Want to Smell Good? Think Again – Fragrances Could Be Harming Your Health

Want to Smell Good? Think Again – Fragrances Could Be Harming Your Health
Your sense of smell is something that influences your life in more ways than you realize. 

Think about it. When you were little you may recall the smell of grandma’s cookies baking, or grandpa’s pipe tobacco. As you get older you might be fond of that fresh cut grass smell, coffee in the morning, or the famous “brand new car smell”.

It’s amazing how scents and fragrances actually tie into a lot of other areas of a person’s life. For instance, if you’ve been around someone who hasn’t taken a shower in a few days, you may begin to think that person doesn’t care about being presentable. Your respect may lower, and you may begin to question their advice or perspective. This can apply for many areas pertaining to our perception of beauty, status, or even worth. 

And it’s not just the smell of the person. Psychologists have studied how environmental smell has the power to bring up memories, positive or negative feelings, and even certain behaviors (1).

Is there anything wrong with wanting your body, house and clothes to smell good? Not necessarily, unless it comes at the risk of your health…

Let’s look into where certain smells come from, the dangers of synthetic fragrances, and more natural alternatives. 

Where Does Odor Come From?

Whether it’s old socks, expired deli meat, or dirty gym clothes, there’s no denying the world can be a pretty smelly place. Bad smells generally come from bacteria and yeasts as they break down particles. This bacteria emits a gas, and that’s what we pick up on as bad odor (10). 

As a kid, you really didn’t have much of a body odor. Even when you sweat, there probably wasn’t much else. Once you hit puberty, though, hormones changed and the smell began.

But it’s not actually your sweat that smells. In your skin are glands called apocrine glands. These produce sweat when your internal temperature is too warm and needs to cool down. Body odor happens when the bacteria on your skin breaks down acids in the sweat. And the by-product of sweat and bacteria is the smell we know as body odor (2).

All these bad odors are typically unpleasant, which means you probably want to reach for something that will replace the bad smell with a good one. But is that Airwick a good choice?

Natural vs Artificial

It’s true that certain smells can evoke feelings of serenity, comfort, fear or disgust. And while scents play many physical, psychological and societal roles, it’s important to remember that fragrances can be natural or artificial. Some examples of natural fragrances can be:

  • A freshly peeled orange 

  • Dried cinnamon sticks 

  • Essential oils

  • Wood burning in a campfire or woodstove

  • Roses or other strong flowers

Artificial fragrances come from chemical combinations made from petroleum based oil. And while some people seem resistant to its harm, roughly 30% of the population are quite sensitive and pick up on the negative effects right away (11).

Dangers of Synthetic Fragrances

In today’s world, there’s no end to synthetic fragrances. Just stroll down the aisles at the supermarket, or go into a Bath and Body Works store at the mall and you’ll be overwhelmed by different scents and smells.

As mentioned earlier, many of the artificial fragrances today come from petroleum oils. Why is this bad? Different studies have shown the use of these chemicals to be linked to health conditions such as:

  • Neurotoxicity: One study done by Dr. Landrigon of Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center observed the possible connection between the phthalates found in artificial fragrances and behavior disorders like ADHD. Constant exposure can build up in the body and create toxicities (8)

  • Carcinogens: You know that smoking is bad for you, but did you also know that the same ingredient found in cigarette smoke can be found in many cosmetics and cleaning products? One report shared how styrene is “reasonably anticipated carcinogen” - linked to the development of cancer (5). Other carcinogenic ingredients include aldehydes and toluene.

  • Allergens: Many cosmetic and household products contain ingredients like butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), benzyl salicylate, butoxyethanol, and butylphenyl methylpropional. All of these can cause allergic reactions in people, from itchy skin to eye irritations (6). 

  • Endocrine Disruptors: Hormones play an important role in your body’s communication, and in overall health. Many perfumes and colognes have been tested for phthalates that can disrupt normal hormone function. This can lead to issues like extra estrogen, or symptoms like depression (4).

  • Respiratory Irritant: If you suffer from asthma or other respiratory issues, being around artificial fragrances can make it harder to breathe normally. One study took people with a history of asthma symptoms and exposed them to cologne. Exhalation volume decreased among this group by between 18-58%, indicating these people had a harder time pushing air out of their lungs (7).

  • Environments Hazards: When you use scented shampoos, body washes and facial cleansers, some of those chemicals get flushed into the waterways and have had negative impacts on aquatic life. Studies have shown that these chemicals can disrupt animal’s defense systems (3).

How Diet Could Affect Smell

You might not think about it, but what you eat could be affecting how good (or bad) you naturally smell. Diets that are high in meats, animal fats, and acidic foods can create an acidic environment in your body. This can actually make your body odor worse.

One study took a group of men and had them divided up into “meat” and “non-meat” groups. After 2 weeks, odor samples were collected and tested by women for their pleasantness, masculinity, and overall attractiveness. The men who were on the “non-meat” diet had a more pleasant body odor (9).

Natural Alternatives

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be in a nice smelling environment. But instead of reaching for the commercial air freshener, try these ideas:

  • Learn to be comfortable with less fragrance around the home.

  • Place certain indoor plants around that can help pull bad odors from the air.

  • Make your own laundry soaps that are either fragrance-free or have a few drops of essential oils in them.

  • Place herbs or fragrant flowers around the house.

  • Boil lemon peels, orange peels or cinnamon sticks for a lovely household air freshener.


Wanting to surround yourself with pleasant smells is completely normal. Companies have made enormous strides in the development of artificial fragrances. And they’re everywhere you turn - shampoos, soaps, cleaning products, colognes and perfumes.

Research is finding that synthetic fragrances can pose multiple health risks. It begs the question: is it really worth it? 

If you’re looking for natural alternatives to smelling good, consider essential oil blends. You can also place certain plants around your house that either pull bad odors out of the air or put good odors into it. 

Are you needing to swap out some artificial fragrances? Take the leap - your health will thank you for it. 

References & Disclaimers

(1) https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201506/how-does-scent-drive-human-behavior

(2) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/17865-sweating-and-body-odor

(3) https://news.stanford.edu/news/2004/november3/Perfume-1103.html

(4) https://www.bcpp.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Report_Not-So-Sexy_May_2010.pdf

(5) https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/content/profiles//styrene.pdf


(7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3079951/

(8) https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(13)70278-3/fulltext

(9) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16891352

(10) https://now.tufts.edu/articles/why-does-rotting-food-smell-bad

(11) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11869-019-00672-1

✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author