Why should you avoid Fragrance?

Petals with Spray bottle

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Fragrance is a common ingredient found in everyday products to give it a pleasant smell.  It can be found in candles, deodorant, laundry detergent, hand soap, cleaning products, and even added to our trash bags. Why should we avoid fragrance and how is it bad for our health?

Fragrance can disrupt our hormone function at a low dose exposure. What is terrifying are the long-term health effects that fragrance can cause, as well as the lack of regulation in the industry.

What is Fragrance?

Fragrance is a combination of chemicals that give a product its distinct smell. Fragrance can consist of over 3,000 chemicals.  According to the FDA, even some “unscented” products contain fragrances to mask the natural odor.

The chemicals used in fragrance are not tested for safety in the United States. Research shows that even at low doses exposure to fragrance has adverse health effects, so avoiding fragrance is ideal.

Phthalates are often part of the fragrance ingredient.  Phthalates help extend the smell and make the scent linger.  Think about when you clean laundry smells like the detergent for days.

There has not been a major health care regulation since 1938, so there is a huge gap in the regulation and safety of these products. 

Have you ever walked into Bath & Body Works and immediately gotten a headache?  It actually also happens to me at Bed, Bath, & Beyond.  This is a short-term side effect of the fragrance.

Does the company have to disclose the fragrance ingredients?

Based on the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, a company does not have to disclose fragrance and flavor formulas because they are considered “trade secrets.”  There is very little regulation in the industry and a major law had not been updated since 1936.  The FDA also does not require approval before a formula goes on the shelf for retail. [1]

I personally have allergies and find it extremely frustrating that companies are allowed to get away with not having to disclose the exact ingredients.  I strongly believe companies are capable of sharing their ingredient list without giving away any trade secrets.  There are companies that believe in transparency and share all the ingredients, so if these companies are able to share all the details and still be profitable then surely all companies should be capable. 

How does Fragrance impact our health? 

It has been proven that even low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals can affect a healthy individual.[2] People should avoid fragrance and can experience short-term and long-term effects from fragrance. 

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals and low dose effects on the body.

Short-term side effects of exposure to fragrance include:

  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Watery eyes
  • Skin irritation

Low-dose exposure to fragrance is linked to the following long-term health issues:

  • Thyroid Disorders
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Breast Cancer
  • Prostate Cancer
  • Early onset puberty
  • Male infertility
  • Female infertility
  • Allergies
  • Developmental Disorders
  • Autism
  • Low birth weight
  • Lower IQ / Hyperactivity / ADHD
  • Asthma

Chronic diseases continue to climb and the lack of regulation is maddening.  As a dietitian, so much goes into educating patients with obesity and diabetes.  Lifestyle choices play a large role in our overall health.

Graph displaying increase in chemical production in the US and increase in health concerns.
This image is taken from the documentary Stink

After learning about the lack of regulation in our personal care products, it has really encouraged me to create this space to help educate and share tips on how we can all improve our overall health and well-being.  Our health matters and it is worth standing up to the companies.

Where is Fragrance hiding?

Fragrance includes phthalates that are found in children’s toys, cleaning products, food packaging, building materials, personal care products. I picked up trash bags at Target and flipped over the box to find that fragrance had been added to the trash bags.  It is literally everywhere. 

When a product is labeled “unscented” it does not mean it is fragrance-free.  Look for items that are “fragrance-free,” not just “unscented.” It can be challenging to avoid fragrance, but it truly is not worth the health risks.

Products where fragrance can be hiding.

Who is most at most risk to fragrance exposure?

Infants and children are more at risk for the health effects of fragrance because they put their hands in their mouths more often.  They also spend more time on the floor which is where the chemicals settle.

Age groups that are experiencing a change in hormones in their bodies are also at a higher risk.  Since these chemicals can disrupt hormones, educating individuals going through puberty and menopause is important.   

Populations with lower income are most at risk because they do not have access to a variety of options.  Most of the time they have limited shopping options and education tools are not in place. 

Fragrance Ingredients to avoid on a label:

Take the time to pick up the product and read the label.  Unfortunately, we can’t just walk into our local Target and assume everything is safe.  Phthalates are not normally listed on the ingredient label. Instead, look for Fragrance, Perfume, or Parfum.  You want to avoid all of these!

Update on the SB312 Act:

In the state of California, on January 1, 2002, the SB312 Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act will take effect.[3]  The bill requires reporting of hazardous fragrance ingredients by manufacturers selling cosmetics products in the State of California. 

This is a step in the right direction, but we are still very far behind the European Union and Canada in regulating the cosmetics industry.  Hopefully, with the state of California passing this bill, it will in turn create additional awareness and one day encourage full fragrance transparency.  California is the largest economy in the United States, so when bills like this pass it will likely inspire federal developments for all of the US citizens.

What can you do to avoid fragrance?

Make a list of all the products you use in a day.  Start with your morning routine and go through your entire day, so face wash, shampoo, deo, lotion, toothpaste, etc.  Then begin to look at the labels.  Determine if your products contain fragrance.  As you run out, start swapping them out for a safer option.

Keep your list in a safe place, and as you swap them out you can check it off.  This way you can track what you still need to update.  It can be expensive to do it all at once, so take it one product at a time.  Don’t let it overwhelm you!  A small change will add up over time.  We are all about PROGRESS, not perfection!

Learn to vote with your dollar.  The way we spend our money and the brands and companies we support make a difference.  Support companies that are being transparent, ensuring safer options, and care for your health. 

If you have any questions, you can always email me and I can try to help you find the best solution. 

 If you are looking for Personal Care Products, I highly recommend messaging me and looking into Beautycounter products as you swap out for safer options. 

Other Recommendations:

Hand Soap: Everyone

Detergent:  Molly Suds, Seventh Generation

Household Cleaners:  Branch Basics, Seventh Generation, Squeak

Diffuser, candle, indoor plant

Additional resources:

Environmental Working Group – Great website to search ingredients in their database along with cleaning and personal care products.

Stink Movie – A documentary that really opened my eyes to the lack of regulation relating to fragrance. A dad tries to track down the chemicals used on his daughters’ pajamas because of the noticeable strong odor when he removed them from the bag.


1) https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/fragrances-cosmetics

2) https://endocrinedisruption.org/interactive-tools/endocrine-basics

3) https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201920200SB312

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