Dangers of Synthetic Scents and How to Avoid Them - Dr. Axe

Fact Checked

This Dr. Axe content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure factually accurate information.

With strict editorial sourcing guidelines, we only link to academic research institutions, reputable media sites and, when research is available, medically peer-reviewed studies. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to these studies.

The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.

This article is based on scientific evidence, written by experts and fact checked by our trained editorial staff. Note that the numbers in parentheses (1, 2, etc.) are clickable links to medically peer-reviewed studies.

Our team includes licensed nutritionists and dietitians, certified health education specialists, as well as certified strength and conditioning specialists, personal trainers and corrective exercise specialists. Our team aims to be not only thorough with its research, but also objective and unbiased.

The information in our articles is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.

Dangers of Synthetic Scents & How to Avoid Them


Dangers of synthetic scents - Dr. Axe

The dangers of synthetic scents aren’t always evident, but we have the science to prove that everyone, regardless of age or health, needs to make avoiding fake fragrances a major priority.

A report from the 1980s by the National Academy of Sciences pointed out some vital facts: Up to 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (crude oil). They include benzene derivatives (carcinogenic), aldehydes, toluene and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions, including a fragrance sensitivity allergy.

Unfortunately, 40 years later, toxic ingredients continue turn up in products we use and breathe in on a daily basis.

Some of the worst toxic ingredients used in lotions, shampoos, laundry detergents, cleaning products and so much more include synthetic scents, often listed as on labels as the elusive “fragrance.” Many of those on the list are known or suspected endocrine disruptors, compounds that tinker with hormonal health that can trigger weight gain and even set you up for diseases decades down the line.

Avoiding the dangers of synthetic scents is crucial.


When a company puts “fragrance” on the label, don’t be tricked. This is a catch-all term actually can stand for thousands of different ingredients, and when you use a product containing “fragrance” or “parfum,” all of those mysterious ingredients are absorbed right into your bloodstream.

These ingredients are predominantly made from chemicals and are just outright toxic for your health in so many ways.

While the allure of natural fragrances is baked into our DNA as a way to find food and mates, synthetic fragrances are completely unnecessary and may be making us sick in our modern-day world.

Sure, drawing fragrances from nature has a long history in religious ceremonies, burials and a way to increase libido — but in this article, we’re focusing on the man-made fragrances that started emerging in the late 1800s. The dangers of these synthetic scents not only include short-term symptoms like allergies and respiratory distress, but also headaches, dizziness, nausea and brain fog.

We’ll get into other, less obvious side (but serious) side effects in a bit. This serves as evidence that regardless of your age or health status, it is imperative that you avoid fragrance chemicals.

What Are Synthetic Scents?

Synthetic scents or “fragrance” represent an unidentified mixture of ingredients including carcinogens, allergens, respiratory irritants, endocrine disruptors, neurotoxic chemicals and environmental toxicants. These artificial scents can can be found in all kinds of body care and cosmetic products, as well as air fresheners, cleaning materials and laundry detergents.

According to the Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, hair products are especially problematic. More than 95 percent of shampoos, conditioners and styling products contain fragrance as an ingredient. I’m sure you’ll agree that we all want our hair to smell good, but we could do without the use of toxic ingredients.

Research conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found an average of 14 chemicals in 17 name brand fragrance products. It doesn’t stop there — none of these chemicals were actually listed on the labels.

Dangers of synthetic scents - Dr. Axe

In general, there are at least 3,600 ingredients that could possibly be used to form a product’s scent. That’s according to the online “Transparency List” put out by the International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group.

It may seem unbelievable, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not even require fragrance and cosmetic makers to disclose exactly what they are using to scent products. The FDA also states how the agency cannot legally require companies to warn about allergens in cosmetic like it does with food.

Are you wondering why companies would continue to use synthetic scents if they’re so bad for our health? The answer is straightforward: They are cheaper.

Synthetic scents can be an extremely cheap way to give everything from shampoo to lotion to candles a desirable scent. Unfortunately, just because you enjoy a scent doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Fake Fragrances: Making People’s Lives Miserable

In an August 2016 study published by veteran fragrance chemical researcher Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., we see the scope of how scented products impact our daily lives.

