“The way to the heart is through the nose,” asserts Haarmann & Reimer, a leading fragrance manufacturer. But lovers may want to think twice about giving a bottle of cologne or perfume for Valentines Day, say some health advocates. Certain fragrances and their chemical constituents might trigger an allergic — rather than aphrodisiac — response. And some perfumes contain hidden ingredients that may pose longer-term hazards.
If your love interest suffers from asthma, rhinitis, allergies, dermatitis or a growing range of chemical sensitivities, that bottle of perfume may very well repel more than attract. According to medical specialists, fragrance sensitivity appears to be on the rise.
It’s also a growing contributor to indoor pollution in the workplace, says Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health.
“People often joke about it, people wearing offensive perfumes,” says Loewenherz. But it’s no laughing matter, she adds, either for the allergy sufferers or the office managers trying to manage a delicate problem.
Astrid Berg, director of the American Lung Association’s Washington State office, agrees, noting that fragrance seems to be an increasing irritant among people with asthma.
“We tend to not think of it as serious until we see someone in acute distress,” says Berg.
Safe enough to sniff?
The cosmetic industry insists its products are safe.
“In recent years it has become fashionable to criticize the use of fragrances in our society, suggesting that this use is associated with a variety of negative effects,” writes Peter Cadby of the International Fragrance Association, in a recent journal article. ”[But] an adequate review and testing mechanism exists to assure the safety of fragrance materials, and their combination in mixtures, for the consumers of fragranced products.”
However, some health advocates point to growing evidence that perfumes, hair gels and other fragranced products may contain chemicals such as phthalates, which can disrupt hormones. In addition, they point to other compounds that can affect immunity, the nervous system, or play a role in cancer and other health problems.
“Even if the general population isn’t likely to suffer acute effects from exposure to fragrances, there are long-term chronic health effects connected to these chemicals that we don’t fully understand yet,” says Loewenherz.
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. They need only label them as containing “fragrance.”
That’s a problem for the medical profession when it comes to allergies, says dermatologist Howard Maibach, a professor of dermatology at the University of California at San Francisco. The large quantity and variety of chemicals can make it difficult to pinpoint causes of allergies or irritation.
Potentially harmful ingredients
The rising tide of fragrances in myriad products, from skin lotions and tissues to cleaning products and candles, is adding to the problem, says Loewenherz. Because some 95 percent of perfume ingredients are synthesized from petrochemicals, they give off volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, which are also found in vapors emitted from toxic products like solvents, wood preservatives, paint strippers and dry cleaning chemicals.
VOCs are known to produce eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, liver damage, and harm to the kidneys and central nervous system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals and 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.
A widespread problem?
Betty Bridges, director of the says that some 72 percent of asthmatics react adversely to perfumes and at least 35 million Americans are afflicted with allergies.
Bridges supported the when it commissioned an independent laboratory to test Calvin Klein’s Eternity, one of several fragrances most problematic for fragrance sufferers. Tests revealed that the perfume contained more than 40 compounds, among them diethyl phthalate, an irritant and suspected hormone disruptor that is absorbed through the skin. The lab that conducted the tests, found the chemical made up about 10 percent of the fragrance portion of the perfume, says Bridges. The fragrance also included synthetic musks, which are suspected animal carcinogens and may stimulate human cancer tumors.
Bridges says that while searching the chemical data sheets for compounds in the fragrance, the researchers often found the individual chemicals carried this phrase: “The chemical, physical, and toxicological properties have not been thoroughly investigated.”
The presence of these chemicals ought to be more than simply a concern for the chemically sensitive since fragrances are so ubiquitous in our society, says Bridges.
To voice her concerns, Bridges signed a May 1999 petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration, asking for the perfume to be labeled as “untested for safety.”
Name brand products tested
Bridges and EHN aren’t the only ones concerned about the safety of perfume. Last May, a group of environmental and public health organizations, led by the commissioned a national laboratory to test 72 name brand beauty products for the presence of phthalates, a large family of industrial chemicals that have been linked to birth defects.
Their report, revealed phthalates in about 75 percent of the products tested (52 out of 72 products), including hair gels, deodorants, hair sprays, mousses, body lotions, and in all of the 17 fragrances tested.
Phthalates have also been targeted for concern by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In releasing its second national “human exposure” study, the CDC found that phthalates were among the chemicals found to accumulate in body organs.
Jim Pirkle, deputy director of science for the environmental health lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that the agency was “surprised” to find such a high evidence of exposure to phthalates from personal care products in children, especially adolescents.
“It makes us want to do more studies to see if the levels they’re exposed to are comparable to the levels causing problems in animals,” says Pirkle.
Phthalates, which are estrogenic or anti-androgenic, are of concern, said Pirkle, who added that more health studies are needed to determine whether Americans are getting overdosed with these chemicals.
Concerns were heightened in November when Harvard University School of Public Health investigators found a link between sperm damage and monoethyl phthalate, a compound used to maintain the color and scent in many cosmetic items such as perfumes, colognes and hair spray. But Marian Stanley, manager of the a chemical trade group, says the study results, while worth taking seriously, were at variance with many other animal studies.
The question remains: if there is a significant health risk posed by fragrances, shouldn’t the government be regulating them? Because cosmetics are legally defined as products not intended to affect the body’s functions as drugs are, the FDA does not require any pre-market safety testing of cosmetics or fragrances to the extent that the agency would a drug.
“Only drugs are pre-tested,” says an FDA spokesperson. “Cosmetics are treated less strictly.”
Essentially, protection lies in the hands of the fragrance industry. Glenn Roberts, spokesperson for the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, an industry-sponsored group that does voluntary testing of chemicals, says 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; RIFM does it’s own safety testing of chemicals; and many fragrance and cosmetics companies do their own testing,” says Roberts.
In addition, the FDA collects complaints from consumers, “and from their records, that’s less than 1 complaint per million users,” adds Roberts.
Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and author of “Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest” (Workman, 1998). She recently finished a report on the health effects of the Sept. 11 attacks titled “Messages in the Dust,” which will be available online at