Secondhand Fragrance Contamination: A Public Health Problem

by John P. Thomas
Health Impact News

Secondhand fragrance contamination should be the number one health problem being addressed by the public health system in America, but it doesn’t even show up on the list of current priorities. Some people love the smell of chemical fragrances, but 30.5% of the general population find the smell irritating. Another 19% reported adverse health effects from breathing air that was contaminated with these odors. [1]

Thirty years ago, we were facing the need to address secondhand tobacco smoke. Today, the problem we must face is secondhand fragrances which come from perfume, cologne, air fresheners, scented laundry products, and hundreds of other products containing fragrances. The dangers of secondhand cigarette smoke have been well established. Both public and private organizations have policies that limit smoking to outdoor locations or to personal spaces such as private cars and residences.

However, the use of perfume, cologne, air fresheners, and scented laundry products has become so commonplace that the indoor air quality of public spaces is more toxic than it was when people could freely smoke tobacco wherever and whenever they wished. The term “secondhand fragrance” is used to describe the combination of smells that are released into the public air space from the scented products that people use on their skin, hair, and clothing. It also includes products that intentionally add fragrance to the air such as air fresheners and scented candles. The fragrances are called “secondhand,” because a decision of one person to use fragrances pollutes the air for everyone. People who don’t use fragrances, or who can’t tolerate fragrances, are then forced to breathe the contaminated air that everyone shares.

Fragrances are Synthetic and Artificial

When you see the word “fragrance” on a product label or in the list of product ingredients, then this means that the scent you smell is synthetic. Fragrances are manufactured from petroleum or coal tar by the use of chemistry. This is why they are called synthetic or artificial.

In common speech, we might say “A rose is fragrant.” However, the smell of a rose in your garden is not a “fragrance.” If you were to capture the essential oil from a living rose blossom through distillation, you would not have created a fragrance. You would have extracted an essential oil.

If you want to create a rose scented fragrance, then you start with some petroleum (think motor oil) and then add chemicals in the exact proportion that is needed to transform motor oil into a product that smells similar to a rose.

Perfume, cologne, and products that indicate that they contain fragrance are made from a combination of manufactured chemical compounds. Solvents and other chemicals are added to the mixture in the attempt to make the fragrance behave as if it was an essential oil derived directly from a plant. Please see these Health Impact News articles for additional information about essential oils and fragrances:

Heavenly Scents or Toxic Fumes – Are your Fragrances Healing or Killing You?

Using Essential Oils to Cure Disease

A ¼ ounce bottle of perfume that sells for $150.00 is a combination of alcohol and chemically transformed petroleum. Sometimes it might contain a tiny percentage of essential oil.

Sometimes fragrances are called “natural,” “green,” or sometimes even “organic.” It doesn’t matter what word is used to describe the word fragrance, it is always a chemical concoction that has been synthesized from petroleum, coal tar, or some other inexpensive raw ingredient.

Thus, throughout the remainder of this article, when you see the word “fragrance,” you can be sure that I am referring to a man-made product that scientists have engineered. It is a product that has been formulated for the sake of marketability. The word “fragrance” will never be used to refer to essential oils.

Tobacco Smoke and Perfume are Chemically Similar

The chemical composition of tobacco smoke is similar to the chemical composition of artificial fragrances. In large part, this similarity comes from the fact that tobacco products contain fragrances. The distinctive aromas of different brands of tobacco are largely related to the synthetic chemicals that are mixed into the tobacco.

Tobacco smoke and secondhand fragrances both cause people with chemical sensitivity to become seriously ill when they are exposed to these toxic substances. [2]

A Serious Public Health Problem

Health Impact News recently discussed the problem of secondhand fragrances with Dr. Anne Steinemann. Dr. Steinemann is an internationally recognized scientist who helps people create healthier living and working environments. She stated:

In my epidemiological studies, I found that nearly 30% of the US population experiences adverse health effects when they are exposed to fragranced products. [3]

Translating this into actual lives of people, we see that approximately 95 million adults and children in America experience health problems caused by the chemicals that other people put on their skin, their hair, and on their clothing. Nearly 13% of the entire US population reports extreme sensitivity to low levels of common chemicals. [4]

These chemicals, which include fragrances, cause a variety of  negative reactions, including: exhaustion, weakness, “hay fever” symptoms, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, confusion, headaches, rashes, swollen lymph glands, muscle aches and spasms, heart palpitations, nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, asthma attacks (inability to breathe), neuromotor dysfunction, seizures, and even loss of consciousness. Babies and children are even more vulnerable to these negative health reactions than are adults. The elderly and people trying to recover from cancer and other serious illnesses are particularly at risk when exposed.

The fragrances in these products are chemical concoctions that are toxic to all people. [5] Almost all perfume and cologne sold today is derived from petroleum and coal tar. They are not made from flowers and sweet-smelling plants as advertising suggests. Even very expensive perfumes may be made from 95% synthetic ingredients.

