L'essence du Suffrance

Last week, one of my fellow students doused herself with “Eau du BarFly” perfume before coming to class. I’m not sure who it was – the scent permeated the room, and the rest of us were too polite to stand up and say, “HEY – WHO STINKS?!”

Perfumes, cologne, and other scented hygiene products can enhance the impression you make on others when used appropriately. When overdone, though, they make things miserable for everyone around you – and what’s worse, many people don’t realize that these substances contribute to a serious indoor air quality problem. 

Fragrances are comprised of chemicals, of course. The Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn’t require manufacturers to tell us what’s in perfume, soap, detergent, air fresheners, or other scented products, but Professor Anne Steinemann and her team at the University of Washington tested some of these products in the lab – including many purporting to be “green” or “organic” – and discovered that the fragrances emitted over 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are considered to be hazardous, toxic pollutants. They also discovered that while some of the VOCs weren’t, themselves, toxic, they will react with other substances already in the air to produce secondary pollutants. 

This is dangerous for everyone, but people with allergies or chemical sensitivities are especially susceptible to fragrances. Some chemicals found in fragrances produce an “irritant response” when they make contact with the respiratory system. The delicate tissues of the airways swell and the bronchial tubes tighten up, triggering severe asthma attacks. (Baur)

General Population
Chemically Sensitive
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
(Adapted from the survey conducted by Caress & Steinemann)

It’s nice to smell nice. But when you marinate in your favorite perfume, not only are you sitting in your own toxic cloud all day, but you’re also inflicting it on everyone around you. (A week later, the jacket I was wearing in class that day still smells like someone at the nightclub was trying too hard.) It’s annoying at best, and for some people, it’s a genuine threat to their health. Please stop it.


Baur, X., et al. “Occupational asthma to perfume.” Allergy 54:12 (1999): 1334-1335. Wiley Online Library. Web. 24 October, 2015.

Caress, Stanley M. and Anne C. Steinmann. “Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population.” Journal of Environmental Health. 71.7 (2009): 46-50. Web. 18 October, 2015.

Steinemann, Anne C., et al. “Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted.” Environmental Impact Assessment Review 31.3 (2011): 328-333. Elsevier ScienceDirect Journals. Web. 20 October, 2015.