The top 5 most common toxins found in mainstream perfumes

The top 5 most common toxins found in perfumes

Credit photo: Cottonbro studio

When it comes to choosing a perfume, many of us focus on the scent and how it makes us feel, without considering the potentially harmful chemicals that may be lurking inside. We are counting down the top 5 chemicals commonly used in perfumes that have been linked to various health and environmental concerns.


Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are commonly used in the manufacturing of plastic products, including fragrances and perfumes. Specifically, two types of phthalates are frequently found in mainstream perfumes, namely DEP and DEHP.

Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is used as a solvent in perfumes to help the different fragrance ingredients blend together, thereby making the scent last longer. While DEP is generally considered safe for humans, some studies have shown that it can disrupt the endocrine system, negatively impact male fertility, and harm the development of foetuses during pregnancy.

Di(2-Ethylhexyl) phthalates (DEHP) is used as a fragrance carrier in perfumes, which means that it helps blend and hold the ingredients together, as well as providing a long-lasting scent. However, DEHP has been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption. Since 2008, the use of DEHP in children's toys and childcare products has been banned if it exceeds 0.1% concentration.


Steryne, a man-made chemical, is commonly used in the manufacturing of various plastic products, including latex. In the perfume industry, styrene is often employed to improve the longevity of fragrances. While the use of styrene in perfumes has been widely accepted, recent studies have raised concerns about the chemical's potential health risks. Some research has linked styrene exposure to cancer as well as damage to the central nervous system, prompting regulatory agencies to impose restrictions on its usage in certain products.

Musk ketone

Musk ketone is a synthetic musk that is widely used in the perfume industry due to its ability to mimic the scent of natural musk, as well as its properties as a fixative and scent enhancer. While musk ketone is a popular ingredient in many fragrances, it has been linked to various health and environmental concerns.

Studies have shown that exposure to musk ketone can lead to brain cell degeneration, hormone disruption, and even cancer. Furthermore, musk ketone has a low biodegradability, meaning that it does not break down easily in the environment and can accumulate over time. As a result, it poses a risk to aquatic life and can potentially contaminate water sources.

Methylene chloride or dichloromethane (DCM)

Methylene chloride, also known as dichloromethane, is a highly potent solvent with a wide range of industrial and commercial applications. It is commonly used for stripping paint, degreasing metals, and decaffeinating coffee. Additionally, it has been used in the perfume industry as a solvent, despite being banned for this use since 1988.

Methylene chloride is associated with numerous health hazards and toxicity concerns. The chemical has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, particularly liver and lung cancer, due to prolonged exposure in industrial settings. Moreover, methylene chloride can cross the placental barrier during pregnancy, potentially causing harm to the developing foetus. It is also known to be a skin irritant and can cause chemical burns upon contact.

Despite being officially banned for use in perfumes, methylene chloride may still be present in certain fragrance products due to inadequate regulation and oversight.


Parabens are a group of chemicals commonly used in perfumes and other cosmetics to prevent bacterial growth and prolong shelf life. It's important to note that parabens come in different types, and while methylparaben and propylparaben are most commonly used in perfumes, ethylparaben and butylparaben can also be used, albeit less frequently.

One of the main concerns regarding the use of parabens is their ability to accumulate in the body. While methylparaben is known to be flushed out of the body relatively quickly, it can trigger allergic reactions and contact dermatitis in some people. Moreover, methylparaben has been in the spotlight due to its potential link to cancer, particularly when mixed with exposure to sunlight, which can cause cancerous skin damage.

Propylparaben, on the other hand, has been associated with decreased fertility and can also alter the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells. Additionally, propylparaben has been shown to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells, which is a significant concern.

It's worth noting that while research on the potential risks of parabens is still ongoing, many companies have started to shift towards alternative preservatives in response to consumer demand for paraben-free products.

In conclusion

Perfume manufacturers are shielded by intellectual property laws, which allow them to omit some or all of the ingredients from their product labels. While some perfumers opt for complete transparency, many big brands only provide partial or no information at all. This has led to a surge in health and environmentally conscious individuals switching to natural perfumes, more likely offer full ingredient disclosure and stir away from chemicals altogether.