The toxic truth about perfumes and fragrances

The problem with perfumes and fragrances is that their toxic effects don’t just affect the wearer but everyone they come into contact with too, just like second-hand cigarette smoke does.


While out walking one morning recently, Richard and I met a woman in her late forties coming towards us, accompanied by two German Shepherd dogs. As she passed us on the pavement, we were immediately engulfed in such a heavy cloud of her perfume that we could hardly breathe. It lasted for about 20 paces down the street, which  made us wonder how her poor dogs could bear it, with noses that are 100 million times more sensitive than humans.

Personal airspace

Reflecting on this brought to mind an incident from many years ago that Richard will never let me forget. We boarded a long-haul flight and I found myself sitting next to a woman who was similarly drenched in strong perfume.

With minutes left before takeoff, I knew I had to act quickly or suffer in silence for the next 14 long hours. I calmly turned to her, explained that the excessive amount of perfume she was wearing made me feel nauseous, and politely asked her to go to the bathroom and wash it off.

Well, she was hugely insulted and incensed by this request. How dare I challenge her right to smother herself in perfume in a confined space!  She immediately called a flight attendant to complain, who took one look at the woman, saw how emotionally volatile she was, and instantly arranged to move her to another seat.

The toxicity of perfumes and fragrances

The perfume industry is a predatory one, currently worth about $46 billion globally and growing each year. It’s based on persuading people that they don’t smell good enough as they are so they need artificial help to feel more confident or attract a mate.

It’s also an unregulated industry. Because the ingredients of perfumes are legally protected as trade secrets, manufacturers are not required to reveal what’s in them. There are about 4,000 chemicals currently in use to create scents, and all perfumes or scented personal care products (including so-called “natural” ones) are likely to contain hundreds of these in varying quantities.

In 2018, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners decided to test the fragrances in 100 popular personal care products and 40 cleaning products. They published their findings in a report titled Right to Know: Exposing Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Report.

Of the personal care and cleaning products analyzed, the fragrance products (ie. perfumes, body sprays, deodorant and feminine hygiene spray) had the highest percentage of hazardous chemicals.

In fact, an astonishing one in four of the fragrance ingredients in the products tested were found to be known carcinogens, hormone disrupters, respiratory toxicants or developmental toxicants linked to adverse, chronic health effects. How is this even allowed?

What can you do?

If you’ve ever looked online for non-fragranced shampoos, conditioners, soaps, washing powders, cleaning products and so on, you’ll know how hard it is to find them. They do exist if you search hard enough, but you’ll be lucky to find them on supermarket shelves.

I stopped wearing perfume or using fragranced products in my twenties, long before any toxicity studies had been done. I did this because I could feel how noxious the scents were and how unnecessary it was to add chemical fragrances to personal care or laundry products. They all work perfectly well without them.

Many manufacturers disguise what’s in their products so I only use the ones that include a full list of all ingredients on the label. A good guideline is that if any of the substances are not something you would eat, then don’t put them on your skin, because anything you put on your skin goes straight into your bloodstream.

Fortunately, there are now two excellent websites you can use to find products that are safe to use:
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Guide

The big question is, do you value your health, and the health of those around you, enough to make the change?

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2021

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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One Response to The toxic truth about perfumes and fragrances

  1. The laundry soap and fabric softener fragrances are horrible also, especially when you are down wind from your neighbor’s dryer vent! Those crazy fragrance beads that you throw into your dryer or washer to intensify more hideous smell is absolutely suffocating for me. I have asked them to stop using them, and they deny it altogether, truly an insensitive person. Thanks for the story of how you handled it very cleverly.

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