Synthetic Perfumes & Health

Most people are unaware that almost all the main-stream perfumes are made with ingredients derived from petrochemicals. Many aroma-chemicals can harm human health and pose a serious threat to the environment.

Some of these fragrance chemicals can go directly into the bloodstream when applied to the skin and can also be absorbed into the skin from your clothing.

Historically, materials used in fragrance were obtained from plant or animal sources. Today, materials from animal sources are rarely used in perfumes or scented products which are mass marketed. Oils from plants are still used but have been largely replaced with synthetics. The large majority of perfumery chemicals are synthetic, with over 80-90% are synthesized from petroleum products or by-products. Synthetic chemicals are used in the fragrance industry because of availability and cost factors.

Around 80-90% of the materials used in perfumery are chemically synthesized (1). And, 84% of these ingredients have never been tested for human toxicity or have been tested only minimally (2).

A combination of aroma chemicals that can smell just the same as its natural counterpart is much cheaper, but it carries the scent needed whether be of flowers, fruits, spices, green leaves, plants, freshness of oceans, woods and forests. Perfumes made using toxic chemicals are, in fact, as romantic as hazardous waste.

The eight major starting materials for the synthesis of aroma chemicals are:

  1. Turpentine sulfate
  2. C2-C5 petrochemicals
  3. Benzene
  4. Phenol
  5. Toluene
  6. Xylenes
  7. Cresols
  8. Naphthalene

The smell of Rose found and advertised in modern perfumes, is synthetically created by using aroma chemicals such as citronellol, geraniol, linalool and nerol, which are synthesized from turpentine sulfate on an industrial scale.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, naphthalene, and toluene are released into the air, and semi-volatile compounds such as phthalates found in synthetic perfumes latch on to the dust and float into breathing spaces. The potential implications can be subtle but very significant.

In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. The other groups include insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives and certain air pollutants. The report states that 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. They include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and many other known toxics and sensitizers – capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. "Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace" (Report by the Committee on Science and Technology. U.S. House of Representatives, Sept, 16, 1986) [Report 99-827] 

In 1989, the US National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) identified 884 of 2,983 fragrance chemicals as toxic substances. Some of these were capable of causing birth defects, central nervous system disorders, cancer, eye and skin symptoms, and causing broad chemical sensitization (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity).
Wilkenfeld, I.R.: Scents Make No Sense. The Environmental Physician. Fall,1991.
In 1992, the US Food and Drug Administration did chemical analyses on a number of products. The report is called, "Polar Organic Compounds in Fragrances of Consumer Products". Please visit the following website to read this lengthy report:


  1. Laszlo P. Somogyi, Birgitta Rhomberg, Yasuhiko Sakuma Aroma Chemicals and the Flavour and Fragrance Industry, Chemical Economics Handbook.) p. 503.5000 A. 1992
  2. N. Ashford, Ph.D. and C. Miller, M.D. Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes 1991, p. 61)