The Duplicitous Nature of (Synthetic) Fragrance

As soon as I slipped into the passenger seat of my son’s Toyota RAV4, I knew I was in trouble. We were in the mood for Chipotle and I told him I would buy if he would take on the suburban Denver traffic. It wasn’t a hard sell. A few moments later, however, I regretted the decision.

It wasn’t his driving that concerned me, but the faint scent from the air freshener that danced beneath the mirror.

air feshener


Up until a few months prior, I was swallowing a daily pill for migraines. It began in early May 2015. Headaches have been a nemesis since childhood, but this one was the worst. For nearly a week it plagued me, unremitting pain with dizziness and nausea. I thought maybe I had a sinus infection. It continued throughout a weekend women’s retreat. On the morning I was scheduled to speak I found myself on the bathroom floor, vomiting, and praying I would be able to follow through with my commitment. I did, barely.

Although headaches were relatively common for me, this unrelenting pain was so intense that my husband drove me straight to the acute care clinic on the return home from the retreat. I just wanted to curl up on the hospital bed, bury my head from all sights and sounds, and make the pain go away.

“Have you been under any unusual stress?” The doctor asked.


“No,” I mumbled at the same time my husband said “yes.” Even though I gave him the look, my husband went on to explain that I had been in the theater during the shooting in July 2012, and, as everyone knew, the trial was just beginning,. We would be attending some of it.  He rattled off a few other emotionally intense happenings.  “Plus, she was speaking at a women’s retreat this weekend,” he finished.

That was all it took. The doctor told me I was having a migraine, gave me some pills, and instructed me to follow up with my own doctor – who put me on a daily medication.

Despite the medication, I continued to have migraines for the next couple of years, even after the dosage was increased. I soon realized that my biggest trigger was synthetic fragrances. As far back as I could remember, scented candles, scented laundry detergent, and plug-in air fresheners opened the door to head pain and nausea. Perfumes, colognes, scented lotions, cleaning products, hair products, cosmetics, and a host of other items that contained artificial fragrances assaulted me as well, leaving my head pounding and my stomach spinning within moments in their presence. At the beginning of the year, I had to leave the church we attended because over the course of the summer, the school where we met installed an automatic air freshener. Instead of the joy that church attendance usually brought, I would battle head pain and dizziness, not just during the service but for days afterwards.

I discovered I wasn’t alone. When I would mention to someone that I had to avoid certain people or activities because of perfumes or scents, frequently he or she would nod knowingly.  A USA Today article cites an astonishing statistic – some 30 percent of Americans are adversely affected by scented products. The list includes more than migraine sufferers.

I also learned a bit about what it means – or can mean – when a product lists “fragrance” under the ingredients list. According to an Environmental Health Perspective report on the National Institute of Health website,

A single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals, some of which (e.g., limonene, a citrus scent) react with ozone in ambient air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde.2 The researchers detected 133 different VOCs. Most commonly detected were limonene, α- and β-pinene (pine scents), and ethanol and acetone (often used as carriers for fragrance chemicals).1

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and laundry products, currently does not require manufacturers to disclose any ingredients on the label, including fragrances in these products.4 The same is true for fragrances in personal care items, which are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration.5 The Household Product Labeling Act, currently under review in the U.S. Senate, would require manufacturers to label consumer products with all ingredients, including fragrance mixtures.6 “Disclosing all ingredients could be a first step to understanding potential toxicity and health effects,” says Anne Steinemann, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle,

I’m not sure if labeling laws have changed since the article, but I do know that many products simply list fragrance as an ingredient.

The scent may be bliss for some, but it can make life miserable for a whole lot of others. And even if the smell is pleasant, without notable side effects, it could be emitting a dangerous combination of toxins.

In March of this year, after many months of struggling with vision issues, I had procedures done on both of my eyes for Acute Angle Glaucoma. In the process, I learned that the migraine medication I was on could cause eye pressure issues. I weaned myself off from it.

I avoid scented products, and have remained migraine free, despite many stressful life situations.

A short HUFFPOST article or  this post on fragrance ingredient intelligence  gives a great synopsis of how and why to avoid synthetic fragrances.

Yeah, some things may not be seen  smelled with the same reaction by all people. By sharing, I hope to open awareness to those who may not know, or have never thought about what their synthetic fragrances might be doing.  You don’t have to go fragrance free, though!


If you cannot give up your love affair with scents, consider a safe alternative. During my journey, a friend whose husband was finishing up pharmaceutical school introduced me to a wonderful option for those who avoid synthetic fragrances: essential oils. I know that there are a lot of MLM companies out there, but I find that Eden’s Garden has the highest quality, most cost effective essential oils and products made naturally.

Annnndddd because the Lord always seems to give me a biblical analogy of some sort, I’ll leave you with this: if you share your hope in Christ with others,  it won’t always be received the same way by all people. Some – those who are perishing without Christ – just might see you  as an offensive odor. But there is nothing synthetic about Him, He is  not merely the essence of hope and life, He IS hope and life. Therefore, always be ready to give an answer for the Fragrant Hope that is in you.

But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.  2 Corinthians 2:14-16 NLT

1 thought on “The Duplicitous Nature of (Synthetic) Fragrance

  1. I am with you on the synthetic fragrances…. cannot stand them…. I do not get migraines, usually, but I can’t stand the smells….. so I get what you are saying….. thanks for sharing!

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