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Perfume, according to marketing claims, will help us attract a romantic partner and make us feel sexier. But the gift of a bottle of cologne or perfume may not be healthy for your intended, say some experts. Certain fragrances and their chemical constituents can trigger an allergic, rather than an aphrodisiac, response.

IN MATTERS of love, asserts an article by one of the world’s leading makers of flavors and fragrances Haarmann & Reimer, “The way to the heart is through the nose.”

But as much as perfume can elicit pleasure, it can trigger allergies and irritation. If your love interest suffers from asthma, rhinitis, allergies, dermatitis or a growing range of chemical sensitivities, a bottle of perfume may very well repel more than attract. According to some allergists, dermatologists, pulmonary specialists and nurses, a growing number of patients — as well as health care practitioners — seem to be suffering from sensitivities to fragrances.

Fragrance sensitivity is also emerging as a growing workplace allergen. “People often joke about it, people wearing offensive perfumes,” says Carrie Loewenherz,” an industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. But, she adds, for people sensitive to it, it’s no joking matter.

Take Lauren Colburn, an Atlanta, Ga. newspaper researcher, for example. She had to shift to the “graveyard” shift — a real hardship — to avoid people wearing perfumes and fragranced products. “But more sensitive people are speaking up about it, and I hope the perfume industry is listening,” she says.

The fragrance industry says it is. Products are thoroughly tested before being marketed to assure their health and safety, says Glenn Roberts, spokesperson for the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, an industry-sponsored group that does testing of chemicals.


Once distilled simply from flower essences, perfumes today are complex mixtures of natural — botanical- or animal-derived — materials and synthetic chemicals. More than 5,000 different fragrances are used in perfumes and skin products, in hundreds of chemical combinations, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. But because the chemical formulas of fragrances are considered trade secrets, companies aren’t required to list their ingredients but merely label them as containing “fragrance.”

That’s a problem for the medical profession in determining allergies, says dermatologist Howard Maibach, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. The great quantity and variety of chemicals, as well as the absence of ingredients on the labels, makes it difficult to pinpoint causes of allergies or irritation, he notes.

Healthy scent shopping

Tips for people who are sensitive to fragrances or don't want to offend co-workers or spouses:

Switching to products with natural-based ingredients and less synthetic additives may help.

Check out "The Safe Shopper's Bible: A consumer's guide to nontoxic household products, cosmetics and food," by Dr. Samuel Epstein.

While natural ingredients can also cause allergic reactions in some people, there are many new products available in health food stores and from small companies on the Internet that offer some relief.

Try soaps and lotions made of pure materials, such as oatmeal bars and alcohol-free hair sprays. A few recommendations: Dr. Bronner's super mild Castille and unscented baby and bar soaps, Clinique's unscented soaps and Aveda soaps.

As for essential oils, they're purer but also potentially allergenic. But a touch of lavender or lemon is okay.

Finally, buyer beware: Cosmetics labeled "hypoallergenic," according to the FDA, offer no guarantee that they won't cause reactions in sensitive individuals. "Hypoallergenic" means only that the manufacturer feels that the product is less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

Sources: Dr. Samuel Epstein, University of Illinois in Chicago; Daliya Robison, Nirvana Safe Haven

The rising tide of fragrances in myriad products, from skin lotions to tissues to cleaning products to candles, is also adding to the problem, says NYCOSH’s Loewenherz.

Additionally, about 95 percent of perfume ingredients are not composed of flower essences or natural products as people generally imagine, but synthesized from petrochemicals, which give off volatile organic compounds, vapors emitted from compounds like solvents, wood preservatives, paint strippers and dry cleaned clothing.

VOCs are known to produce eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system, according to EPA. Some can cause cancer in animals or are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. And while adverse health effects from VOCs typically occur at far higher doses than what would be found in fragrances, they nevertheless can be potentially dangerous in tight indoor spaces, Loewenherz says.

In the early ’90s, the Environmental Protection Agency sponsored a study to identify the compounds found in many fragrance products and identified 100 to 200 chemicals — including fragrance chemicals, additives and contaminants — in each. In more than half the products tests, they found ethanol, limonene, linalool, ß-phenethyl alcohol, and ß-myrcene, few of which have tested for cancer causing properties. 

In reviewing the compounds, the researchers found “a paucity of available data for most of the compounds reviewed.” Although the study found “relatively low toxicities overall,” some of compounds have “toxic effects [on animals] at low doses,” the report concluded.

Nevertheless, the researchers cautioned against panic. While the chemicals are present in fragrances, the doses are typically not high enough to cause health effects in humans, says Lance Wallace, the researcher at EPA who worked on the study.

Sign up for our health e-newsletterThe report also suggested that further study was needed to determine which people were at risk for developing rashes or other “sensitivities” to certain compounds or fragrances.

A bigger problem, Wallace says, is that current testing fails to address why some people are becoming increasingly sensitive.

“Questionnaires done on people affected by sick building syndrome, such as those afflicted in government buildings, tend to show about 30 percent of people having reactions to chemical odors of various kinds, including perfumes,” says Wallace. “We need better real-world exposure studies to find out why and how we can prevent it.”

That should be an issue not just for the already chemically sensitive but for the average healthy person as well, says Betty Bridges, a registered nurse who founded the Fragranced Products Information Network, a Web page with information about chemicals used in scented products and their health effects.