Fragrances and other hazardous chemicals are also present in most laundry detergents, fabric softeners, anti-cling products, dishwashing liquids, disinfectants, aerosol air fresheners, solid and plug-in air fresheners, most all scented candles and potpourri, bath soap, shampoos and other hair products, deodorants, cosmetics, suntan/sunscreen lotions, incense, analgesic creams, and lip balms. All these products release fragrances into the air and are sources of secondhand fragrance contamination. They are called secondhand fragrances as people who don’t want to smell them are forced to be exposed because of the choices that another person has made.

In addition to the common respiratory condition of asthma, which is often triggered by smelling fragrances, many people suffer debilitating symptoms of an environmentally caused illness. Types of environmental illness include: chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), and fibromyalgia. The common thread between all of these environmental illnesses is that very small amounts of chemicals in the air cause severe disabling illness.

30% of the 700,000 veterans that served in the 1990 Persian Gulf War have undiagnosed illnesses believed to be linked to a variety of chemical exposures that occurred during the war. [6] The health condition of many of these veterans is worsened when they breathe airborne chemicals such as fragrances.

First responders to the World Trade Center tower destruction, as well as Manhattan residents and workers, report high levels of chemical sensitivity because of their high level of chemical exposure from smoke during the weeks and months when the rubble of the towers burned and smoldered. [7]

Common Myth: It’s only a Smell – It Won’t Hurt You

Any molecular substance that becomes airborne can enter the nasal passages and come in contact with receptor sites used for perceiving smell. Regardless of the toxicity of the substances we smell, some substances bypass the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain. This means that there is a constant flow of substances entering your brain whether or not your brain can identify the name of the substance. As soon as you smell perfume, air fresheners, scented candles, laundry detergent or dryer sheets, you have already absorbed them into your body.

If you sit in a room or ride in a car constantly breathing in these substances hour after hour, you are loading-up your body with these chemicals with every breath. Even if you have lost your ability to smell the fragrances in the laundry products you use, you are absorbing them 24-hours-a-day through your nose, lungs, and skin, because the chemical fragrances are in all of your clothing, bedding, and towels.

The Skin is not an Impenetrable Barrier

Many chemicals, such as those found in fragrances, common skincare products, and laundry products can pass through the skin and enter the blood stream.

The Nose Can be Deceived

In addition to the solvents, carcinogenic compounds, and the narcotic-and-hormone-like chemicals in synthetic fragrances, some products such as air fresheners, scented laundry detergent, and dryer sheets also contain chemicals that mask or cover-up smell. The masking fragrances prevent people from smelling lingering body odors, old rancid smells, or the unpleasant smells of some synthetic fabrics. Fragrance formulators also include extremely strong fragrances that the consumer can still smell despite the odor masking chemicals.

What You don’t Know about Fragrance Ingredients can Harm You

Fragrance makers use more than 5,000 different ingredients. Of these, only about 1,300 fragrance ingredients have actually been tested and evaluated. 16 percent of the colognes, fragrances, and perfumes reviewed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) contain carcinogenic ingredients. The EWG also reported that there were 38 secret chemicals found in 17 brand name perfumes that they tested. [8]

The Perfume Industry will Resist Efforts to Limit Public Fragrance Use

The perfume industry is a very big business with extremely high profit margins. They make a lot of money and they provide high profitability to the retailers who handle their products.

The Los Angeles Times reported the financial profitability of the perfume business in a 1988 article. The profitability has not changed significantly since that time. The LA Times article was validated by a 2012 interview with a perfume manufacturer. [9] The LA Times stated:

The actual liquid in a typical bottle of $150 perfume is less than 1% of the retail cost. The bottle, box and display carton typically cost four to six times more than the fragrance itself. Manufacturers pay premium prices for special stoppers, sometimes as much as for the bottle. They also pay for decorating the bottle and for filling, shipping and packing it. All these extraneous costs might bring the cost of a filled bottle to about $20. Consider shrinkage and product overruns and add 50 cents.

But the costs keep mounting – those women in the stores who spritz – the salespeople behind the counter. Their salaries are augmented by the fragrance companies. The salespeople get a commission on every bottle they sell. The companies also provide the tester samples.

Then consider the advertising costs. Department stores typically mark up the product from 60% to 100%.

 Experts agree that the profit margin on a $150 bottle of perfume is low, when all costs are taken into consideration. Higher profits come from sales of colognes whose ingredients, bottling and packaging costs is about half as much as those of perfumes. And far more bottles are sold; according to industry sources, cologne accounts for at least 65% of most fragrance firms’ sales. [10]

Secondhand Fragrances are More Intense than Secondhand Tobacco Smoke

Fragrances pollute the air to a greater extent than smoke from tobacco users, because the use of scented products is much more common than tobacco use.

