The Problem with Perfume

I committed a major faux pas last week by showing up in a yoga class with an aroma of perfume. A yoga teacher should know better. I do, but was tempted by a quick fix. In a rush, sweaty from a cardio workout, I spritzed some perfume on as I scurried out the door. The instructor picked it up during the first sun salutation and I was duty bound to admit it was me. Fans started whirling and no one complained, but I was shamed none the less. As penance, I am forcing myself to get better educated and write about it.

It’s tempting to hide behind a moment of bad judgement and an excuse that I always keep lavender and rosemary essential oils tucked into my yoga and pilates bags in the car. But honestly, I don’t ever recollect being bothered by scent one way or the other. I love smells, whether flower or food. However, some people are quite sensitive to fragrance. Now I know why.

Synthetic scents are in 40% of all personal care products. Cleaning supplies,  perfumed candles, laundry detergent, air fresheners – the list goes on. And the FDA, which is in charge of regulating the safety of such things, often cannot ask companies about their fragrance chemicals. The problem is phthalates, a class of chemicals the are a common component of synthetic fragrance. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a damning report in 2000 and studies have continued with the Environmental Working Group leading the charge along with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Multiple studies have linked certain phthalates to reproductive damage, endocrine system toxicity, abnormal development in babies and sperm damage in men.

Here an easy way to know if you are being exposed. If someone leaves a room and you can still smell his or her fragrance, it probably has phthalates in it. And fragrance-contact allergy has become a global health problem, with up to 11% of people now sensitive or allergic to fragrance. It can be a sneeze, a rash, or a full-blown reaction that involves the immune system. Such reactions respond well to steroids, but who wants to go there if you don’t have to.

There are better scents. They have been around for most of human existence and I have many bottles collected from years of aromatherapy exploration. See – I should know better! Essential oils from plants have been used for millennia to treat both physical and psychological health. They are best extracted from steam and offer pleasure and healing. Valerie Bennis, a certified aromatherapist and founder of Essence of Vali line of natural aromatic products says, “Essential oils and synthetic fragrances are as different from each other as whole food and processed food.”

Cutting the smell of sweat with an essential oil is lovely, but now researchers are showing their health benefits as well. According to a 2010 study in Germany, jasmine is as effective as valium in relieving anxiety and promoting sleep among lab mice. Other studies show lavender and clary sage also soothe anxiety, orange reduces stress, and peppermint oil can ease digestive troubles. In fact, a 2012 study showed that peppermint oil was more effective than  antiemetic medications in quelling post-surgical nausea and vomiting. Aromatherapy is a mainstay tool of Ayurvedic medicine, developed in ancient India and still alive and well today.

So if you get a headache or feel nauseated when encountering a heavy fragrance, sneeze or wheeze from strong scents, or break out in a rash when using certain soaps or laundry detergent, you are not alone. Try to avoid exposure, focus on whole foods in your diet, use a small air purifier at work and a vacuum with a HEPA filter at home. You may want to ask your local acupunturist or chiropractor about NAET Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques which use a combination of therapies to help desensitize patients to allergens. Check out for more information.

In the meantime, I promise never to use perfume before a yoga class again. I am truly sorry!


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Comments ( 3 )

  • Being a certified aromatherapist myself I can completely relate. I cannot tolerate synthetic fragrance, it is so overwhelming to my senses, and I love when they say the scent is something that occurs in nature, and if you have smelled the real thing, it smells absolutely nothing like it. I see it with products claimed to smell like ginger and vanilla all the time.

    • Lisayogini

      Thank you for your response. Even with natural essential oils, some people are still sensitive. This is why certified aromatherapists are so valuable!

  • I’ve become more sensitive to the smell of perfumes as I’ve gotten older. I definitely avoid the use of perfumes and much prefer essential oils – but even those can be overpowering at times!

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