A study by the Louisiana State Medical Center concluded that one in five asthma attacks is a result of exposure to perfume, which also causes rhinitis, sinusitis, migraine headaches, skin irritations and multiple chemical sensitivity. (Source: The Arizona Republic, March, 2001)
Fragrance can induce or worsen respiratory problems. There are increasing anectodal and clinical accounts of fragrance triggering and exacerbating respiratory problems. Fragrances are thought to trigger asthma and other respiratory conditions due to their irritant effect.
Those with asthma, allergies, sinus problems, rhinitis and other such conditions are more susceptible to the effects of irritants, often at levels that are many times lower than what would cause problems in the general population. Exposure to fragrance chemicals may result in dangerous and painful asthma attacks in which muscle spasms, fluid and and excess mucous obstruct the airways. Such attacks afflict about 14.6 million Americans and kill an estimated 5,000 people each year. (American Lung Association)
Fragrance chemicals are known to act as haptens in the skin and bind with body proteins to form allergens. This same mechanism is thought to be involved in development of respiratory sensitization to chemicals. Several fragrance materials are known to have the potential to cause respiratory sensitization. When limonene, a common terpene used in fragrances and cleaners, oxidizes, it forms substances that can sensitize both the lungs and the skin.
In 1986 the National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of chemicals that should be given high priority for neurotoxicity testing. The other groups included insecticides, heavy metals, solvents, food additives and certain air pollutants. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analyzed the VOCs which were given off by 31 fragrance products. Their results showed that some of these compounds included linalool, toluene, xylene, methylene chloride, ethanol and limonene, all of which can cause serious health problems.
They also concluded that the air in department and clothing stores, shopping malls, craft/hobby shops and potpourri shops contained more chemicals than the air in auto parts shops, tire shops and carpet stores. The most abundant chemical in auto parts stores and perfume sections in department stores was toluene*, a chemical which can cause serious health problems.
(Source: Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace, report by the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives, Sept. 16, 1986)
- Most chemicals used in modern fragrances are synthesized, as these are cheaper than naturally-derived fragrances.
- There are over 5000 chemicals and materials used in the fragrance industry. A fragrance formula may contain 10 to several hundred different chemicals. On fragrance is reported to have 600 different ingredients.
- Only about 1500 of the more than 5000 materials used in fragrances have been tested for safety. The testng that is done is generally limited to acute oral and dermal toxicity, irritation and dermal sensitization and phototoxicity.
*Toluene: In a 1990 study, the US EPA found 100% of perfumes it studied contained toluene. Toluene can affect you when breathed in and by passing through your skin, may cause mutations; it may also cause damage to the developing fetus.
Raising a stink about the contents of fragrances
By Tom Watson, Special to The Seattle Times
Fragrances evoke emotions and bring back memories, and we all have our favorites. But when they come in a bottle or a box, the reality is not so romantic. More than 3,000 different chemicals are used to create fragrances in cosmetics, household cleaners and other consumer products.
Return to Green Home Cleaning Campaign home page