"Many of these fragrance products by themselves would not be expected to be problematic, but we’re getting dosed from so many sources, such as hair sprays, nail polishes, skin lotions and scented products in virtually everything,” says Bridges. “Toilet tissues, cleaning products — even cigarettes — have fragrance ingredients in them.” Advertisement

Perfume doesn’t just enter the body by being inhaled, but also can be ingested or absorbed through the skin, affecting the skin, lungs, nervous system and brain. Among trends found:

  • Skin allergies to scents are rising steadily (with perfume allergies second only to nickel contact dermatitis as a cause of skin irritation). “The vast majority of the public does not have a fragrance allergy,” says Donald Belsito, a dermatologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center. However, allergic reactions to fragrances are on the rise, he says, increasing from 9 percent to about 12 to 13 percent of dermatitis patients over the last decade.
  • The incidence of respiratory sensitivity to fragrances is also growing, although this has been less studied. For Dr. Michael Segal, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School, one of the more serious health concerns is for asthmatics. If airways become constricted, an episode can be life threatening, he says. “Perfumes are fine for the large majority of people who do not have asthma, and most ingredients in perfumes are probably fine even for most people with asthma,” says Segal. The problem, he says, is that some ingredients in perfumes trigger asthma attacks, since perfumes can contain so many potentially allergenic ingredients that can add to other ubiquitous irritants, from tobacco smoke to exhaust fumes.
  • Perfumes can also trigger migraines, according to the American Medical Association.
  • Fragrances are also a growing issue for people sensitized to other environmental chemicals. “I’m seeing more and more environmentally sensitized people,” says Dr. Morton Teich, an allergist who has practiced in New York City for more than 30 years. “I suspect that’s because our environment — indoor as well as outdoor — and our food is more polluted, and our immune and endocrine systems are simply overloaded.”

FPIN’s Bridges says that complaints on health effects from fragrances have increased during the last few years, noting that her Web site gets 1,500 new visitors each month and that complaints to the Food and Drug Administration, which keeps a registry on adverse reactions to cosmetics, has jumped from 3 in 1996 to about 100 last year. Meanwhile, the Environmental Health Network, an advocacy group based in Larkspur, Calif., has petitioned the government, asking that synthetic fragrances put on the market without adequate testing carry a warning label. The group commissioned an industry laboratory specializing in tests for the fragrance industry and found 41 ingredients they claimed were “toxic to the skin, respiratory tract, nervous and reproductive systems, and [in some cases] known to be carcinogens.” They also charged that several ingredients contained “no toxicity data” or “inadequate data.”

In November 1999, the group filed a petition with the Food and Drug Administration, the agency with jurisdiction over cosmetics, to have the fragrance Eternity by Calvin Klein declared “misbranded.”

Since the petition was filed, says Bridges, more than 1,000 consumers with health problems from exposure to fragrances have written to FDA support EHN’s petition. To date, however, FDA has not responded to the petition. An FDA spokesperson says it is still “under review,” but not considered a priority.


“As a regulatory agency, we are concerned about the safety of cosmetics, says an FDA spokesperson. But the agency has no authority to require cosmetics to be safety tested before marketing. However, if the ingredients and final product in a product haven’t been substantiated, then a warning label can be required on a product stating “the safety of this product has not been determined.”

The FDA also noted that even cosmetics that claim to be “fragrance free” can contain perfume to mask other odors: “Fragrance free” only means that a cosmetic “has no perceptible odor.” The agency explains: “Fragrance ingredients may be added to a fragrance-free cosmetic to mask any offensive odor originating from the raw materials used, but in a smaller amount than is needed to impart a noticeable scent.”


Despite the lack of FDA safety testing, RIFM’s Roberts provides assurances that safety is insured in a four-step process. “First, we have a long history of cosmetics ingredients use to go on; additionally, EPA requires safety testing for any new chemicals coming on the market,” he says. Additionally, “RIFM does its own safety testing of chemicals — we’ve tested about 90 percent to 95 percent in use — and many fragrance and cosmetics companies do their own testing.”

Besides this, says Roberts, FDA collects complaints from consumers, “and from their records, that’s less than 1 complaint per million users.

”Those efforts by the industry haven’t stopped people from demanding fragrance-free environments, however. Some hospitals ask staff to refrain from using fragranced products, says Segal, because of their potential effects on people with asthma or other conditions.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) instituted a fragrance-free meeting policy, says Susan Wilburn, a specialist for occupational safety and health for ANA, “because so many nurses have been coming down with headaches, nausea, and other adverse reactions to perfumes.” 

ANA’s own research, she says, found that many perfumes contain preservatives, as well as pesticides, “specifically added to repel bugs attracted to the scents.”

In response to the perceived problems of fragrances in the air, Roberts says that his industry group has begun the first study to examine fragrance inhalation. “We’re spending a lot of money on this,” he says, “to understand the systemic effects of fragrances on organs and nervous system, what happens when fragrances are inhaled.”

To report an adverse reaction to the FDA, call FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors at 1-202-401-9725, or file online. You may also send your report in writing to: FDA, Office of Cosmetics and Colors (HFS-100), 200 C St., SW, Washington, DC 20204.

Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and editor of the American Museum of Natural History book, “Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998).

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