The Toxic Effects of Perfume

If you’ve walked through a department store lately, you may have overwhelmed by the perfume section.  Whether you are obsessed with Obsession, a believer in Believe, or consumed by L’Air du Temps, the smell of perfumes and colognes can be overwhelming.  The toxic effects of fragrances can also be overwhelming.

There are over 500 potential chemicals that can be used under the single name “fragrance” found on the label of many products, not just perfumes and colognes.  Fragrances are found in “air fresheners,” room deodorizers, cosmetics, fabric softeners, laundry detergents, candles, and many other places.  Manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on the labels of these products, nor do they have to reveal the specific ingredients that qualify as “fragrance” to regulating authorities because they are protected as trade secrets.

Some of the most common chemicals in perfumes are ethanol, acetaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, a-pinene, acetone, benzyl alcohol, ethyl acetate, linalool, a-terpinene, methylene chloride, styrene oxide, dimenthyl sulphate, a-terpineol, camphor, and limonene.  Some of these chemicals cause irritability, mental vagueness, muscle pain, asthma, bloating, joint aches, sinus pain, fatigue, sore throat, eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, laryngitis, headaches, dizziness, swollen lymph nodes, spikes in blood pressure, coughing, and burning or itching skin irritations.

And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Acetaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen.  In animal studies, it crosses the placenta to a fetus.  The chemical industry’s own Toxic Data Safety Sheets list headaches, tremors, convulsions, and even death as a possible effect of exposure to acetonitrile, another common fragrance ingredient.  In animal studies, styrene oxide causes depression.  Toluene (also known as methyl benzene) is a well established neurotoxin that can cause loss of muscle control, brain damage, headaches, memory loss, and problems with speech, hearing, and vision.  Musk tetralin (AETT) has been shown to cause brain cell and spinal cord degeneration.

Research confirms that many of the ingredients in fragrances are neurotoxins, meaning that they have poisonous effects on the brain and nervous system.  Additional studies link other negative emotional, mental, and physical symptoms to various fragrance ingredients.  Until recently, scientists believed that the brain was protected by an impermeable mechanism known as the “blood-brain barrier.”  This is only partly true.  Recent studies show that this system allows many environmental toxins including those found in perfumes and other scented products access to the delicate brain, and that once found in the brain can take decades to eliminate – decades that can result in substantial damage in the form of inflammation and plaque build up in the brain – two of the precursors to serious brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Some fragrance ingredients disrupt our natural hormonal balance, causing any number of possible emotional concerns, including:  anxiety, mood swings, and depression.  Feeling down?  It could be the scent you’re wearing.  Even if you can’t smell perfumes, you may be suffering ill effects from exposure.

Not all scented products were created equally.  Commercial brands of perfumes and colognes primarily comprise synthetic chemicals.  Even many natural products contain synthetic fragrance ingredients so it’s important to start reading labels on personal care products.  If there’s no ingredient list, the manufacturer may have something to hide.  Also, beware of “fragrance oils” masquerading as essential oils.  The former is synthetic, while the latter are derived from flowers, leaves, and other natural substances.

Shakespeare claimed: “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Thanks to today’s chemical industry, that is no longer true.  Worse than that, the potential health effects are anything but sweet.

Resources:  For more information about the studies cited or regarding the toxic ingredients in perfumes, fabric softeners and dryer sheets, and other household and personal care products, consult my book: The Brain Wash: A Powerful, All-Natural Program to Protect Your Brain Against Alzheimer’s, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression, Parkinson’s and other Diseases.


Frances G
Frances Gabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing

Anna R
Anna R1 months ago

Thanks for the article

Olivia M
Past Member 2 months ago

thank you

W. C
W. Cabout a year ago


William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

hillary Puro
hillary Puro1 years ago

Wonderful article, just disappointed that you left out the fragrances in laundry detergents, and dryer sheets which are some of the worst products and offenders. People need to know how dangerous these are, and how sick they make many people. thank you for the article it is helpful to educate people .

heather g
heather g1 years ago

It is not at all clear whether all perfumes contain all these toxins. Surely, after all your research, it would be helpful to recommend some perfumes that are safe.

Julie Pham
Julie Pham1 years ago


Nia L
Nia L.2 years ago

I just found this because I have been getting sicker and feeling dizzier since a coworker started a multiple daily dose of a heavily perfumed hand lotion. The coughing, sneezing, throat tightening and nasty taste in my mouth that it leaves are least of my worries. It is the constant headache, ringing in my ears, dizziness and unusual clumsiness, even on weekends that scared me. From this first google hit for “can a perfume act as a neurotoxin” confirms a suspicion. I will be purchasing a respirator that is rated for VOCs so I can do my job and protect my health.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.