Making Sense Of Scents

The difference between natural and artificial fragrance

by Mia White

The goal of this article is to help you to become a more informed consumer and to inspire you to eliminate artificial fragrance from your lives. Many hospitals, school systems, the CDC (Center for Disease Control), and Martha Stewart have already done it. By the end of this article, you will know why, and you will understand that when your friend or co-worker asks you not to wear perfume around her—she’s not being rude or finicky—she is one of the growing millions of chemically sensitive people; she is the ‘miner’s canary,’ warning you of dangerous air quality before you can detect it.  This article also introduces you to the joys and health benefits of natural fragrant essential oils for yourself, your family, and all those around you.

What is Scent, Anyway?

Scent is a gas—one of the three forms of matter. It may be invisible, but just as the oxygen we breathe is composed of molecules that have a very specific chemical composition, so is any thing we can smell (and many things we can’t). The different chemicals in natural scents have complex effects on the brain and the body, triggering a wide range of responses: pleasure, relaxation, excitement, danger, revulsion. These molecules also enter the bloodstream through the respiratory system and the skin.

Our sense of smell is a valuable tool that has guided us for millennia––to know when food is good to eat or spoiled, telling us to hold our breath when near skunk spray or diesel or paint fumes, attracting us to the smell of roses and lavender and our babies’ heads, alerting us to the smell of fire, telling us that snow is coming.

Until the mid-1970s, all perfume was made from plant flowers, leaves, seeds, stems, and bark that humans had used for millennia, for many medicinal purposes in addition to pleasant aroma. Unfortunately, scientists developed chemicals that could mimic floral scents.  Since then, artificial fragrance use in toiletries, household cleaning products and far more, has been on the rise, and has become recognized as a health hazard that is getting much attention around the world.  It’s no wonder:  According to the National Academy of Sciences, 95% of artificial fragrance chemicals are derived from petroleum (and the other 5% also from toxic chemicals), and are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.  The fragrance industry is exempted from disclosing ingredients, claiming the need for trade secret protection.  The term fragrance on a product label can represent anywhere from one to hundreds of volatile organic compounds, each of which have varying degrees of toxicity, without the consumer having any idea what they’re buying.

The Effects Of Artificial Fragrance

This has left consumers in the dark about a growing health threat, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). MCS is now called “The 20th Century Disease,” the dangers of which are likened to second-hand smoke. [See this outstanding paper,, for a history of this issue and the scope of current research and policy on it.] MCS is now recognized as an official disability by the ADA, as millions of people are affected by it. It often occurs after a significant exposure to a toxic substance (which can occur in utero), but can also develop gradually through frequent exposure to low levels of toxins. The range of symptoms people report from exposure to artificial fragrance includes respiratory distress, headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, itching, sore throat, muscle pain or stiffness, skin rash, digestive distress, trouble concentrating, and mood changes. For such people, it can be impossible to work in an office environment, and difficult just to take a walk in a neighborhood with the smell of laundry products entering the air through dryer vents. Once someone has become chemically sensitive, it is very difficult to reverse. This is largely because so many of the chemicals used in fragrance are “bio-accumulating,” that is, they build up in the liver and cannot be broken down by it to be eliminated.

While not every natural essential oil is good for every person at every time in every form, there are never health benefits in artificial fragrance, and all of it is toxic to varying degrees.  Even for those not sensitive to it, it still poses a health threat, and the more exposure you have, the greater the chance you will become sensitive.

Artificial fragrance is in perfume/cologne/aftershave, toiletries (shampoo, body wash, lotion, deodorant, cosmetics), room fresheners, scented candles, laundry products, cleaning products, medications, some trash bags, and much more.

The EPA has recently composed a list of 117 “safer” chemicals to be used in fragrance, in order for the product to earn the DfE (Design for the Environment) label. Ninety-three of the 117 “safer” products have hazard profiles of either “known sensitizer” or “repeat dose toxicant.” See the EPA website page for this list and the hazard ratings.

The EPA is not protecting consumers, so it’s up to us to follow the example set by the CDC. Avoiding artificial fragrance may seem a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be (helpful hints offered below).  I know; change is hard. You may feel your right to exercise choice is being limited. But this is about more choice, not less. It’s about being empowered to consciously choose products that truly support and enhance your life and relationships and the health of all people (and your pets), instead of being the uninformed supporter of commercial concerns that don’t have your best interests at heart.  How to begin? We’ll get to that soon.

The Benefits of Natural Fragrances

Now for the fun part. There are 100s of natural plant essential oils with a wide range of known health benefits demonstrated over many centuries––and wonderful smells––and many product lines that include them. Lavender, rose, eucalyptus, rosemary, mint, and jasmine are some of the most well-known and well-loved natural scents, but there are so many more you will come to know and love as you journey into the world of natural fragrance. Some of their many benefits with examples in ( ) include:

• Calming (lavender, rose)
• Improves mood (peppermint, lavender, jasmine)
• Improves memory & concentration (rosemary, peppermint, lemon)
• Energizing (peppermint, eucalyptus, rosemary)
• Sleep-enhancing (lavender, rose)
• Immune-enhancing (rose, cedar)
• Digestive aid (peppermint, rosemary)
• Respiratory aid (eucalyptus, peppermint)
• Anti-cancer (rosemary, lemongrass, frankincense)
• Anti-inflammatory (eucalyptus, juniper)
• Anti-viral (tea tree, eucalyptus, tea tree, lavender, rosemary)
• Anti-allergy (eucalyptus, juniper)
• Antiseptic (tea tree, lavender)
• Wound healing (lavender, rosemary, tea tree)

How to be an Informed Consumer

Choose products labeled “fragrance free” or “scented only with natural essential oils” (and look for products fee from parabens and phthalates while you’re at it).  If a product lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, it is almost always artificial. If a product claims to be “natural” or “hypoallergenic,” it may mean nothing as there is no legal definition for those terms. Google to learn more. Choose products that voluntarily disclose all ingredients. And, learn about the brands that you can always trust.

For household cleaning and laundry, my favorites are Seventh Generation • Earth Friendly • Biokleen • Citrasolve • Planet • and Ecover (NOT Mrs. Myer’s—mostly artificial fragrance marketing themselves as natural).
For personal care, my favorites are Burt’s Bees • Badger • Acure Organics •EO • Alba • Aloe Life • Desert Essence • BWC • Andalou Naturals • California Baby • Derma E • Dr. Bronner’s • Earth Therapeutics • Ecco Bella • Earth Science • and  Tom’s of Maine.

Many of these clean brands and more are carried locally by Whole Foods and Rebecca’s Natural Foods. A few items are now carried by Harris Teeter and CVS. A great cost-saving online source for these products is––use this referral code to save $10 on your first order:

Once you have made the switch to having only non-toxic and natural cleaning products, laundry products, personal care, and cosmetic products in your home and your life, you will be so glad you did. You may notice you don’t get those headaches anymore, or that you have more energy, or that your children’s chronic sniffles disappear and dispositions improve. You’ll be enjoying your enhanced sense of smell, and all the new beneficial scents in your life.  And you’ll almost certainly breathe easier.