have in common? They all promote perfume. Fragrance equals chic. For many, however, fragrance means irritated eyes and sinuses and restricted breathing.

What do Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Elizabeth Taylor have in common? They all promote perfume. Fragrance equals chic. For many, however, fragrance means irritated eyes and sinuses and restricted breathing.

Fragrance, Fragrance Everywhere

Fragrances permeate every facet of our lives from shampoos and soaps to candles, air fresheners, even garbage bags and cigarettes. Fragrances are added to countless products, including some labelled “unscented” to mask the product’s original scent.

The flavour and fragrance industry has increased global sales tenfold since the early 50s and doubled in size during the eighties. Approximately 15 multinationals dominate the industry and account for about two-thirds of flavour and fragrance product turnover worldwide.

Of the approximately 4,000 chemical ingredients used to make various fragrances, more than 80 percent have never been tested for toxic effects. Some of these fragrance chemicals are considered hazardous by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Chemicals used in the production of aromatics include turpentine oil, C2-C5 petrochemicals, benzene, and toluene.

Symptoms of Sensitivity

The US National Academy of Sciences estimates that 15 percent of the US population is hypersensitive to chemicals, including fragrances. Most affected by exposure to scents are those with asthma and other respiratory ailments and multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome (MCS). Asthma affects over 155 million people worldwide and is on the rise. A 1986 survey showed that 72 percent of people with asthma had negative reactions to perfume in which their breathing rates deceased by half; the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) now lists fragrance as a trigger for asthma.

MCS is a relatively recent condition that shares some symptoms with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It usually develops with either acute or chronic toxic chemical exposure, followed by a broadening of sensitivity to other chemicals and irritants, including scented products. In addition, those suffering from MCS may also experience increased sensitivity to loud noises, bright lights, touch, temperature extremes, and electromagnetic fields.

Overseeing Odours

Who’s responsible for regulating the production of new fragrances? Although there are numerous organizations involved in monitoring fragrance development, for the most part, the industry is self-regulating.

In the US, the FDA and the Consumer Products Safety Commission deal with cosmetics. Cosmetics are not required to undergo safety testing prior to entering the market; however, a warning label is required if safety has not been established. Individual fragrance components are not required on the label; only the word “fragrance” must appear. Fragrance-formula secrecy permeates the industry.

International organizations involved in fragrances include the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). The first tests substances and the second recommends practices, but neither enforces nor monitors compliance.

In Canada, the Cosmetics Pro-gram of Health Canada establishes guidelines for the “manufacture, labelling, distribution and sale of cosmetics, and evaluates compliance.” No regulations currently exist for cosmetics that specify Good Manufacturing Practices, and listing of ingredients is not yet mandatory, making it difficult for those suffering from sensitivity to know what particular substance may be triggering a reaction.

Those with chemical sensitivities might be better served by avoiding or at least limiting their exposure to synthetic fragrances.

Unfortunately, what appears tr?chic may actually leave you feeling very sick.

Symptoms of Fragrance Sensitivity:

  • shortness of breath/wheezing
  • headaches and migraines
  • nausea and muscle pain
  • cold-like symptoms
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • skin irritation
  • inability to concentrate
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • depression


No Proof

No Proof

Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD