Problems With Perfumes and Fragrances

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Problems with perfumes and what are some natural alternatives
Wellness Mama » Blog » Beauty » Problems With Perfumes and Fragrances

From room deodorizers to cleaning products, perfumes and fragrances are everywhere. They may be pleasant smelling, but they often contain harmful chemicals that may cause irritation or even more serious health problems over the long term.

Luckily, there are some natural alternatives that smell great and don’t pollute the air.

History of Perfume

Mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphics as early as 3,000 BC, perfume has been around for thousands of years. An ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet from 1,200 BC mentions a woman named Tapputi who distilled flowers and other aromatics with oil to make her perfumes.

Perfumery made its way to Europe as early as the 14th century where it became popular amongst royalty (mostly to mask body odor).

But while ancient perfumes got their scent from flowers and other natural aromatics, modern perfumes are another story. Beginning in the late 19th century, chemists began to isolate compounds from aromatic oils. These more stable synthetic versions held their scent longer.

Perfumes now rarely use all-natural ingredients, but instead are a chemical mixture very different from the perfume made for centuries (and even millenia).

What’s in Perfumes and Fragrances?

Unfortunately, modern perfume is increasingly full of chemicals. Because of a loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 (which requires companies label the ingredients in their products, except for fragrance) companies can pour unsafe or untested chemicals into products and consumers have no way of knowing about it.

Companies can lump any number of chemicals into “fragrance” (whether or not they are really present for fragrance purposes) because fragrance is considered a trade secret and doesn’t need to be disclosed.

When the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the chemicals in some popular perfumes they found that on average there were 14 unlisted chemicals in each perfume, some of which are known hormone disruptors and allergens. Others are completely untested for safety in personal care products by the USDA, International Fragrance Association, or any other organization.

Manufacturers today use approximately 3,100 ingredients in different combinations to create perfumes and fragrances. A report by the National Academy of Sciences found that 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic petrochemicals (derived from petroleum).

Three of those chemicals are:


This chemical is linked to autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders and is banned in EU, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and China.

Studies also link phthalates to cancer, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive toxicity. Other studies link phthalates to sperm damage and altered genital development in boys.

Musk Ketone

This synthetic fragrance ingredient builds up in fatty tissue and breast milk. It’s also suspected to cause cancer and is toxic to the environment.


Formaldehyde is often found in plug-in fragrance warmers and air fresheners amongst other products. The CDC admits that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and the more we are exposed to it the bigger the chances of cancer. Unfortunately formaldehyde is not only found in our perfumes and fragrances but also in many kinds of conventional furniture and building materials.

Consider: These are just three of the 3,100 chemicals used in fragrances! Clearly they aren’t as benign as fragrance manufacturers would like us to believe.

Symptoms of Fragrance Sensitivity

While many people complain of sensitivity to perfumes, laundry detergents, and other fragranced products, a 2017 study in Australia found that the concern is based on data as well. The study found that many residents could not be around fragrance without health effects.

Fragrance chemicals can cause symptoms such as:

  • reduced lung function, respiratory irritation, increased asthma
  • allergic reactions
  • birth defects
  • mucosal symptoms
  • migraine headaches
  • skin problems
  • cognitive problems
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • and the list goes on!

Clearly fragrance should be avoided, but unscented products aren’t the answer either.

What About Unscented Products?

Often, unscented products contain chemicals that mask the smell of the other chemicals in the product, they just don’t have a floral, musky, or similar scent. It’s basically a fragrance without the strong fragrance smell.

Also, there are very few ingredients in conventional perfumes (or other products that contain fragrance) that aren’t objectionable. While fully labeling ingredients would be a good thing, it hardly matters when there are so many other ingredients in these products that I prefer to stay away from entirely.

Alternatives to Fragrances and Perfumes

If people made perfume for thousands of years without synthetic chemical-laden fragrances, I’m guessing perfumes and other scented products can be made that way again!

Here are some of my favorite ideas for smelling nice, naturally 🙂

DIY Room Fragrance

These simple homemade air freshener recipes are made with essential oils, so they actually have health benefits! Sweet orange essential oil not only uplifts the mood but also has potent antifungal properties. Lemon has both antibacterial and antiviral properties and also is said to lift the mood. Ginger helps with focus and energy by stimulating the mind and may help with depression.

DIY Perfume

As a mom of small children I’m lucky if I get a shower most days (sound familiar?), so perfume can come in pretty handy. I decided to create my own blend and came up with a pretty combination. Fun fact: the wearer’s body chemistry changes the scent, so it’s truly custom!

Perfume for Women (or Men)

If you’re not into DIY (or don’t have time), this Alitura Presence perfume is made with natural ingredients and smells amazing! It’s not exactly easy to describe scents on the internet so I’ll leave it to the experts and quote from their website:

Top – The scent opens with the freshness of Cucumber and Aloe with a delightful Ylang Ylang (flower).
Mid/Heart – The heart is a plethora of Hydrated Cedar and Green Forest giving it a robust fusion of coolness.
Base/Drydown – The dry-down has warm smolders of smooth Sandalwood and aromatic Cardamom with soft breezes of Tobacco from a Fine Leather Satchel.

Full disclosure: this perfume contains natural pheromones and may work as an aphrodisiac!

Cologne for Men

This DIY recipe for men’s deodorant may be enough to give your man that just-in-from-the-woods smell. My husband also likes this Otter Wax solid cologne for men. (The Environmental Working Group approves the ingredients too.)

DIY Bathroom Fragrance

This natural bathroom spray (I call it “Un-Doo”) is a lot like the popular spray that actually locks the smell in the toilet rather than just masking the smell that’s already entered the air. Again, if you can’t or won’t DIY this one, this popular brand is also natural and free from toxic chemicals.

Essential Oils

Most DIY perfumes and fragrances will include essential oils, so having those essential oils on hand can be helpful too.

Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to a tablespoon of carrier oil to make an instant perfume oil. Diffusing essential oils can also add a nice scent to the room without having to spray anything.

There are some risks to weigh with the benefits when using essential oils, so I make sure to get mine (and information about how to use them) from a trustworthy brand. Sticking to kid-safe oils is another to way to take the guesswork out of using essential oils.

Simmering Potpourri

It turns out, a few simple spices or some fresh citrus in some low simmering water does amazing things for a home’s atmosphere! Try some of these easy natural potpourri ideas using things you already have in the fridge or pantry. A Crock-Pot or candle warmer designed for this purpose may also do the trick. (But be mindful of safety, obviously!)

My Take: Safer Fragrances and Perfumes Are Worth It!

Conventional fragrances contain so many chemicals (many of which we don’t even know about) that I prefer to stay away from them altogether. I’ve found that I like natural scents more than the synthetic ones anyway, even if I do have to reapply more often.

What do you use instead of toxic fragrances? Have you found natural perfumes that work for you?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


24 responses to “Problems With Perfumes and Fragrances”

  1. Sonya Avatar

    Hi all! Has anyone checked out Ellis Brooklyn? They claim to be clean but it’s always so hard to tell!

  2. Bart De Pelsmaeker Avatar
    Bart De Pelsmaeker

    Hello Katie!
    Super-interesting article, and as perfumer, I couldn’t agree more. The statistics don’t lie: between 10 to 15% of the population is actually sensitive or has allergic reactions to the modern chemicals used in fragrances.

    Many thanks,

  3. Helen Avatar

    A lot of things have changed with fragrances over the past few years, at least in Canada. I’m not a scientist, and I have no idea what those actually changes are, but I’ve noticed that they behave differently than they used to.

    The worst, I find, are the fragrances in laundry detergents. If I sleep in sheets that have been washed in scented detergent, the scent chemicals impregnate the fabric in my pajamas. Not only does the scent not wash out, it transfers to anything else that these items get washed with. I ruined about $1000 worth of clothing by throwing pajamas that I’d taken to a hotel in with a regular load of laundry. Nothing — and I mean nothing — will ever get that smell out. I tried everything under the sun for about 1 1/2 years.

    If I go out anywhere and sit on a public chair, my clothing will often take on the detergent scent of whoever sat there last.

    Some of the detergents scents are so strong that I can stand beside someone who uses them for about 10 seconds before developing a headache. Then there are the people that scent an entire room or house just by being there. It’s overwhelming.

    I can’t even have anyone over for fear that they will permanently scent my home. Not long ago, a family member came for an overnight stay and, in spite of being asked not to use any scented products, used heavily scented aftershave. Trusting that he would respect my request, I gave him my organic sheets to sleep on. That aftershave is just not going to come out. It’s not the first bedding I’ve had ruined.

    Then, I spent a while in the perfume section of a store, just smelling different ones for fun and had my tongue swell up. That was a bit scary.

    Anybody else have similar experiences? How on earth do you deal with this? Even if I didn’t react badly to the scents, it would upset me because all of this is infringing on the scent-free sanctuary of my home and poisoning me. If it washed out, at least it would be temporary.

  4. Rosemary Avatar

    I stopped wearing perfume when. My skin took an allergic reaction. Whilst natural alternatives can be lovely, there are just some scent brands I really miss – they do smell special. Considering how much brands like Chanel charge, I wish they’d just make them healthier. I do lament my mainstream-perfume wearing days lol.

  5. Monique Avery Avatar
    Monique Avery

    I recently found Skylar. They claim to be natural and I love their fragrances, made with essential oils.

