Scent plays a critical role in the human experience beginning on our first day in the world. Our mother’s scent is one of the first we experience—it has a vital function in proper emotional development in infants—and scent continues to be important throughout our lives.
You might think that finding out what’s in your perfume would be as easy as reading the ingredient label.
But because of laws that protect fragrance manufacturers from sharing “trade secrets,” almost every perfume sold commercially is crammed with chemicals that aren’t listed individually on the product packaging.
Instead, these chemicals are simply covered by the word “fragrance” — a catchall ingredient category that really could mean anything.
Because so many ingredients included in perfume aren’t disclosed to the buyer, there are some well-founded concerns over the chemical reactions perfume can trigger in your body.
The good news is that immediate, irreversible damage to your health caused by one-time use of perfume or cologne — so-called “perfume poisoning” — is rare. But exposure to topical fragrances can trigger allergies, skin sensitivities, and cause harm over time.
Let’s take a closer look at medical emergencies caused by fragrance products as well as other less serious conditions that can be related to perfume.
When to seek immediate help
Most perfumes contain high amounts of ethanol, which can be especially dangerous for children.
If your child ingests a teaspoon or more — we aren’t talking about a spritz or two — you need to contact a poison control center, or call your child’s pediatrician, right away.
In the meantime, give your child a small, carb- or sugar-heavy snack to keep their blood sugar from dropping to a dangerous level.
While it can be scary for your child to ingest perfume, it happens pretty frequently and most children recover just fine.
Symptoms that someone could be experiencing a serious reaction to a fragrance product include:
- a spiking temperature
- boils or large hives
- drowsiness or a dip in energy
- nausea or vomiting
- slurred speech
- elevated heart rate
These symptoms warrant a trip to the emergency room.
Ingredients to worry about
The most toxic ingredient in perfumes, colognes, and aftershaves tends to be ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.
The scented ingredients in perfume are infused into these alcohols as a way of preserving and stabilizing the product’s desired scent. These alcohols are toxic, and may cause symptoms if swallowed in amounts greater than 30 milliliters.
If you’ve noticed redness, itching, or sinus irritation when you’re exposed to a certain fragrance, you probably have a sensitivity to something in it. But you may not have the best luck finding out what that ingredient is.
One study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) estimated that only 34 percent of stock ingredients often found in fragrances have been tested for toxicity.
Fragrance products are exempt from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) testing, which deepens the frustration for users trying to find out what’s actually in their perfumes.
Perfumes may include:
- respiratory sensitizers that trigger wheezing or asthma
- hormone sensitizers that throw your endocrine system off balance
- secret ingredients that are harmful to your reproductive system when they build up in your body over time
As mentioned above, most perfume manufacturers are able to avoid actually listing these toxic ingredients on their packaging. With that being said, here are some ingredient names to look out for, especially if you’re pregnant or know someone trying to get pregnant:
- Galaxolide ketone and other musk ketones
- ethylene glycol
Symptoms of perfume poisoning
If you’ve ingested perfume, your symptoms may be similar to a person who has ingested a high-proof or heavily concentrated type of liquor.
Here are symptoms to watch out for that could indicate perfume poisoning:
- swaying while walking or trouble with balance
- slurred speech
- lethargy or lack of energy
- breath that smells of alcohol
- nausea or vomiting
Treatment for perfume poisoning
If you or your child have ingested perfume, a poison control center or general practitioner will have some advice.
You may be told that plenty of water, a light snack, and carefully watching for symptoms to appear is the best approach if only a small amount of perfume has been consumed.
For cases in which a large amount of fragrance has been ingested, you or your child may be kept in a hospital overnight for observation.
During that time, the affected person will be given plenty of fluid and light snacks to keep blood sugar from dropping to a dangerous level. Within 48 to 72 hours, the danger of a serious reaction from ingesting perfume will have passed.
Contact dermatitis from perfume
Sometimes a perfume on you or someone you’re physically close to can cause a mild allergic reaction. Most often, this reaction occurs on your skin in the form of contact dermatitis.
If you have sensitive skin, you probably already know about this condition and what it looks like. Contact dermatitis is possible whenever your skin comes in contact with an ingredient (synthetic or natural) that irritates you.
Symptoms of contact dermatitis include:
- hives or blisters
- itchy, flaking skin
- burning or redness on skin
- sensitivity to touch
Contact dermatitis usually resolves itself before it needs treatment. When you’re no longer in contact with the substance that’s triggering you, your symptoms should subside.
If they don’t, you can try the following home remedies:
- washing your skin with gentle, dye-free soap and lukewarm water
- soothing the area with a hypoallergenic, natural product like calamine lotion, aloe vera, or coconut oil
- using hydrocortisone cream, such as Benadryl, until the itching subsides
Other reactions to perfume
Contact dermatitis isn’t a medical emergency, and even ingesting perfume can be treated and lead to a full recovery. But these are not the only possible toxic effects of perfume.
Some of the chemicals in popular perfumes may be dangerous if they build up in your body, though more research is needed.
Styrene, an ingredient found in many cosmetic products, was deemed a likely carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program in 2014.
Musk ketone, an ingredient widely used in cosmetics produced in Europe, has such a low biodegradability in contrast to its high exposure rate that it’s often found in human breast milk and fatty tissue. Whether or not this is dangerous is unclear.
Some chemicals in perfume are included for the express purpose of helping your skin absorb the fragrance and make it last for hours on end. Unfortunately, those same chemicals increase your skin’s vulnerability to soaking in the possible carcinogens, alcohols, and petroleum in your perfume.
And that’s just what we know about fragrance chemicals — there’s a lot that’s still unknown.
The EWG evaluates perfumes based on their ingredients and ranks them based on risk, with 10 being the highest level of risk a product can pose.
Celebrity fragrances, drugstore and cosmetic counter brand perfumes, and fragrances branded as “eau de parfum” or “eau de toilette” are among the worst ranked perfumes based on the available data.
Perfumes that scored a 10 (most risk) based on EWG’s system include:
- Katy Perry’s Killer Queen
- Philosophy Living Grace Spray Fragrance
- Nicki Minaj Pink Friday Eau de Parfum
- Adidas Moves for Her Perfume
- marquee fragrances by Givenchy, Vera Wang, and Burberry
Perfume poisoning — toxic reactions that cause long-term damage to your body because of consuming perfume — are uncommon among adults who use perfume as a part of their routine.
Temporary allergic reactions to perfumes aren’t uncommon. You can even develop an allergy to a product that you’ve used for years because of overexposure or changes to the formula’s ingredients.
Look for perfumes that list all of their ingredients on the label, rather than using the term “parfum” or “fragrance.”
Seek out products whose scent is produced by essential oils, or forego fragrance altogether and look for unscented products.