The Correct Spelling of Perfume: Poison

By Carol Mizrahi

Fragrance hypersensitivity has become the most common allergy among adults. More than 2 millions Americans suffer from a condition called "multiple chemical sensitivity." This means they're either allergic to the fragrances that go into perfumes, colognes and other scented products, or to the additional 12 to 18 toxins typically added from a cauldron of 5,000 chemicals.

These chemicals can cause a variety of allergic reactions, such as headaches, migraines, asthma, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, inability to concentrate, dizziness, raw throat, and skin allergies such as hives and rashes.

Diethyl phthalate — DEP and DEHP, now banned in Europe, commonly used in fragrances — have been linked to breast cancer, liver, kidney and lung damage, weight gain, diabetes and hormone dysfunction. Other toxins affect brain function and have been linked to attention deficit disorder. Parabens, frequently used as preservatives, influence early onset of puberty in girls.

A study at the University of Rochester found that women who had used perfumes and other fragranced products 24 hours prior to a urine test had three times the amount of the phthalate MEP (linked to breast cancer) in their urine than did women who had not used any fragranced products.

Even so-called "natural" perfumes or colognes often contain an additive called geraniol, safe by itself but transformed into the allergen geranial when in contact with skin enzymes and acids.

On Oct. 3, a passenger on an air flight reacted to a perfume scent onboard and fainted. The emergency crew that administered oxygen saved the man's life.

I began to wonder — was I putting dangerous chemicals on myself, endangering others and polluting the environment?

With the help of a magnifying glass, I read the label on the Lustre-Glo can, which promised to give my house plants "the glow of health." Although no ingredients were listed, there was a warning to flush immediately if I got any Lustre-Glo on my skin, and if the discomfort continued, to call a doctor.

My deodorant warned: "Don't wear on broken skin and contact a doctor before using if you have kidney disease" (yup, in that order). Of the 14 four-syllable ingredients listed, I understood only one — "fragrance."

Now that was frightening; after all, if the manufacturer was willing to list ingredients that sounded like a prescription for chemical warfare, how much more perilous were the toxins that weren't disclosed; that were hidden within the catchall of "fragrance"?

My hair gel listed 24 ingredients; among them, geraniol. Remember geraniol? "Safe until it comes into contact with skin enzymes and acids." All muck perfumes contain galaxoide and tonalide, two contaminants found to harm the endocrine glands.

Neither my Revlon powder nor blush listed its contents, and the label on my nail polish was unreadable, written in pale white ink and in letters the size of a microscopic dot. My hair spray listed 31 ingredients, and included the ubiquitous word "fragrance," while the bathroom freshener contained benzene and formaldehyde, two chemicals linked to cancer.

How can it be that hundreds of chemicals used in everyday products go to market untested and that potentially toxic chemicals can be hidden from consumers under the guise of "fragrance"? Is no one minding the store?

The National Academy of Sciences has repeatedly asked the Food and Drug Administration to fund research to study the long-term effect of toxins on human health. These requests have been ignored. As for mandating that manufacturers list all ingredients in fragranced products on packaging, this isn't going to happen; at least, not until the federal government rescinds the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which exempts manufacturers from disclosure in order to protect their "proprietary blends" and "trade secrets."

Nice! Protect the potential killers but not the victims!

More people are using more fragrances and more manufacturers are adding more toxins to their products. The longer a person is exposed to toxins, the greater the possibility that he or she will experience multiple chemical sensitivity. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population is currently projected to have fragrance-related breathing problems by the age of 65.

But we don't have to take it! We can fight back by:

— Contacting our U.S. congressman and pressing for repeal of the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act and demanding that all fragranced products be tested before going to market.

— Boycotting fragrance producers who do not list all ingredients (and let them know).

— Asking that your workplace and other public venues become perfume-free environments. If your health is being compromised, apprise management of the number of successful lawsuits brought against offenders under the American Disabilities Act.

— Joining one or more of the organizations fighting for a fragrance-free Environment: the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics ( and the Environmental Working Group (

— Asking magazines and newspapers that deliver toxic perfume samples inside their pages to remove them before mailing to you. If they refuse, unsubscribe.

— Following the tacit advice of perfume manufacturers who have created perfumes that replicate the smell of soap (i.e. Dia PerfumeGold, Happy Heart, Clean Shower and My Voyage) by throwing out your perfumes and showering daily — with soap. You will save your health, the environment and between $75 and $270 dollars.

And, finally, always carry a mini-fan with you for self-defense. Blow unwanted scents back to their offenders.

The Bottom Whine: Breathing in fragranced products may be more hazardous to your health than inhaling second-hand smoke.