World Environment Day: why your perfume is now a worse pollutant than your car

Posted by Liz Cook on

You've probably heard it said that fragrance is the new secondhand smoke. But the latest research adds that fragrance is now the new car pollution.


Even though fifteen times more petroleum is consumed as fuel than is used as ingredients in industrial and consumer products, the amount of chemical vapours emitted to the atmosphere in scented products is roughly the same, says lead author Brian McDonald, CIRES scientist working at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). A recent paper published in the journal Science (Feb 2018) states that VOCs emitted from petrochemicals products like perfumes, paint, pesticides and glues now contribute to half of fossil fuel VOC emissions in thirty-three industrialised cities.

So before you rush out and buy a Prius or plant a forest full of trees, it might be wise first to assess your use of synthetic fragrance (think perfume, candles, air fresheners and anything synthetically else scented).


VOCs (Volatile organic compounds) are chemical vapours containing carbon molecules that readily evaporate. Fossil fuels and petrochemicals contain a wide variety of VOCS which are dangerous to human health and the environment.

Synthetic fragrance, which is made almost entirely from petrochemically-derived ingredients, contains a high level of many different VOCs. And it’s not just the cheap fragrances; perfumes found in departments stores, pharmacies and even specialty perfume boutiques contain at least 95% synthetic fragrance (yes, even the one you just paid $260 for), and around 90% of those are synthesised from petroleum or coal tar. 


VOCs interact with sunlight and other particles in the air to create the building blocks of smog, namely ozone, which can trigger asthma and permanently scar the lungs, and are linked to heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer. Air pollution has also been linked to dementia and restricted brain development in children. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), immediate health effects include headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, loss of coordination, asthma exacerbation and nausea.

Research suggests that 35% of us experience intolerance or allergic reactions to synthetic perfumes, such as migraines, headaches, breathing problems, asthma and anxiety.

Harmful VOCs are not always immediately toxic, but have compounding long-term health effects which develop slowly. Possible longer-term effects include liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, and cancer.

Exposure to air pollution is the fifth ranking human health risk factor globally, after malnutrition, dietary risks, high blood pressure, and tobacco.  A recent study suggests that adverse human health effects occur below current U.S. standards for ‘safe’ emissions, so our reliance on 'safe standards' of pollution is not actually protecting our health or the environment.


VOCs in their biological form are also emitted from plants as part of their communication – used to attract pollinators, protect against certain environmental stressors, and repel herbivores as well as communicate with other plants and assess the surrounding environment.

VOCs in nature serve a critical function, and serve to maintain balance in the environment. In addition, research demonstrates that plant extracts contain many substances that can have positive effects on health and wellbeing, with the ability to improve mood, memory and sleep, calm the central nervous system, decrease inflammation and pain, assist healing and immunity and even fight cancer.

Odours from plant sources are known as biophilic (the idea that humans possess an innate and likely genetic tendency to seek connections with nature) and have been shown to improve our overall sense of wellbeing, health and connectedness, as well as promote healing.

With reducing emissions and improving our health and wellness being the front of most of our minds these days, is it time to rethink your use of synthetic scent?




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