What’s in Fragrance and Parfum

what's in fragrance parfum

HINT: Mountain air and meadow flowers are not actually used in your air freshener.

We’ve been sold on the idea of a clean smell. So we use air fresheners, room sprays, plug-ins, candles and dryer sheets to add fragrance to our home. But the ingredients used to create those “Mountain Fresh”, “Spring Meadow”, and “Lavender Vanilla” scents are not as natural as their names imply. Instead, conventional fragrances are created with synthetic chemicals, some of which are known or suspected carcinogens, hormone disrupters, and asthma or allergy-inducing chemicals.

Commercials even suggest that we can leave a month’s worth of take-out containers and old gym bags in a car – but it’s OK, because there’s a product that can cover up the smell. How did we get to a place where this sounds reasonable?!

What We Know

I tried to find what ingredients make up a “fragrance” or “parfum” in common household products. On Proctor and Gamble’s website (manufacturer of products such as Swiffer, Pampers, and Tide), there’s a document with 19 pages of chemical names that are used as potential fragrance ingredients. Spot checking this list, I found hormone disruptors, potential carcinogens, and allergens.

While present in small quantities, chemical fragrance often includes phthalates to help make them last longer and dissipate the scent into the air. Phthalates are a group of chemicals also found in PVC (like shower curtains and medical tubing) and some soft plastic children’s toys. In high doses, phthalates have been found to cause cancer and fertility problems in animal studies. The Canadian Cancer Society also reports a connection with hormone disruption.

In addition, synthetic musk compounds, which are found in fragrances of common household items, are persistent environmental toxins (classified by Environment Canada), and are showing up in fish and sediments in the Great Lakes.

To make things more complex, “scent-free” or “sensitive skin” on a product doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free from fragrance. Because of the other chemicals in conventional products, some fragrance is needed so the product smells scent-free. Note that essential oils are commonly used in “natural” and DIY recipes. These are more natural than chemical fragrance ingredients, but can also trigger allergies. Consider foregoing them too, or choose high quality organic brands and always test them first for allergies and sensitivities.

What We Don’t Know

According to Ecoholic’s Adria Vasil, of the 80,000 chemicals on the market for personal care products, only 7% have received toxicological testing. Obviously no company wants to release a product that causes noticeable reactions or harm, but there are less obvious impacts that take more time to show up.

Very little is known about how these chemicals interact with each other. But scientists are finding that, especially with hormone disrupting chemicals, even the low doses in our household products are enough to cause health concerns. We also often don’t learn of ecological impacts until it’s too late (like triclosan and microbeads).

What You Can Do

Many employers are starting to adopt a scent-free policy to promote a healthier work environment and help those with allergies. Even if you don’t have known allergies, consider doing the same in your home to help avoid the potential problems with chemical fragrances. Help reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals by avoiding any product with undisclosed fragrance ingredients. These can be hiding in air fresheners (sprays, plugins, and candles), personal care products, cleaners, and laundry detergent. Train yourself to read labels – look on all sides of the package and go beyond the marketing hype.


Have you gone scent-free? What have been your challenges or wins?

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