Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls Ph.D.


Don't Let the Swag Throw Off Your Swagger

Why pay for hotel amenities when they’re free? Read the ingredients first.

Posted Jan 06, 2017

It’s the New Year and we’ve all made promises to ourselves to better our health, but few of us think that could entail reconsidering our willingness to take advantage of free products. It’s possible that the allure of gold patina on plastic bottles and exotic synthetic fragrances blind us to the small print announcing toxic substances contained within them.

Because I’m interested not only in the art and science of scent but the psychological scent triggers used in marketing, I took particular interest in a chocolate shampoo produced exclusively for the Sacher Hotel in Vienna. The ingredient list was such an eyeful that it prompted me to look at what was in other hotel and resort amenities. The “Time To Chocolate” line is part of the Sacher’s Spa collection of “pampering experience” combining “precious ingredients” to give “exclusive pleasure.” Scent marketing is a new, powerful tool in the corporate personal care arsenal for attracting and maintaining customer loyalty. For the Sacher, this fancy product was being used to extend the guest’s experience of their famous chocolate torte. The shampoo, conditioner, and other products come in an elegant black and gold package that contains more than just “purifying” cacao extracts. The shampoo has two chemical components that have been found to be highly toxic. The first one, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol was given 7-9 hazard rating by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, and the second one, iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, was given a 4-6 hazard rating.  These two chemical components are preservatives that are highly toxic when inhaled, as one commonly does when washing their hair in the shower. Another hazardous ingredient in this chocolate travesty is cocamidopropyl betaine, which is a level 4 hazardous surfactant associated with allergic reactions, skin irritations, and contact dermatitis (EWG).

Chocolate is just one of the sensory themes that companies exploit to lure in customers into false belief of an exclusive luxury experience. Color is also used as a ploy to create false association with a product despite the negative health effects that accompany the presence of synthetic dyes. Next time you are in a seaside resort and glance at the beautiful shades of blue, turquoise, or minty green fluids filling the mouthwash bottles, I would advise you to carefully read their ingredient labels for hazardous chemicals. All of the mouthwash bottles I have collected from various hotels over the years have contained coloring dyes including Yellow 5, which is associated with causing blurred vision, migraines, fatigue, and anxiety. These are the types of uncorrelated symptoms that one might attribute to anything but their mouthwash. Yellow 5 also has been found to have even more toxic effects such as allergic reactions, and the substance is suspected to cause organ system toxicity, which has prompted more studies to be undertaken by researchers (

As light waves, color sways the brain in unconscious ways, but there is price to pay for the illusion of freshness disguised in blues and greens. The dyes may produce an indelible mark on the consumer’s happiness, as regular use of blue-colored, alcohol-containing mouthwash has been shown to permanently change the color of teeth. For many reasons, including staining, researchers now recommend that consumers carefully select the mouthwash they use for prolonged periods.

In addition to the promotional amenities at hotels and resorts, sunscreen is often part of the free swag given out at sporting and outdoor events. Skin cancer is a threat to everyone; however, there are few sunscreens on the safe-to-use list these days. Sunscreens themselves have a lot of ingredients to look out for. The Environmental Working Group reports that oxybenzone, a chemical UV filter, is a highly dangerous hormone disruptor that can be passed on in amniotic fluid and breast milk. It is also one of the agents responsible for the epidemic of endometriosis (EWG). When topically applied, it has been reported to cause people with photosensitivity allergies to have increased severity in their reactions to the sun. Besides its hormone disrupting effects and unintended transmission to the unborn, this chemical is also suspected to be a contributor to the rapid decline of coral reef health.

On top of all of this, most hotels and resorts don't have recycling programs for all those little bottles that end up in the ocean and contribute to the global plastic pollution crisis.

Science is available to read on most of the substances used in personal care products. Choosing your products carefully should be as much a part of your health regime as watching what you eat and planning your workouts. Whatever you put on your body ends up in your body. Our physical and mental well-being is too important to be swayed by shiny packaging and good smells. Even if its free, read the fine print or bring your own from home.

For two easy-to-use educational resources check out EWG’s database at and Livestrong at

© 2017 Gayil Nalls, All rights reserved.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is published online and in print, most recently with her essay "The Politics of Perfumed Objects" in Martin Hegel and Matthias Wagner K, For the deeper meaning- fragrance as medium in art, design and communication (Germany, Spielbein Publishers, 2016). Follow her @olfacticinkblot and @themassinglab


Moreira, AD, Mattos, CT, de Araujo, MV, Ruellas, AC Sant’anna, EF. (2012). Chromatic analysis of teeth exposure to different mouth rinses. Journal of Denistry 41(5):e24-e27.

More Posts