Fragrance's Stinky Secret: A Tell-All by Coach Caitie


I don’t know about you, but over the past few years I have loved seeing more and more product labels touting “SLS-Free” and “Paraben-Free.” Even if you’re not entirely – or remotely – sure what that means or why it’s important, when you choose those products over others, you likely assume you’re making a healthier choice. Yay.

That’s true. A healthy-er choice. Sorry-not-sorry, but I want more. Because I know better, and I’m going to tell you some stuff so you know better, too.

Most of those SLS and Paraben-Free products still have some pretty crap ingredients.

Let’s talk fragrance.

I’m not sure if this has always been true for me and I just wasn’t as in-tune with my body before or if this is something that has developed over time, but I have physical and immediate reactions to fragrance. My throat gets scratchy, my eyes itch, I break out in rashes, I get headaches, and I get so P-O’d whenever me and fragrance cross paths. I do all I can to keep my home fragrance-free (which is aggravatingly difficult), but the world at large is fragrance-laden, so I’ve become obsessed with spreading this message and figuring out ways to make an impact on this issue.

Maybe you can’t relate to having annoying side effects you can trace back to fragrance like I can, but I’m telling you, one way or another it is bringing. you. down. How? We’ll get there…

Okay, but like what is it?

Straight from the FDA’s website: “In most cases, each ingredient must be listed individually. But under U.S. regulations, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as ‘Fragrance’ or ‘Flavor’ … Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and synthetic chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are most likely to be ‘trade secrets.’”

The Fair Packaging and Labelling Act, passed in 1967, protects companies from giving up “trade secrets.” So basically, “fragrance” is an arbitrary term that serves as a catch-all for over 3,000 different chemicals. Yep, over 3,000. If an ingredient is listed as “fragrance” on your cleaning and personal-care products, it is really some combination up to 100 of those chemicals. The average is 14 chemicals if you’re curious.

So that’s a giant, shady loophole, and companies can abuse that law. If they don’t want their consumers knowing they’re using anything potentially hazardous, they can brush those ingredients under the fragrance rug, not having to list them.

Lame, but why does this matter?

To get to the point: many of the chemicals under the fragrance umbrella are downright toxic.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… your skin is the largest organ of your body. You’ve heard it before. When you put anything on your skin, you risk uptaking it directly into your bloodstream and potentially hanging onto it for decades in your fat cells. Oh, and ditto for what you’re breathing into your lungs.

Again, there are over 3,000 chemicals that can be listed on an ingredient list as a fragrance. A large portion of those chemicals have not even been tested to know how exactly they affect us. Scary. Over 1,200 have been deemed toxic or potentially toxic by studies done around the world.

95% of chemicals in synthetic fragrances come from petrochemicals, such as:

Phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates) are said to be in approximately 75% of fragrance-laden products and are used to prolong scent and help it stick to your skin. They are most known for disrupting testosterone production and affecting reproductive development and reduced sperm count in males, but they are also linked to liver and breast cancer. Phthalates are banned in the EU, Japan, Canada, South Korea, and China.

Acetaldehyde has negative effects on the respiratory, nervous, and reproductive systems. (Noticing a trend? Could all this crap be causing the rise of infertility rates today?)

Benzophenone and its derivatives are endocrine disruptors and possible carcinogens.

Are you on Pinterest? pin this image to help spread the goodness (& remember it later)

Put this knowledge to work.

First of all, don’t put too much cred in the label “fragrance-free.”

Companies such as Neutrogena use some of these nasty chemicals to cover up the actual smell of their products without listing them as fragrances.

Many companies say their products are “fragrance-free” while still having natural sources of fragrance listed in the ingredients such as essential oils or certain extracts. This is good to know if you have developed sensitivities even to natural fragrances. Personally, I do just fine with many natural fragrances, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Solution: Actually read the ingredients list on all the products you’re consuming – not just your food.

Vote with your dollar. Vote for transparency. I applaud the companies that list out every single ingredient versus exploiting the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act loophole – even if they’re still using crap I hate. It’s nice to have the choice to make a well-informed decision, is it not?

There are companies I previously supported before I knew better, such as Lush and Pacifica, because I thought that they were totally natural and awesome. Yay for them being pioneers for the SLS and Paraben-Free stuff going on. BUT they list “fragrance” on many of their products’ ingredient list, so I have no way of knowing the full story there. It’s naive to assume companies have our best interests at heart or even that they understand 100% how the (often untested) ingredients could be affecting us even if they do have the very best of intentions.

Check out the Think Dirty app. This app lets you scan the barcode of many household items, and it will tell you on a scale from 1-10 how bad the product is for you and why it made a particular rating. Anything with fragrance is automatically categorized in the red zone at at least an 8 (unsafe). This take the guesswork out of things, but you’ll find it’s sadly quite challenging to find toxic-free replacements to your favorite products.

I’ll be making a recommended resources page if you need some extra support making changes in this area. In the meantime, if you’re curious, email me at or comment below.

Try not to feel overwhelmed here. It’d be a pretty daunting, not to mention costly, task to toss out all your personal care and cleaning products. (You’ll find basically all of your common products have “fragrance” or “parfum” listed on their labels).

Try this instead: as you run out of product, choose a less toxic option to replace it.


I’m going to be a bit of a Debbie Downer here, but doesn’t it kind of suck that we have to do so much to educate ourselves in order to make sure we’re consuming products that aren’t going to give us cancer or cause our fertility to plummet? It really does. Just do your best to stay informed (don’t worry, I’ll help), vote with your dollar, and spread the word.

Thanks for reading!


P.S. I wrote this post annnnd this one that cover what & when to eat for radiant skin. Create health from the inside out, and you won’t even NEED as many self-care products. This will save you big bucks and any frustration trying to figure out replacements for everything in your medicine cabinet!
P.P.S. Not sure where to start putting this insight into action? Here’s the direction I’d point you to: ditch antiperspirant!



“CDC – NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards – Acetaldehyde.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29 Nov. 2018,

“CDC – Skin Exposures and Effects – NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 July 2013,

“Endocrine Disruption.” TEDX – The Endocrine Disruption Exchange,

“GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals List Translator Scores for Fragrance Chemicals.” Women’s Voices for the Earth,

“Ingredients – Fragrances in Cosmetics.” U S Food and Drug Administration, Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, 8 Aug. 2018,

“Ingredients and Transparency.” Ingredients and Transparency – IFRA International Fragrance Association – in Every Sense,

Phthalates and Their Alternatives: Health and Environmental Concerns. Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Jan. 2011,

“Scent of Danger: Are There Toxic Ingredients in Perfumes and Colognes?” Scientific American,

Scranton, Alex. “How Well Is the Fragrance Industry Managing the Toxicity of Fragrance Ingredients?” Women’s Voices for the Earth, 28 Sept. 2018,

“The Proposition 65 List.”,

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