The Lingering Dangers in Your Fragrance

Love looking at perfumes and finding your scent? Long-term use of scented products and perfumes may not be as harmless as you believe and can lead to migraines, interference with reproduction and, cancer in worst-case scenarios.

By Aditi
21 Sep 2022

Spritzing on a fragrance just before we go out the door has become an integral action in many of our lives, to the extent that many of us unconsciously end up doing it even when it’s not needed. Most people automatically feel positive and happy when using fragrances, and it is because of the positive connotation associated with them. We are constantly surrounded by natural and artificial fragrances, and while these fragrances are not apparent to everyone, some people are extremely sensitive to them. Sensitivity to scents can be due to genetics, hormonal changes, or even because individuals are unable to get used to the smell. The sensitivity to fragrances can lead to recurring migraines, nausea and more.


Whether at home or outside, in the metro or a cab, there is no denying the presence of odours everywhere you go. Good or bad, they end up lingering in places, people, and environments.


Related Story: 6 Scents That Have the Power to Heal


According to a 2012 study published in ScienceDaily, those sensitive to smell can feel the impact on their whole body. For example, people who cough more when inhaling capsaicin, a compound found in hot chilli peppers, also have increased reactions in their brain to other smells. Is regular exposure to these fragrances disrupting your hormonal balance? Are they the reason behind your migraines? Or are they leading to worsening indoor air pollution in your home? Here is what you should know about fragrances and scented products:


What Is Fragrance?

In the most basic terms, fragrance denotes a perfume or a scent with a pleasant or sweet odour. You may think that perfume and fragrance are the same, but in reality, they are fundamentally different. A fragrance is generally a combination of organic compounds with a specific scent. For example, smelling jasmine as you’re walking in a park is a fragrance. A perfume, on the other hand, is a liquid mixture that is applied to emit a pleasant odour. An example of this is a bottled solution from a brand like YSL, Chanel or any other company where a combination of fragrances are being used. While all perfumes are fragrances, not all fragrances are perfumes.


According to DermNet (USA), perfumes are loosely classified into five types based on the concentration of aromatics:

  • Parfum/extrait: 20-30 per cent concentration of fragrance
  • Eau de parfum: 15-20 per cent concentration of fragrance
  • Eau de toilette: 5-15 per cent concentration of fragrance
  • Eau de cologne: 2-4 per cent concentration of fragrance
  • Eau fraiche: 1-3 per cent concentration of fragrance


However, when talking about fragrances and scented products, it isn’t only perfumes that we’re concerned with. Any type of scented product, including deodorants, scented cosmetics, scented cleaning products, and even clothes, can be included.


Related Story: Aromatherapy for Every Personality Type


Where It All Began

Historically, perfumes began to be used and created sometime during the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, according to McGill University (Canada). Perfumes were created entirely using natural materials like wood, leaves, flowers, and seeds, as stated by Britannica Encyclopaedia. The Egyptians invented a method of creating perfumes by distilling natural ingredients with odourless oils. There is also evidence that the Indus civilization had also utilised perfumes. One of the earliest stated distillations of Ittar was in Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita in Ayurvedic texts.


However, today, not only has the method of making perfumes changed, but also the ingredients used in making them. Many perfumes and other scented products you may find at stores today won’t have their ingredients clearly listed. While many companies shroud these products in mystery in order to keep their recipe a ‘trade secret,’ many activists believe that it’s a way to hide the chemicals being used in them as well.


According to Health Care Without Harm (US and Canada), fragrance chemicals are organic compounds that are volatile and can vaporise into the air. The ability to vaporise is what leads people to smell them, but it can also contribute to poor indoor air quality.


Exposure to these chemicals for even a short period can lead to headaches, irritation in your eyes or nose, forgetfulness, nausea, and loss of coordination, among other symptoms. For those suffering from respiratory disease, allergies, or asthma, irritants in the fragrances can trigger attacks suddenly.


A 2018 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (USA) published in the journal Science states that even though 15 times more petroleum is consumed as fuel, the amount of chemical vapours emitted in the atmosphere directly from scented products is roughly the same. The study also observed that whereas scientists and researchers were actively looking at ways to reduce gasoline consumption, the same was not being done for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially those found in everyday scented items like paint, nail polish, and deodorisers.


Related Story: Can Chemicals in Your Personal Care Products Affect Your Pregnancy


Perfume poisoning is also another aspect that many people are not aware of. Since laws protect manufacturers from divulging ‘trade secrets’ behind their perfumes, many end up suffering from extreme allergic reactions or accident consumption (for kids) that can lead to irreversible damage. According to MedlinePlus (USA), the symptoms of perfume poisoning are:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Low body temperature, sugar, and blood pressure
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling foggy or lack of responsiveness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Slurred speech and stupor
  • Throat pain
  • Headache and trouble walking normally


Toxic Ingredients That Harm

A 2018 report by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (USA) shows that 75 per cent of toxic chemicals detected in tests with 140 products were derived from fragrance. The report also revealed that many scented products had chemicals that were linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, asthma, and aquatic toxicity.


Since most of us do end up using some type of fragrance or scented product in our daily lives, being conscious of ingredients that have the potential to harm is crucial. However, when most companies choose to hide the information, it can become quite challenging to understand what’s good for you and what isn’t.


Even products that advertise themselves as ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ may not entirely be revealing the truth. Since these tags don’t often require certification from third-party regulators, brands are free to advertise what they want, and most people don’t check to see if what they’re saying is actually true. You might end up seeing a natural perfume laced with stabilisers, additives, and alcohol.


To find out the exact composition behind your perfumes, a little bit of research may be required. You can find websites online like INCI Beauty, that analyse the ingredients behind each product and give it a rating to denote how ‘clean’ it is. The non-profit Environmental Working Group is also a good resource for many products available today. Their Skin Deep website also enables you to search ingredients separately so you can find out how hazardous it can be.


Vulnerable groups such as children, women of colour, cosmetologists, and domestic workers, among others, are extremely prone to chemical exposure through these products, according to Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, and it can lead to long-ranging health consequences. A 2017 study published in Trends in Cancer shows that race can play a huge role in cancer incidence and survival rate, where individuals of colour are more susceptible than Caucasians.


Related Story: Endocrine Disruptors: Toxic Chemicals Hiding in Common Household Items


Consciously Using Fragrance

There is no international or national organisation today that actively monitors the safety of fragrance products, except for the International Fragrance Association, which is entirely voluntary. The organisation establishes voluntary safety guidelines, which suppliers are not bound to follow. The absence of such regulation has made it harder for people to understand the true cost of using fragrances; the damage it does to not only their health but their environment too.


Regardless of where you go, whether it’s a hospital or a beauty parlour, you can be exposed to different scents within a span of seconds at any building. While most of us end up dismissing these fragrances and odours as nothing serious or choose to breathe through our mouth when it becomes overpowering, it doesn’t enable us to escape from the long-term effects of being exposed to these scents.


Minimising your usage and opting for natural-based scents that you can either make yourself or buy from a trusted brand is always the first thing that should be done. Even when it comes with a higher price tag, you have to know that you’re not just investing in the products but in your health too.


Look for unscented products whenever you are buying cleaning supplies or even an anti-perspirant, for that matter Options like Ittar are a good alternative, as they are made from natural oils, and the ingredients are natural in most cases.










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