10 Dangers from Artificial Fragrances


One day, in a Big Oil laboratory, a chemist cried out “Eureka! I’ve found the formula for the fragrance of a rose! Even rosier than a real rose!” A colleague asks “But is it petroleum-based and carcinogenic?” “Of course,” the chemist replied. Applause.

We smell trouble

Our sense of smell is a finely tuned mechanism that evolved eons ago. It helped our ancient forebears sniff out lurking predators and poisons, and identify scents that were simply pleasing. It’s also the sense most closely tied to memory—indeed a particular scent can remind us of things we thought we’d long forgotten.

Fast-forward to today, and we still have a love affair with pleasing fragrances. Indeed, we’ll spend $80 billion in the U.S. this year, and a projected $90 billion in 2020, just to fulfill that single, simple promise: a pleasant scent.

But to return to the Big Oil lab…what’s oil got to do with it?

Answer: just about everything.

“Fragrance” is a bucket of poison

Our search for pleasant scents is no longer limited to what we can find in nature. Those billions of bucks pour into labs creating artificial scents and products that contain them.

So guess where that Lavender Breeze air freshener comes from?  (Hint: not from lavender.)  Or that refreshing Citrus Grove after-shave?  Or the nameless but pleasing fragrances that somehow find their way into all sorts of cosmetics?

Watch out. More than 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are built on a foundation of petroleum.

What could possibly go wrong?

Slap some Texas crude on your face?

There’s an oil tanker full of toxins that are known to cause cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders, and allergies resting on that Big Oily foundation—more than 3,100 chemicals that are being absorbed, inhaled, and ingested daily.

Of particular concern is a class of chemicals known as phthalates, used to bind ingredients together—like fragrance and pigment in lipstick—and to increase flexibility in plastic hosing.

They’ve been found in thousands of everyday items. We’re talking cosmetics, household cleaners, food packaging, vinyl flooring, and more.

And we’re talking everywhere.

A great example?

Fresh, wholesome milk, in a glass bottle.    

But Dr. Connealy, you ask, how can a petroleum-based chemical get into a glass bottle?

Well, here’s how. As milk flows from cow to container, it passes through plastic tubing, which contains the phthalate di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP).  This phthalate is fat soluble, and milk contains plenty of a fat—so as it passes through the tubing, the milk drags some of the DEHP out of the tubing and into the bottle.

In the U.S., only a handful of phthalates have been tested for safety.

Not the case in other industrialized nations.

Danger Of Phthalates

The European Union’s 28 countries, along with Canada, South Korea, Japan, and China have outright banned the use of phthalates.

That’s because phthalates have been linked to:

  1. Asthma
  2. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
  3. Breast cancer
  4. Obesity
  5. Type II diabetes
  6. Low IQ
  7. Neurodevelopmental and behavioral issues
  8. Autism spectrum disorders
  9. Altered reproductive development
  10. Male fertility issues

How can this be happening?

Lazy, lousy label laws

Mainly because American companies are allowed to use “fragrance” on their products’ ingredients lists. Hidden under that umbrella, never to be seen listed, can legally be hundreds of synthetic chemicals—that are considered “trade secrets.”

Many attempts have been made to urge the government to retire the trade secrets designation and require a full listing of all ingredients in any product containing phthalates and other dangerous toxins.

There have been small victories along the way. Congress has banned some phthalates in toys, for example. But that’s nowhere near the full disclosure that would thoroughly inform and warn consumers, and let them make their own, educated decisions.

Unfortunately, our government demands a very high level of proof of harm. It would take forever to test every one of the 3,100 chemicals now classed as trade secrets.

Or would it?

Could there be counter-pressure on the government from oh, say, Big Oil?  And maybe every one of the players in this $80 billion industry?

Self defense

How can you get these poisons out of your life?

It’s an easy call. Read the labels and don’t touch any product that has “Fragrance” on the ingredients list.  You’ll be astonished by the numbers.

And be warned—even packages labeled “Fragrance-free” can contain dangerous ingredients. If there’s a long list of unpronounceable chemistry-lab ingredients, leave it on the shelf.

And toss anything with “Fragrance” in your housekeeping cabinet and your personal care/makeup regimen.

Better still, replace all of those cleansers, polishers, deodorizers, shampoos, body washes, and who knows what else with natural, affordable substances.

You’ll be amazed at what vinegar, baking soda, citrus and other oils, and other ordinary household items can do—and for a fraction of the cost that you’re paying for Big Oil and Big Cosmetics products.  There are hundreds of great sites that tell you what should go and how to replace it.

Finally, when you want to smell good, go for real, natural essential oils.  They don’t just smell wonderful. They can play a major role in keeping you happy and healthy.

Take good care.



Last Updated: May 22, 2021
Originally Published: September 11, 2017