Poisonous fragrance | Sunday Observer

Poisonous fragrance

It has been an obsession for women over generations. Today, that gender barrier has broken down with an increasing number of males showing signs of being equally overwhelmed by that desire to smell good and fragrant, especially, when socialising with the opposite sex. Yet, smelling good can sometimes result in deadly outcomes. If the perfume you use does not conform to the strict rules of safety which health officials lay down to manufacturers before they sell their products to the open market, it can cause you to break out in boils. Worse still, by simply inhaling a toxic chemical in a cheap unauthorised perfume bottle it can cause severe headaches, nausea, and even end up with adverse effects on the fetus of a pregnant woman.

Industry Booming

Yet, adverse effects notwithstanding, the perfume market is booming and soaring skywards. Take a look at the vast range of perfumes that have flooded our markets . New exciting brands with enticing and tantalising smells spun out of the thousands of perfume factories, fall into the laps of perfume lovers every day, every hour, every minute, every second . What was yesterday’s favourite perfume is delegated as a past obsession, with new brands in different and more alluring colours and shapes, making their way to the shop shelves of various supermarkets which now have separate counters for perfumes.. Even the small ‘sillara kades’ patronised by the common man who can ill afford the fancy price tags of the reputed brands found in the up markets, can boast of a variety of cheap perfumes, many of which have been smuggled illegally, and have never passed the scrutiny of those in charge of overseeing the import, manufacture and distribution of perfumes .


This ever increasing demand for perfumes has thus become a money spinner to the industry. Driven by greed and profit and regardless of any dangerous effects on the health of the users, most unscrupulous vendors can only think of producing a dizzying number of new perfumes whose heady scents apparently drive the perfume lover crazy.

Health impacts

Lamentably, very few users have even paused to consider what could happen to them if they continue to use a low grade perfume with toxic chemicals over a period of time. They have only to look at the numerous websites that you get on the internet on the harmful effects of perfume. But, very few do –even those who have access to a computer, said a health official to whom the Sunday Observer posed this question.

For their enlightenment let me quote some of the latest data this writer selected from a huge collection of information on perfumes:


One taken from Care2 Healthy Living commenting on the chemicals that could be used under the single name of fragrance says, “If you’ve walked through a department store lately, you may have been overwhelmed by the perfume section. … The toxic effects of fragrances can also be overwhelming. There are over 500 potential chemicals that can be used under the single name “fragrance” found on the label of many products, not just perfumes and colognes. Fragrances are found in air fresheners, room deodorizers, cosmetics, fabric softeners, laundry detergents, candles, and many other places. Manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on the labels of these products, nor do they have to reveal the specific ingredients that qualify as “fragrance” to regulating authorities because they are protected as trade secrets.”

It continues , “Some of the most common chemicals in perfumes are ethanol, acetaldehyde, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, a-pinene, acetone, benzyl alcohol, ethyl acetate, linalool, a-terpinene, methylene chloride, styrene oxide, dimenthyl sulphate, a-terpineol, camphor, and limonene. Some of these chemicals cause irritability, mental vagueness, muscle pain, asthma, bloating, joint aches, sinus pain, fatigue, sore throat, eye irritation, gastrointestinal problems, laryngitis, headaches, dizziness, swollen lymph nodes, spikes in blood pressure, coughing, and burning or itching skin irritations.”

Tip of the iceberg

And, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Acetaldehyde is a probable human carcinogen. In animal studies, it crosses the placenta to a fetus. The chemical industry’s own Toxic Data Safety Sheets list headaches, tremors, convulsions, and even death as a possible effect of exposure to acetonitrile, another common fragrance ingredient. In animal studies, styrene oxide causes depression. Toluene (also known as methyl benzene) is a well established neurotoxin that can cause loss of muscle control, brain damage, headaches, memory loss, and problems with speech, hearing, and vision. Musk tetralin (AETT) has been shown to cause brain cell and spinal cord degeneration.

Research confirms that many of the ingredients in fragrances are neurotoxins, meaning that they have poisonous effects on the brain and nervous system. Additional studies link other negative emotional, mental, and physical symptoms to various fragrance ingredients.

This was confirmed by former Head National Toxicology Information Unit NHSL and Consultant Physician Eye Hospital Dr Waruna Gunathileka.

Responding to questions from the Sunday Observer, he said,” Allergic reactions are the main and most common adverse reactions from perfumes such as skin rashes or eruptions. Certain perfume contain endocrine hormonal chemical disruptive factors which in medical terms we call Endocrine disrupters. They can affect thyroid function and Reproductive function , and thus adversely affect the hormonal balance in the body.

Q. Is this an emerging health issue?

“In a sense it is comparatively recently that people are beginning to be aware of the serious implications on health caused by low grade perfumes. In contrast to the industry’s advice to use perfumes lavishly, the medical profession is now saying “Use perfumes only if you must. And when you do , use them in limited amounts, because some people are sensitive to the fragrance”.

Q “.Fragrance free” perfumes that are now the in- thing; how safe are they?

“. Even they have chemicals that alter the original odour of the product”, he said.” So even if they fall into this category, be cautious when buying. Above all read the labels. All the ingredients in these products must be listed clearly and legibly even if they are locally manufactured products made from herbals, so that the customer can make an informed choice. And buy only authenticated products.”

Regulations to monitor distribution?

“While most European Union countries have clear cut regulations pertaining to certain ingredients that should not be used in cosmetics and perfumes, in Sri Lanka there are many grey areas in this regard. It is important for the authorities to study this in depth and fill in these gaps. The prevailing regulations should also be amended and updated”, he stressed.