  6. Diana Avatar

    Since I went 100% fragrance free, I don’t sweat or smell that bad anymore. I just shower with water. If I have been somewhere and smell like perfume, I use a little bit of vinegar in my showerwater. As a ‘bodylotion’ and for my face I use shea butter. Baking soda mixed with water as a deodorant. And for my shampoo a mixture of olive oil, honey and apple cide vinegar. All organic. Before my hair was very dry and every day I had to use a moisturizer, since I use this mixture, my hair isn’t dry anymore and I don’t have to use a moisturizer.

    Since I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, I can’t use essential oils either, but this really works for me.

  7. Kristine Avatar

    Just to clarify, this applies to regular perfume, such as Chanel, etc., not only to the ones that are added in the shampoos, cleansers etc.?

  8. Leah Jin Avatar
    Leah Jin

    Hi Katie,
    Great post, although that’s no surprise. I like diffusing essential oils in my bedroom because you get the dual benefits of it smelling nice along with the healing properties.

    I’ve been reading you for two years and I just love your content, I’m so glad you’ve started doing podcasts because now I can get my Wellness Mama fix in the the bath! I’m so impressed with all you’ve accomplished in addition raising 6 kids, you’re amazing!

    Thanks and thanks for all of the great posts and podcasts, they really make my life better.

  9. Chris Avatar

    Unfortunately phthalates are not banned in Canada, they are a class of toxic chemicals, and one they “took steps” to lessen harm.

    I am extremely sensitive to synthetic perfumes, not as in “I don’t like them” but actually getting ill, products with phthalates seem to be a trigger, but can’t say for sure (labelling games as mentioned in the article).

    People often think if something doesn’t harm immediately its fine….well, not every cause of death is a high speed crash.

  10. Gail Kollars Avatar
    Gail Kollars

    Formaldehyde- Yikes! Are there other names for this to look for in products?

  11. Gail Kollars Avatar
    Gail Kollars

    Formaldehyde- YUCK! Curious… are there other names for this to look for in products that may contain it?

  12. Dana Avatar

    HI Katie – Years ago I was in Montana and bought a fragrance just because I loved its earthy scent. It became my all-time fave. When I started to run low several years later, I searched for the company online so that I could reorder. I was thrilled to learn that the company — ZENTS — was created as a result of a major healing journey undertaken by its founder, and the ingredients are carefully sourced to be not only “organic, but Biodynamic.” You can read about the history of the company and the ingredients under the About section on their website. Note: There is also a great instructional video on Pranayama breathing under the About section. Lovely and healing. 🙂

  13. Sara Avatar

    A few months back I came across a natural perfume in Target called Good Chemistry… worth checking out!

  14. Mika Avatar

    Hi!!! Can you help me?
    My husband likes to use a cologne but I am trying to get him to stop but he needs something as when he sweats his skin smells.
    He likes sandalwood. What can I make for him with sandalwood? Any blends you would suggest?

  15. Jitesh Arora Avatar
    Jitesh Arora

    I have seen some cases where fragrance sensitivity lead to some serious allergic reactions.

  16. Teneko Avatar

    I am very sensitive to scents and many of them overpower me. It’s not as bad as some folks with the migraines and whatnot, but I do get a headache and the artificial scents and associated products burn my nose and “stick” inside for hours. My poor hubby has had to suffer with all these nice colognes that he can’t wear around me because of this (he loves expensive colognes). I have used scented oils for my perfume for a very long time – you know, the kind you get from the hippie shops or natural grocery stores. My favourites include amber, sandalwood, and a lovely lavender lately for an all day calming effect. Hubby loves that one, too, so bonus.
    Since switching to more natural soaps (locally-made goats milk soap for me) and hair care products as well, life’s been a lot better for my nose…except when Hubby wants to wear a scent. He has to spray it in the other room (just barely a spritz!) and then wait…wait…wait for it to settle before coming around me. Even then, I still make faces and gag a little.
    Lucky for me, he discovered Duke Cannon brand and fell in love with their products…and they make a solid cologne for men! I am in LOVE with the “LAND” scent which reminds me of Bay Rum. Hubby’s happy, and I’m very happy too.

  17. Rachel Avatar

    I diffuse essential oils in my room (if I don’t, my lungs complain) and make my own stuff (cleaners, toiletries, etc.) with essential oils. I only use vinegar, watered-down castille soap, and your all-purpose cleaner for all my cleaning needs. I’m solidly allergic to practically all chemical cleaners and fragrances, and they all either drive my lungs nuts, give me bad migraines, or both.

  18. Carol Avatar

    Would you have a need for recently unemployed certified aromatherapist to join your team? I am currently studying to be certified in animal aromatherapy as well. Please let me know how I could help you!!!

  19. Karen Avatar

    Queen of the Meadow has wonderful perfumes made with essential oils and without any nasty chemicals! They also have several other products including face mask, lip balm and their lotion bars are a favorite!

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