Here’s a positive stat from the study: She found that more than 50 percent of the population would prefer fragrance-free workplaces, health care facilities, hotels and airplanes.

The bad news is that’s not always the norm, and Steinemann’s research also unearthed the following:


  • Overall reported health problems after exposure to fake fragrance: Overall, 34 percent of the population reported one or more types of adverse health effects from exposure to fragranced products. The most common symptoms were:
    • 18 percent respiratory problems
    • 16 percent mucosal symptoms
    • 15 percent migraine headaches
    • 10 percent skin problems
    • 8 percent asthma attacks
    • 7 percent neurological problems
    • 5 percent cognitive problems
    • 5 percent gastrointestinal problems
    • 4 percent cardiovascular problems
    • 4 percent immune system problems
    • 3 percent musculoskeletal problems
    • 1 percent “other”
  • Scented laundry products vented outdoors: 12 percent reported health problems from the scent of laundry products coming from a dryer vent. Symptoms included headaches, breathing difficulties and other health problems.
  • Proximity to fragranced person: 23 percent reported health problems from being near someone wearing a fragranced product.
  • Trouble in public places: 17 percent of people said they were unable or reluctant to use public toilets because of air freshener, deodorizer or scented product; 14 percent are unable or reluctant to their wash hands with soap in a public place because they suspect the soap is fragranced. Further, 22.7 percent have been prevented from going to some public place because of scented products.
  • Economic losses: Fragranced product exposures have economic implications, too. Of those surveyed, 20 percent would enter but then leave a business as quickly as possible if they smell fragranced products, and 15 have lost workdays or jobs due to fragranced product exposures in the workplace.

Dangers of Synthetic Scents

1. Cancer

According to the Breast Cancer Fund, when it comes to the prevention of cancer, avoiding synthetic fragrance is one of the main ways to help yourself. That’s because the dangers of synthetic scents include hormone-disrupting phthalates and synthetic musks.

The National Academy of Sciences endorsed the 2011 finding by the National Toxicology Program, a collaboration of scientists from several government agencies, that styrene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based on “compelling evidence.” The organization also said that some studies would support “a strong argument [for] listing styrene as a known human carcinogen.”

Styrene is found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust. Doesn’t sound like it would smell too good, but shockingly, it’s actually used in cosmetic sprays and liquids, as well as cleaning products.

According to the EWG, if a company doesn’t fully disclose that it contains styrene (which it most likely will not), then the only way you’ll know it’s present is if you use a gas chromatograph or mass spectrometer.

Sadly, styrene is just one of many ingredients linked to cancer being used to create artificial fragrance. Phthalates are another group of  chemicals often disguised as “fragrance.” They are connected to cancer, endocrine disruption, as well as developmental and reproductive toxicity.

These dangerous synthetics are already banned from cosmetics in the European Union but are still quite common in products produced and sold in the United States. Phthalates often hide under the “fragrance” ingredient, but they can also appear on ingredient lists as phthalate, DEP, DBP, and DEHP. Be sure to avoid all of those.

Dangers of synthetic scents - Dr. Axe

2. Birth Defects

Most products that list “fragrance” contain a very unwanted ingredient when it comes to good health: phthalates.

Research conducted by Dr. Philip J. Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center demonstrated that fetal exposure to phthalates is linked to autism, symptoms of ADHD and neurological disorders. This why pregnant women have to be ultra careful when it comes to the products they’re exposed to on a daily basis.

The dangers of synthetic scents could be even more life-altering for a developing fetus.

A 2010 New York Times article quoted Dr. Landrigan on the subject. He said that he is “increasingly confident that autism and other ailments are, in part, the result of the impact of environmental chemicals on the brain as it is being formed.”

He added that “the crux of this is brain development. If babies are exposed in the womb or shortly after birth to chemicals that interfere with brain development, the consequences last a lifetime.”

A 2010 peer-reviewed study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that women with higher levels of certain phthalates gave birth to children who, years later, were more likely to display disruptive behavior.

