Pumpkin spice surprise – the toxic chemicals lurking in ‘fragrance’

  • Pumpkin spice is a popular scent, especially in the fall.
  • It includes aroma substances often produced by one or more volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.
  • Some VOCs pollute our air and can cause a range of health problems, from asthma to cancer.


Starbucks introduced its autumn drink Pumpkin Spice Latte a few days earlier this year than last. Once that happens, we know we’re in peak pumpkin spice season. 

That coffee drink’s success has spawned a host of other popular pumpkin spice products. One survey says Americans spend $500 million on pumpkin spice-scented or -flavored products every year.

In fact, it’s hard to get through the fall without running across a slew of pumpkin spice consumer products. Pumpkin spice is so popular because it triggers our associations of fall – holidays, family, leaves changing color. 

The problem with pumpkin spice products is often the same as with other scented and flavored consumer products, including cleaners, cosmetics, food and more: They contain little – or none – of the substance they smell or taste like. 

Pumpkin spice chemicals

So where does that delicious scent really come from?

Chances are the “pumpkin spice” derives from a mix of dozens or hundreds of artificial and synthetic chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

This class of chemicals includes terpenes and terpenoids like limonene, cinnamal and vanillin, among others. Others may be found as contaminants. 

Many foods and consumer products are flavored or scented with pumpkin spice. Some of the most common pumpkin spice-scented products may be items used to “clean” the air, including air fresheners, diffusers, plug-ins, air sanitizing spray, scented candles and mists.

What’s the cause of that scent? 

VOCs may hide on product labels under the word “fragrance,” or “parfum,” which are usually made up of a proprietary mix of chemicals numbering sometimes in the thousands. One study found that 134 household products with fragrance emitted potentially harmful and cancer-causing compounds. The study included 12 air fresheners.

But manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the full list of ingredients in fragrance. So it’s anybody’s guess what’s in it, and it often contains allergenic and hazardous chemicals, including some VOCs. 

Flavors are used in foods but also in personal care products like lip balm and mouthwash. Fragrance can be found in other products, like perfumes and body sprays; hair styling products; all-purpose cleaners; disinfectants; and laundry detergents. 

Causing health problems 

Even if you can’t smell them, VOCs can cause a range of health concerns.

Problems associated with VOC exposure include eye, nose and throat irritation and headaches, nausea and vomiting, a loss of coordination, and even damage to the liver, kidney and the central nervous system. Symptoms are worse for people with longer exposures, such as those whose work puts them in frequent or long contact with the chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency says not much is known about how the levels of VOCs in homes affect our health. 

How are fragrances regulated?

The EPA is responsible for regulating VOCs under the Clean Air Act in some circumstances. But the regulations are confusing and don’t apply to indoor air. 

Under a new federal law, some fragrance allergens will soon have to be disclosed in personal care products.

And in California, the Cosmetic Fragrance and Flavor Ingredient Right to Know Act, enacted in 2020, requires disclosure of hazardous chemicals, including fragrance, in cleaners and personal care products.

How to protect yourself

The federal government needs to do more to protect consumers from the potential health risks of fragrance.

In the meantime, if you’re concerned about respiratory health and indoor VOC pollution, here are a few steps you can take.

Research whenever possible. Many products used to scent the air aren’t required to disclose their ingredients, but you may be able to find information on brand or retailer websites.

Keep your house clean. Rather than cover up bad smells, do the cleaning needed to get rid of them.

Open windows. Indoor air is much more polluted than outdoor air. Bringing the outdoors in can help improve air quality. 

Use the real ingredients. Bake something with pumpkin and spice, or simmer some spices, like cinnamon and allspice, on the stove. (Be careful to keep the pot full of water.)

Beyond VOCs. To find safer cleaning products, consult EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. If you’re looking to satisfy a desire for pumpkin spice food, use our Food Scores database to find healthier options. And for autumnal personal care products, check out Skin Deep®, our searchable database. It contains more than a dozen pumpkin-related products that either bear the EWG VERIFIED® mark or have a hazard rating of 1, which means they are among the safest products rated in Skin Deep.

Areas of Focus
Disqus Comments

Related News

Continue Reading

What are quats?

To protect your health, it’s essential to know what’s in your cleaning products, especially if you have kids, who are more vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals.