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Top 5 Toxic Chemicals in Perfume

April 03, 20239 min read

But chances are that sensual, warm, irresistible, head-turning perfume that also somehow reminds you of flowers after a spring rain has loads of toxins in it. Because it, like so many perfumes, is concocted from any number of the fragrance industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients. And as the consumer, we’ll never know which chemicals are included. Because fragrance companies are not legally required to list their ingredients on the labels.

By simply using the single term “fragrance”, these companies can legally use over 400 ingredients in order to ‘protect’ their trade formulas. And, hey, I understand the business side of this. Companies have to protect their formula, but there’s gotta be a better way that doesn’t involve hiding toxic ingredients that can potentially harm our health. 

Popular perfume companies often market their scents by using terms such as “floral,” “exotic,” or “musky,” but they don’t tell us that those scents are typically a complex cocktail of synthetic chemicals - often petrochemicals. Petrochemicals are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum & natural gas. Which, keep in mind, petroleum based chemicals have been found to have significant effects on the nervous system and immune system. Medical research has linked them to child & adult cancers, neurological disorders, autoimmune disorders, asthma, allergies, infertility, miscarriage, & child behavior disorders including learning disabilities and hyperactivity. 

On average, between 80% and 100% of fragrance formulations are composed of these chemicals. And not just petrochemicals. It’s been found that perfumes often contain chemicals that are listed on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste List, including: carcinogenic chemicals, known neurotoxins, respiratory irritants, phthalates, narcotics, and so much more. 

It wasn’t always this way. Perfumes used to be made from natural ingredients like flowers & herbs. But between the late 70s and early 80s, perfume formulations changed and, today, they are approximately 95-100% synthetically made using crude oil or turpentine oil as their base. 

Our skin then absorbs these man-made chemicals either by direct application, contact with fragranced items, or by exposure through the air - all of which can accumulate in our body, potentially causing harm.

Let’s take it back.

In 1986, the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrance as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given priority for neurotoxicity testing. This came after animal studies linked fragrance ingredient p-cymene to headaches, weakness, & irritability, along with the reduction in number and density of brain synapses.

In 1991, the EPA conducted a study and found:

“…Identification of Polar Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Micro-environments, found numerous chemicals commonly used in fragrance products, including, among others: acetone; benzaldehyde; benzyl acetate; benzyl alcohol; camphor; ethanol; ethyl acetate; limonene; linalool; methylene chloride, one or all of which, or in combination with one  another, cause, when inhaled, ‘central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, incoordination, slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract, kidney damage, headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other symptoms and illnesses. Material Safety Data Sheets on each chemical confirm these findings.”


“Toluene (methyl benzene) was detected in fragrance samples and collected by the EPA in 1991. Toluene is a ‘hazardous waste.’ It is flammable and volatile, it attacks the central nervous system, blood, liver, kidneys, eyes, and skin, and it serves as an asthma trigger….Methylene chloride is also found in pesticides and septic tank cleaners.”

Hm…all of a sudden that sensual, warm, irresistible, head-turning perfume that also somehow reminds you of flowers after a spring rain aint sounding so great.

Fast forward to today…

The Top 5 Chemical Ingredients in Popular Fragrances Include:


Styrene is a flammable liquid that’s used to make polystyrene plastics, fiberglass, rubber, and latex. In 2011, it was declared an ‘anticipated human carcinogen’ by the National Toxicology Program and the National Academy of Science. With long term exposure, styrene is known to cause central nervous system and kidney effects, headaches, depression, fatigue & weakness, hearing loss, balance & concentration problems, and cancer.


Phthalates are a family of industrial chemicals used as solvents in cosmetics and other consumer products. They are known to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs, and reproductive system. Recent studies in human populations confirm the adverse impacts of phthalates on male reproductive tract development first identified in many experimental animal studies. A systematic review also finds that higher exposures are associated with sperm abnormalities and lower testosterone levels. 

Recent studies also show that prenatal exposure to phthalates is associated with adverse impacts on neurodevelopment, including lower IQ, and problems with attention and hyperactivity, and poorer social communication. 


Musk ketone is a synthetic compound with a typical musk odor that’s widely used in cosmetics. In a 2010 study, 17 tested fragrances contained an average of four hormone-disrupting ingredients each, including synthetic musks and diethyl phthalate. Synthetic musks mimic and displace natural hormones, which can potentially disrupt important endocrine and biological processes. High levels of musk ketone in women’s blood may also be associated with gynecological abnormalities such as ovarian failure and infertility. Synthetic musks have also been linked to brain cell degeneration. 


