Your perfume may not be as rosy as you’d like to believe. Even though perfume may evoke images of a field of wildflowers, it actually consists of a variety of synthetic chemicals that are manufactured in laboratories. Many perfume ingredients are far from natural. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) listed 20 common perfume ingredients on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste list, such as benzene, benzyl alcohol, limonene, acetone and ethanol. Many of these chemicals list headaches, nausea and other complications as side effects.


Up until the 20th century most perfumes were made with natural animal or plant ingredients and were a luxury to have. Perfume became more accessible with the introduction of synthetic ingredients. The first synthetic fragrance was created from coal tar. Now waste byproducts could be used to make fragrances that smelled like flowers and be sold to the masses for less money.


Over 4,00 chemicals are used in today’s fragrances. According to a 1991 study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 95 percent of these chemicals are derived from petroleum and some are potentially hazardous. Common ingredients found in perfumes are: acetone, ethanol, benzaldehyde, formaldehyde, limonene, methylene chloride, camphor, ethyl acetate, linalool and benzyl alcohol. Phthalates and synthetic musks are also commonly used potentially hazardous ingredients.


EPA Material Safety Data Sheets for the most poplar perfume ingredients list many nasty side effects from exposure. Acetone, often found in cologne, acts as a central nervous system depressant and can cause nausea, dryness of the mouth and slurred speech. Inhalation of ethanol vapors can produce symptoms similar to those of indigestion. Benzaldehyde is a narcotic and a local anesthetic. Limonene is a carcinogenic and should not be inhaled. Methylene chloride was banned by the FDA in 1988 but still may pop up in fragrances due to lack of enforcement. Another carcinogenic substance is benzyl acetate, which has been linked to pancreatic cancer. All these chemicals are found in everyday perfumes and are readily absorbed into the body with every spritz.


Even though personal-care products must list their ingredients, fragrances can keep their ingredients a secret because they fall into the “trade secret” category. Critics saytThe FDA is lax on regulations for the fragrance industry. The word “fragrance” may be used on any product that has a given odor, but there’s no telling what “fragrance” can stand for. It may contain one or 100 chemicals.


Many people experience adverse side effects when exposed to second-hand perfume. People with asthma or allergies generally don’t tolerate being around fragrances. Chemical sensitivity, also referred to as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or Environmental Illness, is a condition in which people experience headaches or breathing difficulties from exposure to fragrance. Some workplaces have banned employees from wearing perfume as a result of these conditions.