What’s the Alternative?
Learn how companies make fragrances, what chemicals they use as fragrance ingredients and how these chemicals can affect the body.
Many products that line supermarket shelves and cosmetic shops contain synthetic fragrances. More than 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. These chemicals include benzene derivatives, aldehydes and phthalates; toxic chemicals which have been linked to birth defects, allergies, cancer and a host of other health conditions. Discover what natural alternatives you can use instead of fragranced products.
Types of fragrances
Fragrances are found is most personal care products, cosmetics and perfumes, including deodorants, body lotions, face creams, shampoos, conditioners, soaps, sunscreens and makeup. Household items such as air fresheners, candles, cleaning products, washing up liquids and detergents also contain synthetic fragrances.
If a product has a scent to it, it will be fragranced with either a synthetic fragrance or a natural fragrance. Synthetic fragrances are made in a lab using an array of toxic chemicals. Manufacturers do not have to disclose the ingredients on product labels, enabling them to hide hundreds of toxic ingredients by simply calling them fragrances, parfum or aroma.
Natural fragrances are made from raw plant materials (such as flowers, leaves and wood) into essential oil blends. In order for the fragrance to be classified as natural, the ingredients need to be sourced without modifying the chemical structure of the plant.
Be aware that the term “natural” is often used by companies to market their products as it catches the attention of shoppers. According to IFRA (International Fragrance Association), there is no official regulation of natural fragrances and some natural fragrances can be just as toxic and allergenic as synthetic fragrances as they contain traces of chemicals in the form of solvents, preservatives and antioxidants.
Even products labelled as “fragrance-free” and “unscented” contain chemicals as manufacturers use masking fragrances to disguise the chemical smell of their products.
How fragrances are made
Fragrances are made using a mixture of chemical compounds, derived from petroleum-based materials or naturally-sourced materials such as flowers. Cosmetic and perfume companies usually contract a fragrance house to develop a unique, trademarked fragrance blend. Once the raw materials have been extracted from the natural source, such as a leaf or spice, they are then tested and mixed with hundreds of ingredients (chemicals) to make a formula. If a desired scent cannot be found in nature, synthetic chemicals are used instead to replicate the smell.
One fragrance can contain up to 3000 chemicals including scent compounds, preservatives, dyes, stabilisers and solvents.
These toxic ingredients are then inhaled via the lungs and absorbed through the skin causing havoc to people’s health.
Chemicals in fragrances
Many of the chemicals used in fragrances have been known to cause serious health issues including allergies, reproductive problems and cancer. Numerous studies have shown the negative health impact that fragranced products have on people in their homes, workplaces and public places such as shopping centres.
Here is a list of some toxic fragrance ingredients:
- Acetaldehyde is an aldehyde compound commonly used as a building block to make other chemicals in perfumes and dyes. Acetaldehyde is known to negatively affect the respiratory, reproductive and nervous systems, and it is also linked to cancer and kidney issues.
- Formaldehyde is another type of toxic aldehyde and it is a known human carcinogen. It has been banned in some countries; however, it is still used in Europe on a restricted basis.
- Benzophenone is a chemical found in soaps, lip balms, sunscreens, perfumes, shampoos, hair sprays, body creams and lotions. Benzophenone has been linked to tumour formation, hormone disruption and organ toxicity.  
- Phthalates are used in personal care products such as soaps, lotions, perfumes and shampoos to help make the scent linger after it has been washed off. On a label, they will be named as phthalates, DEP, DBP, DEHP or fragrance. Phthalates have been associated with reproductive abnormalities, such as lowered sperm count and poor motility, hormone disruption, developmental issues and poor thyroid function.
- Oxybenzone (BP-3) is used in sunscreens as a UV filter. It is derived from benzophenone which is another toxic chemical. Oxybenzone can accumulate in the blood, liver and kidneys, potentially causing toxicity to cells. It has also been linked to hormone disruption. 
- Propyl paraben (Propyl p-hydroxybenzoate) is part of a group of chemicals called parabens that are commonly used as fragrance ingredients or preservatives in moisturisers, face cleansers, deodorants, shaving creams and toothpastes. Parabens absorb through the skin and have been known to disrupt hormone function by mimicking the action of oestrogen in the body.
How to avoid fragrances
The key to avoiding fragrances is to know exactly what you’re putting onto your skin and what products you are using in your home. The majority of products, even those marketed at children, do unfortunately contain fragrances. Don’t be fooled by products which claim to be “fragrance-free” as they often contain a masking agent (to cover up unpleasant chemical smells) which are derived from a multitude of chemicals.
- Read the ingredient list on the label before buying any personal care products, cleaning products, baby lotions or wipes, perfumes and colognes, air fresheners, candles, tumble dryer sheets, detergents or fabric softeners. If the ingredients mention a “fragrance”, the product is best avoided.
- Only buy brands which use 100% natural fragrances to scent their products, such as plant-based essential oils which are natural and non-synthetic. If in doubt about any ingredients in a product, contact companies directly and ask them questions about their production process and ingredients.
- You can make your own natural air freshener or body sprays using a spray bottle, water and a few drops of essential oil. Make a roll-on perfume by mixing a carrier oil such as almond oil with essential oils in a roller bottle.
- Don’t use commercial cleaning products, make your own using vinegar, lemon and bicarb. You can also add vinegar to your washing machine as an alternative to fabric softener.
- Make your own natural skincare (moisturisers, body lotions, shampoos, face masks) using natural ingredients such as coconut oil, rose water, honey and lemon.
Start reading labels
The chemicals found in synthetic fragrances are harmful for your health and should be avoided at all costs. Start reading labels so you know what you’re putting on your skin and cleaning your home and clothes with. Only buy ethical brands which use 100% natural ingredients; or even better, make your own skincare and cleaning products using simple ingredients from your kitchen cupboard.