Whether sprayed, melted, dabbed on, hung up, plugged in, thrown in your wash, fragrances are everywhere. For people like myself and some members of my family, all of these “smell goods” trigger things like migraines, nausea, lightheadedness, rashes, heart palpitations, even muscle weakness and reduced oxygen absorption in the lungs. However, we are far from alone. According to ScienceDirect, “Over 20% of the general US population report adverse health effects from air fresheners.”
These fragrance sensitivities have led to some very uncomfortable situations in my life. For example, as a new mother I had to ask my friend to stop wearing her perfume if she wanted to hold my baby. The scent would be transferred to him and cause me to get a migraine. Prior to having this uncomfortable conversation with my friend, I was having to bathe my infant immediately following every visit with her. I have also had to return fragrant gifts, ask people to refrain from putting on perfume if they are coming to our home or riding in my car, and change seats to a different location in restaurants, theaters, and church if I ended up seated near someone wearing heavy perfume or cologne.
I have now discovered studies proving that these fragranced products are causing a dangerous impact on air quality due to the chemicals hidden within them. I suspect the negative impact is just as great when absorbed through the skin. These studies shed a great deal of light on why some people have such negative reactions to fragrances.
A number of air quality studies have been conducted by the University of Washington that have revealed some shocking dangers posed by all of these scented products. The first study was conducted in 2008 by Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, and was published in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review. That initial study was conducted using six popular air fresheners and scented laundry products. “Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants,’ which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level,” Steinemann said.
In 2011, Professor Steinemann conducted a study specifically on the air quality of air vented from dryer vents when scented laundry products are used. Unlike vehicle and smokestack emissions, dryer vent emissions are unregulated. Her findings, which were published in Environmental Health Perspectives, demonstrated that hazardous chemicals, including two classified as carcinogens, were emitted through the dryer vents when leading brands of scented laundry detergent or dryer sheets were used. The study found that “fewer than ten percent of all volatile ingredients are typically disclosed on air freshener labels or material safety data sheets.” Shampoos, hand sanitizers, soaps, lotions, and deodorants containing fragrance as an ingredient were also included in the study with the same disturbing findings. Even those products labeled “green”, “organic”, or “natural” but containing fragrance were found to be equally as guilty of containing harmful chemicals.
As stated in Environmental Health Perspectives, “The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and laundry products, currently does not require manufacturers to disclose any ingredients on the label, including fragrances in these products. The same is true for fragrances in personal care items, which are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration.”
I have witnessed two real-life examples of the dangerous effect of dryer vent emissions. My grandmother, who was otherwise very healthy at the time, suddenly had her lungs stop absorbing enough oxygen, exhibited dementia-like behavior, and required immediate hospitalization. While she was in the hospital, we went to her apartment and discovered that her dryer hose had disconnected causing the dryer to vent into her apartment rather than out through the external vent, resulting in a buildup of toxic air in her apartment. In fact, simply walking into her apartment caused me to have an immediate, profound negative reaction and I had to remain outside.
The second occurrence directly affected my daughter. While walking in our neighborhood she experienced sudden muscle weakness after passing a home that was actively venting a strongly scented laundry product from the dryer vent. The affect was both profound and immediate.
Another recent study, published in Health & Place, found a direct correlation between air quality and an increased occurrence of people experiencing psychological distress, such as depression and brain fog. With these discoveries one might think doctors would suggest patients reduce the use of fragranced products before prescribing medications like anti-depressants or anti-seizure medicine for migraines, but that is unfortunately not yet the case. In fact, I suspect most doctors aren’t even aware of these proven physical manifestations from fragranced products, just like the rest of society which continues to unwittingly buy a seemingly endless supply of scented products containing hidden chemical dangers.
Essential oils have become the most popular option in recent years, with some sources even claiming various essential oils have the power to remove indoor air pollution and improve health. However, they have been proven to produce a level of risk as well. One peer reviewed study cited by the EPA measured indoor air quality when various essential oils were evaporated in a diffuser and found they have the potential to contribute to "increasing indoor levels of secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde and secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) in the presence of ozone." This is a reduced level of risk, but a risk none the less.
The safest option when wanting to add a pleasing scent is to add fruit peels, spices, or food grade extracts to a bowl of hot water. Better yet, bake something. That way you can add that pleasing aroma to your home and eat it too.