Benzyl acetate is a compound that has a sweet aroma, similar to jasmine. It’s used a ton in making perfume and cosmetics for its aroma and in flavorings to impart apple and pear flavors. Benzyl acetate is also used as a solvent in plastics and resin, cellulose acetate, nitrate, oils, lacquers, polishes and inks. The downside here is… it’s a known carcinogen, particularly causing pancreatic cancer.


Methylene chloride is a solvent which is used in many different types of work activities, such as paint stripping, polyurethane foam manufacturing, cleaning, and degreasing. Since 1994, this ingredient has been known to increase the risk of developing cancer; adverse effects on the heart, central nervous system & liver; and skin or eye irritation. It’s also long been labeled as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. The FDA banned this ingredient in perfumes in 1988 due to such severe toxicity, however, the ban isn’t enforced very well as it may still be found in labels listing “fragrance” as an ingredient.

Let’s dig deeper.

The Environmental Working Group analyzed 17 name brand fragrance products for ‘secret’ chemicals, meaning chemicals that were not listed under the ingredients of the product (and therefore fell under ‘fragrance’). The average product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. Among them are known hormone disruptors and many chemicals that haven’t been assessed for safety in personal care products.


More specifically, the study found that 66% of these ‘secret chemicals’ found have NOT been assessed by any governing body for their safety or toxicity to humans.


Not only are these chemicals intentionally kept off the label, but we literally have no idea what effect they could have on our health. 

According to an EWG analysis, the fragrance industry published safety assessments for only 34% of the unlabeled ingredients found in the study. The rest of the chemicals ranged from food additives whose safety in perfumes has not been assessed to chemicals with limited public safety data.

To make matters worse, the FDA lacks the authority to require manufacturers to test cosmetics for safety, including fragranced products, before they are sold to consumers. As a result, people using perfume, cologne, body spray and other scented cosmetics like lotion and aftershave are unknowingly exposed to chemicals that may increase their risk for certain health problems.

  • 38 secret chemicals were identified in the 17 name-brand products, with an average of 14 secret chemicals per product. American Eagle Seventy Seven contained 24 secret chemicals, nearly twice the average found in other products tested.

  • The products tested contained an average of 10 chemicals that are known to be sensitizers and can trigger allergic reactions such as asthma, wheezing, headaches, and contact dermatitis. All of these were listed on product labels. Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio contained 19 different sensitizing chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions, more than any other product tested.

  • Multiple hormone disruptors: A total of 12 different hormone-disrupting chemicals were found in the tested products, with an average of four in each product. Three products each contained seven different chemicals with the potential to disrupt the hormone system: Halle by Halle Berry, Quicksilver, and Jennifer Lopez J. Lo Glow. In each product, six of these chemicals mimic the hormone estrogen, and the seventh is associated with thyroid effects. Some of these potential hormone disruptors were listed on labels; others were undisclosed and were uncovered in product testing.

  • Widespread use of chemicals that have not been assessed for safety: A review of government records shows that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not assessed the vast majority of fragrance ingredients in personal care products for safety. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-funded and self policing body, has assessed only 19 of the 91 ingredients listed on labels or found in testing for the 17 products assessed in this study. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which develop and set voluntary standards for chemicals in the “fragrance” component of products, have assessed only 27 of the 91 ingredients listed on labels or found in testing for the 17 products assessed in this study, based on a review of assessments published in the past 25 years.


Ya’ll. We have the right to know what chemicals we’re being exposed to. We have the right to know what companies are hiding in our products & how that affects our health.

But until serious laws are passed and things change…

What can we do?


Avoid any product that doesn’t fully disclose ALL of its ingredients. Keep in mind that if a product lists “fragrance” or “perfume” on the label, that scent can be made with pretty much any chemical or any ingredient.


Use the EWG’s Skin Deep database. When you’re reading a label and come across a chemical or the name of an ingredient you don’t recognize - search it on their website. You’ll get some great information on the toxicity level of that specific ingredient.


You can still smell like that sensual, warm, irresistible, head-turning perfume that also somehow reminds you of flowers after a spring rain… without the toxic ingredients. Some of my faves:

  • Rare Earth Naturals provides 100% natural essential oil based aromas, candles, diffusers and more. Artisan-crafted in small batches, these products are made in the USA with products that are safe, synthetic free and responsibly sourced.

  • Red Flower Scents: They sell an organic perfume concentrate and organic perfume oil roll-on.

  • Qet Botanicals : They have botanical nectars that are clean, organically harvested, & made with 100% natural ingredients.

Check out my free guide ‘50 Earth-Friendly Products with Less Than 5 Ingredients’ to discover more non-toxic options!

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The Discovery Doc - Dr. CeCe Brooks - Atlanta Holistic NP

non-toxic living
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Dr. CeCe

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