Are Fragrances Harmful to Dogs? A Deep Dive Into Fragrances in Pet Care Products

We all know that notorious "wet dog smell" far too well, which can linger long after our dogs are dry. There’s a science behind this, with the actual smell coming from the excretions of yeast, bacteria, and microorganisms that live on your dog's skin. As moisture evaporates off your dog, it carries that lovely smell with it. But how can we neutralize their musty scent without putting their health at risk?

If you look on the ingredients list of many dog shampoos and de-odorizing sprays, you'll likely see a variety of different fragrances listed. This could appear as the actual name of the fragrance, such as "lavender essential oil," or, most commonly, you'll just see "fragrance." And while we'd like to assume that all pet care product brands have our dog's health top of mind, the reality is less optimistic.

are fragrances harmful to your dog?

Dogs are hyper sensitive to fragrances, with many causing allergic reactions.

Dog's noses have over 300 million sensory receptors, allowing them to detect scents in concentrations of one part per TRILLION. That's like one drop of essential oil in 20 olympic size swimming pools. With dogs being able to smell about 10,000 times better than humans, you can imagine that our pups are highly sensitive to fragrances. But does highly sensitive mean at risk? Can fragrances be harmful for your dog? In this article, we will explore fragrances in detail and how you can ensure that you're only exposing your dog to allergen-free fragrances.

Fragrances and your dog

Dogs are more sensitive than humans, both to scent and skin products. They are highly susceptible to dermatitis, a skin allergy that causes inflammation, itching, redness, flaking and hair loss. Dog dermatitis is triggered by a huge range of irritants, and fragrances are at the top of the list. That doesn't mean that all fragrances are harmful to your dog, but understanding how to identify common irritants and which fragrances are safe will help you avoid purchasing topical coat and skin products that can cause an adverse reaction. 

are fragrances harmful to dogs?

Your dog's coat and skin will ALWAYS respond better to natural products.

Why do we need fragrances in cosmetic products?

Being totally transparent, raw cosmetic ingredients smell very unpleasant, regardless of whether they are of natural or synthetic origin. They “stink” and many smell like toilet cleaning products. The addition of fragrance is to cover the negative odour from the mixture of ingredients. I don’t know about, you I wouldn’t be happy using any product that smelled like toilet cleaner or harsh chemicals. Any ingredients that are intended for cosmetic purposes, even if they are natural ingredients, need to be purified or chemically processed to serve their intended purpose. The reality is that in the world of cosmetics, there’s no such thing as a pure, natural ingredient that comes directly from the plant or tree. Regardless of what the labels imply, you don’t actually mix fruit, vegetables or cold-pressed oils together to create a cosmetic formulation. All ingredients must be prepped in the lab for the purpose of the cosmetic industry. And as a result, their natural aroma is erased. 

These can be the highest quality natural ingredients that are safe and effective on the skin, but when mixed together, they can have the most unpleasant smell you can imagine that smells entirely unnatural. How much you will notice fragrances in cosmetic products will depend on the percentage of fragrance used in the formula. While some pet care products, like ours at Doglyness, use just enough fragrance to neutralize the scent of the ingredients, others will use more than is needed to give their products a distinct scent.

What are artificial fragrances?

If you see the word "fragrance" on your dog shampoo label, then the product contains artificial fragrances. That doesn't mean that all artificial fragrances are unsafe, but it's worth understanding what "fragrance" means when listed on products. The EMA in Europe and FDA in the United States don't require companies to include a breakdown of what exactly is in their fragrances. They say this is to protect "trade secrets", but even the FDA admits that they have the potential to cause allergic reactions and sensitivities. Fragrances can contain hundreds of different ingredients that they don't need to disclose, some of which could be toxic for your pet. 

are fragrances harmful to dogs

We say 'no way' to phthalates and ethanol compounds. No nasties here!

Phthalates are one of the most common toxic chemicals found in artificial fragrances and one of the ingredients that are most dangerous to dogs and humans too. Phthalates are plasticizers which are used to soften and increase the elasticity of products (including plastics and household products). They have also been officially declared carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Their purpose is to bond other ingredients used in fragrances to each other, but as a result, it can destroy your dog's endocrine system. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), fragrance has a high hazard score, especially in the areas of allergies and immunotoxicity. So, you need to be sure that you aren't using products that contain phthalates on your pets. 

Artificial fragrances can also contain other toxic chemicals such as ethanol, benzyl acetate, styrene, benzyl alcohol, and linalool, just to name a few. If you see the word "fragrance" or "parfum," then you should also ensure that the brand provides some transparency around this or is committed to using ingredients that are certified safe by The International Fragrance Association (more on this below). 

It’s also worth noting that there’s a difference between fragrance and perfume. The words are often used interchangeably, but actually, fragrance is the combination of compounds that give perfumes their scent. Perfumes can contain different concentrations of fragrance, but the primary function of a perfume is to give the user a pleasant odour. 