Furthermore, a 2021 report in the International Journal of Molecular sciences relayed:

Phthalates, as other endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), may alter the homeostasis and the action of hormones and signaling molecules, causing adverse health outcomes. This is true especially for infants, who are both more exposed and sensitive to their effects. Phthalates are particularly harmful when the exposure occurs during certain critical temporal windows of the development, such as the prenatal and the early postnatal phases. Phthalates may also interfere with the neuroendocrine systems (e.g., thyroid hormone signaling or metabolism), causing disruption of neuronal differentiation and maturation, increasing the risk of behavioral and cognitive disorders (ADHD and autistic behaviors, reduced mental, psychomotor, and IQ development, and emotional problems). Despite more studies being needed to better understand the role of these substances, plenty of evidence suggests the impact of phthalates on the neuroendocrine system development and function. This review aims to update the knowledge on the neuroendocrine consequences of neonatal and perinatal exposure to phthalates.

3. Allergic and Toxic Bodily Reactions

Allergic reactions to synthetic fragrances include headaches and migraines, difficulty breathing, and sinus irritation, just to name a few. Fragrance mixtures also commonly trigger contact dermatitis, a type of allergic skin reaction.

In recent years, health reports show that allergies, sinus problems, migraines and asthma have all increased dramatically. Many experts believe there’s a likely link between the rise in these conditions and the increased use of products containing fragrance.

Using animal models, a 1998 study published in the Archives of Environmental Health looked at how fragrance products produce toxic effects in mammals. Researchers found that the emissions of fragrance products caused various combinations of eyes, nose and throat irritations; pulmonary irritation; decreases in airflow velocity when exhaling; and signs of neurotoxicity.

This neurotoxicity was even worse when the animal subjects endured repeated exposure to the scented products.

Synthetic fragrances also can harm indoor air quality and lead to allergies and toxicity.

4. Asthma and Other Breathing Difficulties

If you have asthma, you really don’t need anything to get in the way of breathing easily. It’s extremely common for asthmatics to suffer health symptoms when exposed to perfumes, colognes and other scented products, especially when they contain artificial scents.

One study looked at patients with a history of worsening asthma symptoms after being exposed to cologne. The study authors found that the patients’ exhalation volume declined by 18 percent to 58 percent during cologne exposure.

If you have asthma or any other breathing trouble, then truly fragrance-free products are your best bet.

Better Alternatives

The good news is that if you are a careful reader, you can help yourself and your family avoid the dangers of synthetic scents in all of the products you buy and use.

There are also many better options and ways to avoid the dangers of synthetic scents, including:

  • Live with fewer fragrances in your life. One easy solution to freshen your air? Put a bowl of white vinegar on your countertop or windowsill to aid in natural odor control. Be sure to focus on cleaning up the source of odor, though, too — not just covering up the foul smell.
  • Completely avoiding any product that lists fragrance, parfum, phthalate, DEP, DBP or DEHP as an ingredient.
  • Look for products that use organic essential oils when you are looking for a scent.
  • Buy certified organic products, which are less likely to include artificial scents (but still read labels). Watch out for “limonene” or “linalool” on labels, too. When they are listed in this form on the label, they are likely synthetic, man-made versions, not the natural compounds part of a more complex organic essential oil.
  • To provide a fresh, natural scent to your home or office, use fresh cut herbs and flowers and potted plants. Studies have even shown that the best houseplants that remove pollution help strip indoor air of some toxic compounds.
  • Make homemade cleaning products since they are another huge source of synthetic scents.
  • Buy laundry detergent that is scented with pure essential oils or that is fragrance-free. You can also make your own homemade laundry soap.
  • If you are super sensitive or just don’t want to deal with smelling anything at all, choose fragrance-free or unscented products. Just make sure to still read labels carefully because sometimes companies will use other questionable ingredients to create that lack of scent.
  • If you want to burn an occasional candle, use beeswax with a lead-free wick, but understand that any type of combustion will cause some level of particulate pollution in the home. (At least you won’t get the toxic fragrance or petroleum chemicals.)
  • Question companies that don’t fully explain how their products are scented. Maybe you’ll get some additional information or get them to think again before not fully informing their customers.
  • Make sure to avoid synthetic scents with pet products, since the dangers of synthetic scents can be similar for animals.

More Health