Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Registered Pesticides and Other Hazardous and Toxic VOC’s Emitted from Scented Products

Does the idea of pesticides, probable human carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants constantly vaporizing and dispersing in a cloud around you or your home seem appealing? I think not. Yet, many people are unintentionally emitting these and other toxic compounds from scented products on their hair, skin and clothing. Emissions from air “fresheners” and surfaces cleaned with scented products also contribute to this soup of unhealthy chemicals in the air.

In 2010, Dr. Anne Steinemann, along with her team of scientists from the US Environmental Protection Agency, University of Washington and Battelle Memorial Institute, investigated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by 25 fragranced consumer products (personal care, laundry, cleaning supplies and air fresheners). Over half the products tested were top sellers, all in common usage and in the top 5 for annual sales (Environmental Impact Assessment Review: Fragranced consumer products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted www.drsteinemann.com/Articles/Steinemann%20et%20al.%202010.pdf).

They identified 24 VOCs classified as toxic or hazardous compounds, some of which formed the most dominant emissions. 13 kinds of registered pesticides were noted with many products emitting more than one type of pesticide (Table 2, FIFRA: Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act – Registered Pesticide).

They also identified 4 probable human carcinogens with no safe exposure level. Examples of other toxic or hazardous VOCs they found include 8 hazardous air pollutants, 20 air contaminants and 2 priority pollutants under the Clean Water Act.

I doubt that anyone wants to breathe clouds of pesticides, probable human carcinogens or hazardous constituents in our public buildings, homes and streets (from dryer vents). If you want to use safe products though, be cautious. The supposed “greening” of mainstream products is deceptive. The labels of many of the products tested in this study used words like “organic,” “non-toxic,” “essential oils” or “natural” yet there was no statistically-significant difference found between these and the other products.

The non-profit Guide to Less Toxic Products http://lesstoxicguide.ca/, Skin Deep Cosmetics Database http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning (http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners) are excellent resources for identifying safer product lines.

Additional studies, article summaries and press releases may be viewed at http://drsteinemann.com/publications.html


Perspectives on Living with Scent Allergies in a World Full of Scent

A Moral Dilemma: “Scentual” Pleasure at the Expense of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of Others

Hundreds of Canadians have contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to find out whether their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being violated because they are unable to access basic services or social and cultural events in their community without becoming ill from fragrance exposure.

Legal rights under the Canadian Charter include equality of person, freedom of association, the right to pursue a livelihood, the “right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” It can be argued that Canadians have the right to clean air and an environment that is conducive to their health since the Charter includes the right to life and security of person.

Under the UN’s, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone “is entitled to realization … of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality,” “the right of equal access to public service” and “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.”

Yet, many Canadians with health conditions aggravated by respiratory irritants, asthma triggers and neurological toxins in scented products do not experience the same freedoms enjoyed by other Canadians. What about their rights? The degradation of the quality of life for these Canadians can range from mild to severe.

Those suffering from environmental sensitivity – a poorly understood disability recognized by both the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions – experience varying degrees of adverse reactions to chemicals and other environmental factors that many people are able to tolerate. The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) reports that scents in perfumes, personal care products and air fresheners are “typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals.”

The choices made by others can impact the quality of life for those afflicted by environmental sensitivities enormously. The CHRC points out that “the health and ability to work for those with environmental sensitivities rests with the choices and actions of others, such as building managers, co-workers and clients.”

Environmental illness is often misdiagnosed and ranges in severity, so reliable statistics on the number of affected Canadians is unavailable. According to the CHRC, while 1 million Canadians have been diagnosed by doctors with environmental sensitivities, evidence suggests that “up to a third of the population may be experiencing discomfort.” Environmental sensitivities worsen with age and women are twice as likely as men to be affected by them.

But those suffering from environmental sensitivities are not the only ones whose fundamental right to be part of community is degraded by exposure to scented products. The Asthma Society of Canada urges asthmatics to “avoid … triggers in order to keep airway inflammation to a minimum and reduce the symptoms.” Perfume is listed as a symptom trigger for asthma. Yet how can asthmatics realistically avoid exposure to perfume if they wish to be involved in community? They cannot.

Significant numbers of Canadians with chronic respiratory problems and other medical conditions aggravated by scented products are in the same position.

The Canadian Lung Association notes that reactions to scent range from mild to severe and lists common symptoms such as “headaches, feeling dizzy, feeling tired or weak, shortness of breath, nausea, cold-like symptoms and worsening asthma symptoms.”

Additional symptoms reported to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health include lightheadedness, fatigue, insomnia, malaise, confusion, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, numbness, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, difficulty with concentration and skin irritation.

The Centre notes that “the severity of these symptoms can vary. Some people report mild irritation while others are incapacitated and/or must give up many ‘normal’ activities in order to avoid exposure (such as going to public places).”