Almost everyone launders their clothing in detergent containing fragrance. People add fabric softeners with fragrance, and then add chemical coated antistatic dryer sheets with additional fragrance to the clothes dryer. All of these laundry products leave high levels of fragrance residue and other toxic chemicals in clothing. These fragrances don’t stay in clothing, but are released into the air all day long when they are worn. Many people are unaware of this fact, because their constant exposure to the smell has dulled their ability to perceive the specific fragrance.

On top of this, 85% of women still wear perfume, though the number may be falling. [11] Additionally, over 60% of men use cologne and aftershave. [12] Finally, most public restrooms have some type of air freshener and almost all will have scented hand soap. All of this secondhand chemical pollution makes life very difficult for the millions of Americans who become ill when exposed to fragrances.

It is Time to Clean Up the Air in Public Buildings and in Local Neighborhoods

In terms of national health, we are facing a huge public health challenge. We are at the beginning of a process that will need to transform the way people think about fragrance. Some users of scented products are becoming aware of how their use of fragrance can be harmful to other people, which is wonderful to see! However, most people are unaware of the hazards associated with their use of scented products.

The greatest challenge to cleaning up public air is perfume addiction. Daily users of perfume, cologne, and highly scented laundry products are commonly addicted to the chemicals in these products. This is true for all segments of society including public health professionals and medical care professionals. The offices of most healthcare providers continue to be saturated with synthetic fragrances from cleaning products, air fresheners, and perfume worn by staff, even though there is growing documentation that this presents a problem for patients.


Air contamination in public spaces, caused by perfume, cologne, and other scented products, is forcing many people to avoid all forms of public gatherings, to give up jobs, leave school, and retreat into economic collapse and social isolation. In situations where neighborhood air quality is poor because of pollution from dryer vents, many people must even give up living in community settings.

People who are highly sensitive to fragrances find that the only way to ensure that they can feel good is to avoid being exposed to all forms of fragrance and other toxic chemicals. Thus, they must avoid people who use perfume, cologne, and scented body care products. They must also avoid people who use scented laundry products, fabric softeners, and chemical dryer sheets. They must avoid places where air fresheners, scented candles, and scented cleaning products are used. They cannot shop in stores that intentionally disperse fragrance into the air. Sometimes even being on the sidewalk outside of a store that sells nothing but scented candles is enough to cause a serious reaction. Public laundromats are particularly hazardous if they vent dryer exhaust into the outside air without filtering the chemicals from the products.

The good news is that a small number of schools, colleges, businesses, hospitals, airports, churches, and even cities have enacted fragrance-free policies. This is the beginning of a trend that will limit the use of fragrances to private nonpublic spaces. This may be somewhat of a challenge to some people since many perfumes are designed to last for 16 hours or longer, which means that people may need to plan their perfume use according to whether they will be going out into public spaces. Of course, the best alternative is to turn away from the toxic scents and become fragrance-free.

There is another option. People who are made sick by fragrances can ask that their friends, neighbors, and work colleagues help them by discontinuing their use of fragrances. To really clean the air in public spaces, it will be necessary for everyone to stop using fragrances on their bodies, and to remove scented products from their homes, their automobiles, and from the workplace. Such requests, however, are rarely successful because of the addictive power of synthetic fragrances. The typical person who uses large amounts of fragranced products will be strongly addicted to the chemicals in the products and will be highly resistant to using fragrance-free products or discontinuing the use of perfume and cologne. A detailed discussion of fragrance addiction will be covered in a future article.


[1] Caress SM1 and Steinemann AC, “Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population,” J Environ Health., March 2009, PMID: 19326669.

[2] Caress SM1, Steinemann AC, and Waddick C., “Symptomatology and etiology of multiple chemical sensitivities in the southeastern United States,” Arch Environ Health. 2002 Sep-Oct, PMID: 12641185.

[3] John P. Thomas interviewed Dr. Steinemann by phone on 6/5/2014.

[4] “More than 12 Percent of Population Reports Extreme Sensitivity to Low Levels of Common Chemicals,” National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Environmental Health Perspectives Press Release, September 11, 2003,

[5] “Undisclosed Ingredients,” Dr. Anne Steinemann, 2013.

[6] This statistic was attributed to a September 2006 Institute of Medicine report. It was provided in a personal e-mail response received from Paul Davidson, Executive Director, NGWRC & VMW (The National Gulf War Resource Center and the Veterans of Modern Warfare) in 2007.

[7] World Trade Tower Environmental Organization.

[8] “Perfumed Poison: the Hidden Dangers of Fragrances,”, Posted on September 3rd, 2010.

[9] “The Price of Luxury Perfume,” Bois de Jasmin, February 22, 2012.

[10] “$150 for $1.50 Worth of Perfume,” Paddy Calistro, Los Angeles Times, November 13, 1988.

[11] “The Sweet Smell of    … Nothing,” Natasha Singer, New York Times, February 14, 2008.

[12] “The NPD Group Reports on Men’s Fragrance Usage,” 2013.
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