Are there any safe essential oils for dogs?

But what about essential oils? Essential oils are often promoted as safe and natural and are used in alternative medicine and aromatherapy. Although pure essential oils are technically natural, that doesn't mean they are safe for your dog. While they may be beneficial in some scenarios, essential oils are the worst allergens for dogs. In fact, many essential oils are incredibly toxic to pets. Make sure to avoid the following essential oils entirely, both in topical pet care products and around your household, as they are incredibly irritating for dogs: Cinnamon, Eucalyptus, Citrus, Peppermint, Tea tree, Anise, Thyme, Garlic, Pennyroyal, Pine, Clove, Sweet Birch, Juniper, Yarrow.

    are fragrances harmful to dogs

    These essential oils are especially toxic and irritating to both dogs and cats.

    If you have a cat, be aware that cats are even more sensitive to essential oils than dogs, so you need to take extra care when choosing products that are safe to use on your cat (don’t worry, Doglyness is 100% safe for cats!). There can be a lot of misinformation regarding the use of essential oils as a holistic approach to healing and wellness for our dogs. And there is still a lack of scientific evidence around their use. But what we do know is that misusing them can negatively impact your dog's central nervous system and cause severe allergic reactions. While these essential oils may smell delicious to us, they are very irritating to pets (both to their nose and their skin). For that reason, it's best to avoid dog shampoos and topical products that use essential oils as fragrances just to be on the safe side. 

    But don't worry; safe fragrance solutions are available to neutralize that stinky dog odour. And that solution is allergen-free fragrances.

    What is an IFRA-certified allergen-free fragrance?

    The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) provides a set of standards that determine the safety of fragrances based on scientific analysis and research from The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). These strict standards help to ensure that all fragrance ingredients and mixtures are safe and comply with regulations. The IFRA bans, restricts and sets purity requirements for specific ingredients and provides a transparency list of upwards of 4000 ingredients used in fragrances, with more added each year. They are the most trusted authority on fragrance ingredients and have comprehensive standards around allergen-free ingredients. 

    Allergen-free fragrances can be 100% safe for topical use when used in small quantities (ideally around 0.2-0.3% of the total product). Ultimately, the goal of the fragrance should be to stabilize the product's odour, not be overpowering. Remember, if you can smell the aroma of the shampoo or conditioner, then it's much stronger for your dog. And the idea with dog shampoo and other topical pet products is not to make your dog smell like a perfume store or flower shop but instead to neutralize that musty dog smell. 

    When choosing dog shampoos, conditioners, sprays, creams, or balms, make sure that any fragrance used is IFRA certified. How can you tell if a brand is using IFRA-certified allergen-free fragrances? Well, they will tell you. And if they don't tell you, then they are likely using unsafe ingredients. The more transparent a brand is with their formulas and ingredients, the more you can trust that they have your dog's well-being in mind. 

    All of our products at Doglyness are certified by ECOGEA Institute, who verifies that all our allergen-free fragrances are purchased from an IFRA Certified manufacturer. The ECOGEA Standard is publicly available, so anyone that’s interested can see exactly what they look for when verifying our products. 

    are fragrances bad for dogs

    These 26 fragrance allergens should never go near your dog.

    Can fragrances be harmful for your dog?

    So, can fragrances be harmful for your dog? The answer is yes. Absolutely. This is why it's essential to do your research before choosing a dog shampoo or any other topical product to put on your pet. But that’s not to say that fragrances can’t be entirely safe to use. In fact, many fragrances are safer for pets than essential oils. The most important thing is that fragrances are certified allergen-free and used in small quantities. Unfortunately, many pet care brands will care more about their products smelling strongly of coconut, papaya or lavender when that may not be what’s best for your pet (remember, their noses are very sensitive). At Doglyness, 99% of all our formulas are natural and organic, using concentrations of less than 0.3% IFRA-certified fragrances. And we go one step further, with all claims being verified by ECOGEA, an institute for quality and innovation of natural and organic products. A transparent brand is a brand you can trust, and when it comes to our dog's health and well-being, we can’t leave product safety to chance.

    In Summary 

    Dogs should never smell “perfumed,” and if that’s the case, then it’s a good sign that the product will be incredibly irritating to your dog's skin and nose. Fragrances should only be used to neutralize the smell of the base ingredients reacting with each other, not to make the product smell like flowers or fruits. With the natural fragrance of ingredients essentially disappearing during processing, if you’re smelling the scent of coconut, then it’s artificial. Products using low-concentrated, allergen-free, and quality fragrances, like those we use at Doglyness, will change smell and color over time. And that’s how you can tell that low volumes of fragrance were used as the scent of the base ingredients eventually start to take back over. In order to ensure the safety of your pet, choose brands that utilize a low volume of certified allergen-free fragrances in their pet care products.