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Is Fragrance the New Secondhand Smoke?

Raise your hand if you can relate: You step into the elevator at work and suddenly you’re hit with a wave of nausea, a pinching tightness in your head or the urge to sneeze. The culprit? Someone else’s perfume.

But is that reaction more than an allergy or sensitivity? Could those scent molecules that you’re inadvertently inhaling actually be harmful to your body and your health? Basically: Is fragrance the new secondhand smoke?

Nontoxic, green beauty brands and experts have long been evangelizing about the potential dangers of traditional scents that employ synthetic ingredients to create perfume that comes on strong, lasts all day and can envelope anyone within a ten-foot radius. “Scent is one of the senses we have no control over,” says Krystal Quinn Castro, co-founder and perfumer at Los Feliz Botanicals. “You don’t like what you see? Look away. Coworkers being too noisy? Put in earphones. But if you are trapped sitting next to someone with an overpowering fragrance, there’s no escaping it—and then you smell like it when you go home! There have been many times that I’ve experienced headaches, sneezing and nausea caused by someone else’s fragrance.”

Susannah Compton, founder and perfumer at Florescent, agrees. “Long before I discovered botanical fragrance, I had stopped using or enjoying most perfume,” she says. “The slightest exposure to the wrong scent would trigger severe headaches… [When the only high-end fragrance I could wear] was reformulated, I broke up with perfume, thinking there was nothing out there for me that wouldn’t make me feel ill.”

Can fragrance be harmful to our health?

But it’s not just sensitive people who may have had to break up with scents. Synthetic scents are potentially harmful to our bodies because our systems don’t recognize them. Amy Galper, executive director and founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy, says that these synthetically created molecules—meaning created in lab by chemists—are often derived from petrochemicals and other chemical classes that research has shown to be concerning for our health. “Simply put, these molecules enter our bloodstream/bodies (if applied topically) and have an almost impossible time getting excreted,” she says. “That means they linger and accumulate, over time causing issues like hormonal disruptions and the growth of unwanted cells.”

It’s not just applying the scents straight to your skin that can cause issues either. Says Amy, “If these are just inhaled, they can cause different electrical signaling that goes to the brain than if we were to sniff a natural molecule, and this is now being shown to trigger more adverse responses in the immune system.”

Kids are at a potential risk too, Amy says. “They are younger and not fully developed, so these synthetic molecules could have more of an impact on their less-developed bodies and minds.”

Another issue is the lack of transparency in the fragrance world, says Susannah. “While I’m not a fan of synthetic ingredients that are derived from petroleum, for example, it’s the hidden additives in mainstream fragrance that are the biggest concern for me. Fragrance is proprietary, and big corporations get away with putting a lot of scary things into fragrance, like hormone-disrupting, carcinogenic phthalates and more.”

Can fragrance be harmful to the environment?

Asthma, allergies and skin irritations—oh my! We often focus on the ways synthetic scents impact our personal selves, but they often take a toll on the environment, says Tara Pelletier, co-founder of Meow Meow Tweet and a certified level 1 Aromatherapist. “Many of these chemicals are synthetic, don’t degrade and may build in the environment,” she says. “This can cause harm to aquatic animals and water ecosystems, especially if companies are not disposing of their manufacturing waste properly. The harm can also accumulate from the wastewater of consumers that use fragrance products.”

So now we’re not just talking about the pretty glass spray bottles we spritz ourselves with before we walk out the door. We’re talking about shampoo, conditioner, soap, face wash, dish soap, detergent and anything that might contain a fragrance to supposedly enhance our experience in using it. Says Tara, “The easiest way [to figure out if a product has a synthetic fragrance] is to look for a listing of ‘perfume,’ ‘proprietary blend,’ or ‘fragrance.'”

What’s the safer alternative?

