Renewed Collective

Are your fragrances and scented products doing more than making you smell nice?

What does the word fragrance actually mean? It’s not a specific ingredient that you recognise, so if we don’t actually know what it means how do we know if it’s harmful to our health?

What is fragrance?

The definition of fragrance in the dictionary is;

  • a pleasant, sweet smell


  • a perfume or aftershave.

It doesn’t really tell you what it is, or what it’s made up of though.

Fragrance is defined by the FDA as ‘a combination of chemicals that gives each perfume or cologne (including those used in other products) its distinct scent.’

Where do fragrances come from?

Fragrance essentially comes from petroleum or plants. Pure fragrances are essential oils from plants, flowers and raw materials. Synthetic fragrances are secret chemicals that are actually chemically closer to gasoline than they are to flowers.

Fragrance houses are companies that specialise in developing fragrances, which other businesses then purchase to develop their own blends. In addition to these ‘scents’ or chemicals, perfumes and colognes also contain solvents, stabilisers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes. 

Common fragrances

Perfumes and colognes are obvious culprits for fragrance, but fragrance can be hidden anywhere and in anything. It can be written on labels as any of the following;

  • Fragrance
  • Perfume
  • Parfum
  • Essential oil blend
  • Aroma

It can be found in personal care products such as; sunscreen, shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, body lotion, makeup, facial cream, skin toner, serums and exfoliating scrubs. These are of most concern because you are applying them directly to your skin, but it doesn’t stop there. Scented products found both in and out of the home, such as air fresheners, cheap candles and other ‘scented ’products like washing powder, can be the source of many toxic chemicals.

Fragrance bottle with roses

Dangers of fragrances to our health

There are thousands of chemicals that make up the ingredients in fragrances, and some have evidence linking them to adverse health effects including cancer, reproductive toxicity, allergies and sensitivities. Benzophenone is linked to endocrine disruption and organ system toxicity. Acetaldehyde adversely affects kidneys and the reproductive, nervous and respiratory systems. Both of these chemicals are classified as potentially carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Phthalates are ‘plasticiser compounds’ which are used in synthetic fragrances to make them last longer. 

Unless the ingredients in your product has an asterisk and states ‘essential oils’, it will almost always be a synthetic fragrance. Even though our bodies tend to get rid of phthalates quite quickly, research studies show that repeated exposure on a daily basis causes the most damage, overwhelming us and allowing the toxins to build up over time. This damage can range from low sperm counts, to asthma, to increased risk of breast cancer and tumours.

What about fragrance regulations?

Australian regulations are very similar to the US, in that companies are required to list all ingredients on their product labels. These ingredients must be specifically identified and listed in descending order calculated by either mass or volume. The quantity or percentage of each ingredient does not need to be declared. However, fragrances and flavours are the only ingredients that can be generically listed. This exclusion is protected as ‘trade secrets’  to preserve companies secret formulas. Unfortunately this loophole in the regulations creates a lack of disclosure that prevents consumers from knowing the full list of ingredients. 

These chemicals are not tested in a lab, but on humans instead. We are the experiment and we are only just starting to find out the consequences. Unfortunately once you know this information you can’t ignore it, but why would you want to! We have a right to know what’s in the everyday products we use, and we can make the choice to not buy the ones that could potentially harm us and our families. Clearly the industry needs stronger regulations, more research and greater transparency, but before that happens it is up to us to be informed and protect our loved ones.

Making better choices

Yes, there are A LOT of products out there with synthetic fragrances, but there are also so many wonderful small businesses creating non toxic products with quality essential oils from plants. If you aren’t sure on the ingredients, ask! The companies doing the right thing and have nothing to hide will be open and clarify any questions you have. The ones who are cryptic with their answers or aren’t able to answer truthfully should just be avoided. There is so much choice, and we vote with our dollar, so make it count.

Find some of our favourite fragrances in our Eco Directory.

True Cost Documentary
Low Tox Life by Alexx Stuart

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top