There are literally thousands of household products that contain fragrances. Common household products that contain fragrances include laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, perfumes, lotions, hand soap, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, perfumes, colognes, bodycare products, and scented candles.
Many of my patients are surprised to learn that the body absorbs the chemicals in fragrances when they’re applied to the skin. When you smell a fragrance, such as those in air fresheners, you are essentially breathing in chemicals, which are easily absorbed by the lungs and reach the bloodstream within a few minutes.
Companies aren’t required to list all ingredients on product labels, which results in people being unknowingly exposed to chemicals. When products do contain detailed labels, if “fragrance” is listed, it may contain up to hundreds of chemical compounds. Some of the more common chemical compounds in fragrance include phthalates, alkylphenols, synthetic musks, volatile organic compounds, limonene, pinene, ethanol, and acetone, along with hundreds of other chemicals. Some chemical compounds even react with ozone in the air to form pollutants including formaldehyde (Potera, 2011).
These chemicals come with health effects.
The most common chemicals found in fragranced products are known to:
- interfere with hormone function in the body (known as endocrine disruption) (Darbre, 2015);
- irritate the skin, and cause allergic skin reactions (Johansen, 2003);
- trigger asthma symptoms (chest tightness and wheezing);
- cause headaches and migraines;
- irritate the eyes, nose and throat;
- trigger nausea;
- cause infant illness (Steinemann, 2015);
- impact the neurological system and trigger restlessness, dizziness or difficulty concentrating;
- be linked with behavioural symptoms in children (Kim et al, 2009; Engel et al, 2010);
- accumulate in fat and make its way into breast milk (Bridges, 2002);
- be cancer-causing in animals (human studies on potentially cancer-causing fragrance compounds are lacking) (Bridges, 2002);
- many fragranced compounds make their way into our soil and water sources, where they contaminate the environment and accumulate in aquatic life (fragrance chemicals have been found to be stored in the fat tissues of many fish and seafood).
Mixtures of toxic chemicals are being found inside homes. Chemical fragrance compounds have been found in higher levels in indoor air compared to outdoor air (Rudel & Perovich, 2009). The effects of the chemicals can add up quickly. Researchers measuring indoor air quality in homes in Massachusetts found an average of 19 hormone disrupting chemicals in the air, and 24 hormone disrupting chemicals in the dust inside homes (Rudell et al, 2010). A similar study on the West Coast found common fragrance chemicals in the air inside California homes (Rudel et al, 2010).
Scented products such as air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets emit more than 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including some that are toxic and hazardous (Potera, 2011). Products advertised as “green”, “natural” and “organic” also contained hazardous chemicals. A recent study analyzed 37 air fresheners, laundry products, cleaners and personal care products, and found 156 different chemical compounds were emitted from the products. Of the 156 chemicals, 42 were classified as toxic or hazardous (Steinemann, 2015), and each product emitted at least one of the toxic or hazardous chemicals. In one research study, 19% of people surveyed reported adverse health effects from air fresheners (Caress & Steinman, 2009).
Sadly, air “fresheners” actually decrease air quality; they should be avoided.
Children may be at increased risk of negative health effects from fragrances. Research is showing some very concerning patterns:
- Children may be at an increased risk of reacting to airborne fragrances. One study found the concentration of room freshener fragrance to be higher at children’s breathing height compared to adult breathing height in the minutes following the use of fragranced air fresheners (Rogers et al, 2005). Following the use of fragranced bath products and lotions, scientists are able to measure specific concentrations of fragrances in the surrounding air (Zhou et al, 2018), which leads to infants being exposed to phthalates from fragrances in baby products such as lotions, powders and shampoos. Researchers have been finding increased concentrations of phthalates in their urine, which shows that these chemicals are being processed by their bodies. It is even more concerning that infants may be more vulnerable to developmental and reproductive toxicity of phthalates (Sathyanarayana et al, 2008).
- There is also strong indication that phthalates increase the risk of allergy and asthma and have a negative impact on children’s nervous system development (Jurewicz & Hanke, 2011). Studies have also suggested that the phthalates in fragrances may negatively affect the reproductive system of children (Barrett, 2005).
- Sensitization to allergens can start in early infancy, and fragrances are one of the most frequent allergens causing allergic skin reactions in children (de Waard-van der Spek et al, 2013). Infants, toddlers and young children may not be able to metabolize (detoxify) chemical compounds as efficiently as adults. In addition to this, children’s much smaller weight may contribute to increased concentrations of toxic compounds in their bodies. In a study that examined skin sensitization to chemicals, including fragrances, children under the age of ten were the most sensitive when compared to adults and seniors (Wohrl et al, 2003).
- Exposure to fragrances during pregnancy may be associated with health outcomes in children even years later. Researchers who examined children’s exposure to phthalates in pregnancy found that children had more behavioural symptoms such as aggression, conduct and attention problems by the time they were between four and nine years of age (Engel et al, 2010). Korean researchers also found a link between symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children who were exposed to phthalates (Kim et al, 2009).
There are no known “safe” levels of exposure for children to the various chemicals founds in fragrances. There are also not many studies that have researched the health impact in children being exposed daily to multiple fragrance chemicals from various sources.
There are many easy steps that you can take right now to reduce your family’s exposure to these harmful chemicals:
- Read product labels carefully, and avoid products with the words “Fragrance”, “perfume” or “parfum” on the label. Opt for fragrance-free products whenever possible, and be aware that some products labelled as “unscented” may still contain chemicals that mask the scent of fragrances.
- Avoid fragranced air fresheners, air deodorizers, scented plug-in types of products, fragrance oils, fragranced melting wax, and pot-pourri.
- Avoid car fresheners.
- Instead of scented candles, opt for solid beeswax candles that are unscented.
- Avoid scented markers, glues and scented craft supplies, even if they claim to be non-toxic.
- Opt for fragrance-free shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand soaps and lotions.
- Before purchasing skin or body care products, look them up on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database at https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/#.WzzbLiMZNfg.
- Avoid using perfumes and colognes, especially when pregnant or around your children.
- Choose fragrance-free laundry detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets (or avoid dryer sheets altogether).
- Avoid scented toys, especially in infants who may put these in their mouths.
- Choose cleaning products that meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice Program standards – you can search for safer products at: https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice/products.
- Before using essential oils (concentrated plant extracts that are naturally scented), check out Dr. Erica Krumbeck’s article When to NOT use Essential Oils for more details on essential oil safety for you and your children: https://naturopathicpediatrics.com/2014/09/08/essential-oil-safety-danger-essential-oils-seizures-children/
- Share this article with other parents to help them understand the risks of fragrances in products.
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- Caress, S. & Steinemann, A.C. (2009). Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population. Journal of Environmental Health; 71(7): 46-50.
- Darbre, P.D. (2015). What Are Endocrine Disrupters and Where Are They Found? Endocrine Disruption and Human Health. 3-26. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-801139-3.00001-6
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- Kim, B.N., Cho, S.C., Kim, Y., Yoo, H.J., Kim, J.W., Yang, Y.H., Kim, H.W. et al. (2009). Phthalates exposure and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in school-age children. Biol Psychiatry; 66(10): 958-63.
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