The Dangers of Fragrance

The word "fragrance" can sound fairly innocuous, even pleasant.  But could fragrances found in common household products be harmful to you or your family?  Many people are discovering that they are sensitive to the fragrances used in their laundry detergent, shampoo, or body lotions.  Some people who find these fragrances on their skin, hair, and clothing develop allergic reactions to one or more chemicals used in these products.  Others who are especially sensitive may even be bothered by the chemical fragrances on other people in close quarters, such as in an office or on public transportation.

Chemical sensitivity(sensitivities) are beginning to be taken seriously by many organizations, even major institutions such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).  A June 2009 CDC indoor environmental quality policy encouraged its employees "to be as fragrance-free as possible" when they arrive at work: "Fragrance is not appropriate for a professional work environment, and the use of some products with fragrance may be detrimental to the health of workers with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, and chronic headaches/migraines."


Chemical Sensitivity

People can be sensitive to one or multiple chemicals.  Since many people sensitive to one chemical are usually sensitive to others, we will refer to Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in this post although the same experiences and symptoms can be generated by a sensitivity to a single chemical.

What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

Although multiple chemical sensitivity is officially recognized as a condition in other countries such as Germany and Austria, the phenomenon remains misunderstood and controversial in the U.S. Because different chemicals trigger different reactions in different people, multiple chemical sensitivity can be difficult to define clearly across the board.

WebMD advises that the symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity can be wide-ranging:  "They include headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, congestion, itching, sneezing, sore throat, chest pain, changes in heart rhythm, breathing problems, muscle pain or stiffness, skin rash, diarrhea, bloating, gas, confusion, trouble concentrating, memory problems, and mood changes."   These symptoms usually appear within 24 to 48 hours of exposure, but could manifest themselves as late as a week after exposure.

Some of the most common chemical allergy symptoms include:

  • red skin
  • scaly patches
  • blisters that  ooze
  • burning or itching which may be intense
  • swelling of the eyes, face and genital area
  • hives
  • sun sensitivity
  • darkened, "leathery", and "cracked skin"

Just because multiple chemical sensitivity is a complex condition doesn't mean that it shouldn't be taken seriously.  Indeed, suspicions of chemical sensitivities or allergies (which are separate from sensitivities) can be confirmed in the laboratory with a simple blood test.

What Makes "Fragrance" such a Dangerous Word?

Take a look at the ingredient labels for soaps, shampoos, or other harsh cleaning products in your home.  There's a very good chance that the word "fragrance" is listed under the inactive ingredients.  But that one word is likely standing in for many different chemicals.  Because fragrances are considered proprietary, the FDA doesn't require all of their ingredients to be disclosed.  When independent laboratories test these fragrances, they often find that they contain dozens of chemicals.  Not only are these chemicals absorbed by the skin, they can be inhaled and ingested, causing allergic skin reactions and worse: damage to sperm, disruption of hormones, and respiratory disorders.  So even if you aren't sensitive to the chemicals in fragrances, the healthy choice would be to avoid them altogether.

Many brands have taken notice and have created products designed to cater to people's preference to be fragrance-free.  But be sure that you read the ingredient label carefully when choosing so-called fragrance-free products.  Just the other day I almost bought a product that was labeled "unscented" only to discover that the label listed "fragrance" as and ingredient!   How can this be?

It turns out that products don't need to be fragrance-free to be labeled as "unscented".  Manufacturers are aware that the word has gotten out about the dangers of fragrance, and they are seeking to cash in on the fragrance-free movement, even if it involves deceptive practices.  As of this writing, I am unaware of anything being done to protect consumers from bait-and-switch schemes like this.

Even if you don't suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity, the healthiest option is go fragrance-free.  For more information on going fragrance-free, including an extensive list of product recommendations, visit

At Essential Health Solutions in Chicago, we test for allergic reactions and sensitivities to many chemicals and additives, and we are constantly updating our list.  If you have a skin condition, asthma, or any other symptom and you are interested in learning more about what chemicals you need to avoid, please call our office at 773.878.7330 to schedule a problem focused exam.




Federal Law requires that we warn you of the following:

  1. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only.
  2. Your individual health status and any required health care treatments can only be properly addressed by a professional healthcare provider of your choice.  Remember there is no adequate substitution for a personal consultation with your chosen healthcare provider.  Therefore we encourage you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.


Last modified on Saturday, 23 January 2016 14:51