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Why Synthetic Fragrances Stink

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Quite a harsh statement about ingredients that are supposed to make products more sensually appealing, isn’t it?  Most people consider fragrance to be a pleasant thing. There are many people who only purchase certain products because they love how it smells.  

Many stores, like Bath and Body Works, The Body Shop, and Aveda depend on the scent of their products to help sell them.  The Body Shop even burns fragrance oils in their entryways in malls and throughout their stores.  I used to work there and trust me, it is very effective at enticing mall walkers and window shoppers to walk through that door and ask “what smells so good?”  

There is also an urban mall legend that certain department stores (I won’t name names) even pump the subtle scent of chocolate throughout their stores during holiday season, Mother’s Day, and Valentine’s Day because it apparently makes people spend more money.  I don’t have evidence that this is true, but I did spend (too) many holiday seasons behind cash wraps in department stores and I could swear I smelled chocolate for at least some of that time…

Fragrance is a powerful thing.

Why do people love fragrances so much?  The sense of smell is one of our most powerful senses.  Often, we can actually even taste what we smell. An example of this is when you cook a big delicious dinner for your family, yet by the time you are ready to serve it you’re already full. 

Other than the obvious reason that people simply enjoy certain scents, many people also associate certain fragrances with memories of favorite things, people, places, or events in their lives.  For example, I purchased a hand cream from a company that’s been around for years. As soon as I put it on, the scent brought me right back to my grandmother’s house when I was a kid.  She used to use products from that brand, which clearly still use the same fragrance.  It was such a strong reaction for me…I was quite taken aback by it.

So why do they stink?

Unfortunately, the reason has little to do with the actual scent itself.  It is all about the many synthetic ingredients that fragrance companies use to manufacture the fragrances.  The FDA does not require companies to individually list all of the ingredients that make up a product’s fragrance.  They can just say “fragrance”, “perfume/parfum”, “natural fragrance”, and even “unscented.”  So if you purchase a mango body wash from a store that is not an all natural store, it is very unlikely that you are actually smelling mango, unless the label specifically says otherwise.  Instead, you are smelling a combination of ingredients that make the product smell mango-ish.

The problem is that synthetic fragrances are the most likely ingredients in products to cause allergic and irritant reactions, and many of them are toxic. According to the Enviromental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s Guide to Less Toxic Products, “in 1989 the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health evaluated 2,983 fragrance chemicals for health effects. They identified 884 of them as toxic substances. The US EPA found that 100% of perfumes contain toluene, a toxic volatile organic compound (VOC) that can have developmental effects.” Toluene is one of the chemicals found in many nail polishes that have caused health problems.  Many nail polish manufacturers have removed this chemical from their formulas.

Besides toluene, some of the other chemicals used to make fragrances are phthalates, synthetic musks, formaldehyde, and several neurotoxins.  One of the reasons the FDA doesn’t require that the chemicals that comprise fragrances be individually listed is that a single fragrance can be made up of up to 100 chemicals…they’d need pretty large labels to list them all. So when you buy a fragranced product, there is no way to know what chemicals you have actually purchased and are putting on your body.

These chemicals not only cause allergic and irritant reactions in the skin, but they can also be eye irritants, cause or trigger asthma attacks, and damage the immune system. 

What about unscented products?

Believe it or not, products marketed as “unscented” likely contain synthetic chemicals to make them seem like they have no fragrance.  The truth is that most ingredients in products have their own scents, and they are not always pleasant ones.  So manufacturers will use certain chemicals to mask those odors and make give the product a neutral “un”-scent.

The only way to be sure there are no synthetic chemical fragrance ingredients in your products is to either purchase 100% all natural products, or products that say “100% fragrance free”, or “no added fragrance”.

What about natural fragrances?

Fragrances that are obtained from botanicals such as plant oils, essential oils, extracts, herbs, etc. are generally more tolerated than their synthetic counterparts.  Sure people may have a sensitivity or allergy to a natural ingredient, but it is less likely than with chemical ingredients.  Furthermore, essential oils and other botanical ingredients are often listed individually on labels; so you will see it there and know if you are allergic or sensitive to it before you purchase it. 

A natural ingredient will be listed by its botanical name. For example, lavender oil might be listed as lavandula angustifolia and aloe might be listed as aloe barbadensis.  Be careful though…if you see a natural ingredient listed without the botanical name, or with the word “fragrance” after it (examples would be “lavender” or “lavender fragrance”), you can assume it is not the real natural ingredient, it is a synthetic version of it.


Personally, I have always preferred natural aromas to synthetic fragrances.  I used to work behind a makeup counter in a department store that was near the perfume counters. On busier days when the perfume “models” were out there “lightly spritzing” passers-by with whichever fragrance they were promoting, I often had to work the whole day with a stuffy nose and horrible headache that did not subside until I left the building.

Pregnancy made me even more sensitive to fragrances, and years later, that still hasn’t subsided.  I have walked into rooms with women wearing heavy perfume, and had to immediately excuse myself.  However, very few naturally-fragranced products seem to irritate me, and my favorites have the ability to transport me and trigger different memories even more than the synthetics.

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About Rachael Pontillo