If you’re now having a mild panic attack and wondering how to escape the world of potentially hazardous scents, we have good news: Natural alternatives like essential oils and botanical fragrances can actually be helpful to your bodies’ systems, elevate your moods and contribute to inside-out healing.

Since essential oils are plant material, they will degrade over time,” says Tara, making them safer for both our bodies and the environment. Amy agrees: “We share the same kinds of molecules and pathways that create these [essential oils]—we recognize the carbon, oxygen and hydrogen molecules that make up essential oils because our bodies are also made up of them, so they can support us, and flow through us in a very different way, without bioaccumulating.”

Susannah says that essential oils and scents with a natural origin are also more alluring. “Essential oils have incredible complexity and emotional sway,” she says. “At the end of the day, they are a better choice for me because they smell exquisite, retain therapeutic properties, and unlike so many synthetic scents, they are not petroleum-derived ingredients.”

Bonus: Natural and botanical scents don’t project into others’ personal bubble in the same way. Says Krystal, “The great thing about natural fragrance is that it tends to stay close to the skin, without leaving too strong a sillage. My friends can smell it when we embrace, my husband can smell it sitting next to me on the couch, but no one outside of my personal space is affected.”

Ready to make the transition to safer scents?

Foregoing your favorite perfume might seem a little like the end of the world, especially if you have a signature scent. So what can you expert from natural, botanical alternatives?

Krystal says, “Expect your relationship with fragrance to change. Without synthetic extenders, your one spritz in the morning won’t last you until the end of the night. But, with so many therapeutic benefits that come with essential oils and extracts, you’ll want to re-apply for little pick-me-ups.”

Just like eating kale chips is a legit way to add more kale to your diet, the transition to safer scents is made way easier when you find something you can’t get enough of. Says Susannah, “The best thing you can do is to find a nontoxic fragrance you love so that you’re motivated to wear it instead [of a traditional scent]… You’ll be so surprised by the nuances and transformative properties of natural perfumes—really nothing can compare to the complex aromas created by nature.”

And don’t assume that those created-by-nature aromas are lightweights. Susannah says, “Essential oils are potent, concentrated botanical extractions that must be sourced and diluted properly… You have to know what you’re doing with these powerful ingredients and respect their strengths and limitations.”

Tara concurs, saying, “They are powerful ingredients that are proven to influence and impact the body through inhalation and skin application. Consumers should be checking in to make sure the companies they purchase from are using safe dilution rates for everyday use when it comes to perfumes.”

She also says that companies that create safer alternatives should be able to disclose their entire ingredient deck if they’re going to use “fragrance.” She says, “Some companies may choose to protect the artistry of their scent by listing it as proprietary. However, if you’re someone that has difficulty with certain ingredients, look for a transparent company that will disclose full ingredient listings when asked directly even if it isn’t on their packaging. These are companies that understand the gravity of using safe ingredients and are diligent about sourcing.”

3 tips for choosing a natural scent

  1. “Trust your nose, trust your body, but also do your homework as a consumer.” —Susannah
  2. Though essential oil based perfumes are often aromatically gentler, a scent with certain notes can still be triggering for some people that experience migraines and asthma. If you are someone that finds essential oils to be too strong, hydrosols are a light, gentler option.” —Tara
  3. “Take advantage of samples! Order samples and wear-test fragrances before you buy. Natural fragrances are so adaptive to your body chemistry, something you loved in the bottle might not be what you expect on your skin. But once you find one or a few that work really well with your chemistry, you won’t be able to get enough!” —Krystal

About The Author

Nicolle Mackinnon

Stemming from her personal journey to treat her celiac disease and Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Nicolle serves as a writer and editor for several leading publications helping women understand how important, stylish and fun it is to commit to clean beauty. By way of her contributions to No More Dirty Looks, Thoughtfully Magazine and numerous beauty brands' blogs, websites and social media, Nicolle has become a trusted voice on the correlation between health and beauty. Follow her journey on Instagram and connect with her via nicollemackinnon.com.