How Synthetic Fragrances, Scents, and Perfumes Affect Our Health

by Valerie Bisharat

nakedpoppy synthetic fragrance

Is smelling good bad for our health? According to research, synthetic fragrance can be linked to health issues. In this article, we’ll outline potentially harmful ingredients, explain how to avoid exposure, and offer a few healthier alternatives available to you.

What is synthetic fragrance, exactly?

“Synthetic fragrance” is the group of chemicals used in personal care products – think makeup, lotion, and perfume – to make them smell a certain way. Which chemicals go into that group varies between products and brands, but often includes phthalates and other potentially harmful ingredients. Companies aren’t required to reveal what chemicals they use in “synthetic fragrance,” because the FDA considers it a trade secret.

Synthetic fragrance also goes by the following names:

  • Fragrance
  • Perfume
  • Parfum
  • ______ oil (example: “lemon oil”)
  • Scent

How might synthetic fragrance impact my health?

Some of the chemicals in synthetic fragrance have been linked to health issues like endocrine disruption, developmental problems, and reproductive issues [1]. For example, phthalates are thought to mimic estrogen in the body [2], interfering with proper hormone function. Learn more about how phthalates can affect our health here.

Synthetic fragrance also often contains allergens. The European Union (E.U.) has published a list of 26 known allergens found in typical fragrances [3] – and while in the E.U. manufacturers are required to disclose if any of those allergens are present, that’s not the case in the U.S.

How do I get exposed? How much exposure is harmful?

We’re exposed when we use products that contain synthetic fragrance. There are three main pathways of exposure: skin absorption, ingestion, and inhalation.

For example, when you slather scented lotion on your legs, the two most likely paths of exposure are skin absorption and inhalation. When you spritz perfume, you can get exposed through all three pathways.

Similar to eating fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides, we don’t know exactly how much exposure triggers a negative health event. We do know that we’re exposed to many chemicals in our environments that accumulate in the body, and reducing exposure from personal care products is one way we can lessen the impact.

Research shows that your body registers any changes very quickly: reducing personal care products with toxins lowers levels of chemicals in the body in a few short days.

Should I avoid synthetic fragrance?

Many women prefer the peace of mind that can come with using products formulated without synthetic fragrance. It’s a personal choice – but if you’re concerned, you might consider choosing products that don’t include it.

How can I tell if a product excludes synthetic fragrance?

The simplest way is to shop from “clean” beauty brands. Clean refers to products that are formulated without known or suspected toxins. Many of the traditional products you’ll find at the drugstore do in fact contain synthetic fragrance, so it’s usually faster to find brands that do the work for you.

Second to shopping clean, read product ingredient labels for the terms “synthetic fragrance,” “fragrance,” “perfume,” “parfum,” “_____ oil” (ex: “lemon oil”),  or “scent.”

Doesn’t the FDA ban synthetic fragrance and other potentially harmful chemicals?

Despite the potential risks associated with certain chemicals like those often found in synthetic fragrance, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only restricted a short list of 30 problematic ingredients [4]. Many of the chemicals found in synthetic fragrance aren't included.

On the other hand, the E.U. has banned the use of over 1,300 known or suspected toxins from use in cosmetics [5].

NakedPoppy bottom line: we avoid synthetic fragrance 

To play it on the safe side, we use clean beauty products without synthetic fragrance and want to make it easier for you do the same. That’s why we only carry products formulated without synthetic fragrance, using healthier alternatives instead.

This article has been reviewed for accuracy by Tim McCraw, PhD chemist and CEO of Skin Science Advisors.


[1] Ingredients in synthetic fragrance have been linked to endocrine disruption, developmental problems, and reproductive issues:

[2] Phthalates are thought to mimic estrogen:

[3] List of 26 common allergens found in fragrance:

[4] FDA only restricts 12 problematic ingredients:

[5] The E.U. bans more than 1,300 known or suspected toxins:

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