Why do we continue to passively tolerate or contribute to the constant bombardment of fragrance in offices, stores, churches, restaurants, theatres, malls and virtually every indoor environment when so many of us experience reduced quality of life because of it? Do preferences for the intense fragrances manufactured today really outweigh health needs? Is it morally acceptable for heavy scent users to enjoy their “scentual” pleasure at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others?



Asthma Society for Canada, Common Asthma Triggers: http://www.asthma.ca/adults/about/triggers.php

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace, See “Can Scents Cause Health Problems?”: http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/hsprograms/scent_free.html

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, “Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, See Table 6 & Summary”: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/toc_tdm-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, p. 2 See “What are “environmental sensitivities?” & “Summary”: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page2-en.asp#2

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, p. 7 See “Scents”: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page7-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Policy on Environmental Sensitivities:


Canadian Human Rights Commission, Personal Communication, Jan. 5, 2010 1-888-214-1090

Department of Justice Canada, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:


Office of the Auditor General of Canada, Right to Clean Water, Clean Air and a Healthy Environment, Petition: No. 163A:http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/pet_163A_e_28897.html

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 2.3: Non-evident disabilities: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/PolicyDisAccom2?page=disability-2_.html#Heading119

The Canadian Lung Association, Pollution and Air Quality, “How can scented products affect my health: http://www.lung.ca/protect-protegez/pollution-pollution/indoor-interieur/scents-parfums_e.php:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 21, 22 & 27: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/



Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Built-In Sensitizers Make Use of Scented Products Dicey

If you stepped from the shower and abruptly felt confused, nauseous and disoriented, would it occur to you that you might be having a scent reaction? If you use scented products, this could happen to you even if you’ve never had a scent reaction before, because the fragrance industry routinely includes sensitizers in its formulas (http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=222).

Sensitizers are chemical agents which, upon repeated exposure, can lead to permanent sensitivities or allergies. Once a person is sensitized, every exposure – even to increasingly smaller amounts – causes an adverse reaction. Reactions may set in more quickly and increase in severity over time (http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/fragrance-allergies-a-sensory-assault).

The fragrance industry’s refusal to disclose the common allergens in its formulas makes it difficult or impossible to figure out which sensitizer to avoid. Avoidance of all scented products becomes necessary yet complete avoidance is impossible because we are all subject to second-hand scent. Of all known allergens, fragrances are ranked among the top five and the most frequently reported (http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=644).

Often people are unaware that they are even having scent reactions and they may not realize that symptoms from scent reactions can be mental, emotional and/or physical. Mental symptoms may include problems with memory and concentration, dizziness or light-headedness. Emotional symptoms such as depression, anxiety, irritability or mood swings may also be experienced.

An incomplete list of physical symptoms includes headaches, nausea, sore throat, fatigue, insomnia, respiratory difficulties, asthma attacks, pain, dizziness, eye irritation, contact dermatitis or eczema (BC Lung Association: When No Scents Makes Sense; Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace).

The routine use of scented products on the body and in the home is risky. The older we get, the less our bodies can cope with chemical insult, thus increasing the risk of activating that irreversible switch – fragrance allergies.

If you’d like to reduce your risk of developing scent allergies, the user-friendly, non-profit Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/), the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning (http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners) are excellent resources to help ease the transition to unscented products.


Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Scent Reaction Misconceptions

I once gave a handout about scented products to a person on 3 puffers per day for asthma. After reading it and doing a bit more research, she replaced the scented products in her home with unscented ones. Even though she continued working in a highly scented environment, she was able to reduce her use of puffers from 3 to 1 per day. She’d been having scent reactions to her own scented products yet she’d never made the connection between her asthma attacks and the fragranced products she used.

Surprisingly, it’s common for people to have scent reactions without realizing it. This is partly because reactions may occur almost right away, a few hours or even a day later. Often people who are constantly exposed to scent at work and/or home experience chronic symptoms. This state of ill health soon becomes the norm for them. Because they never get a break away from scent, they don’t realize how much better they would feel if they didn’t breathe it all the time. In this way, scented products can significantly impact quality of life even when a person is completely unaware of it.

What’s not surprising is that scented products make people sick. According to the BC Lung Association, over 5000 fragrance chemicals are used in personal care products and a single perfume may contain over 500 chemicals. We’re talking petrochemicals here; not natural ingredients made from flowering plants.

The BC Lung Association publication, When No Scents Makes Sense, indicates that “a short list of chemical overload symptoms can include headaches, nausea, pain, and fatigue; depression, anxiety, irritability or mood swings; difficulty sleeping, concentrating or remembering things; difficulty breathing or swallowing, or frequent asthma attacks” (http://www.bc.lung.ca/mediaroom/scents.html) It is also not uncommon to experience cold-like symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing or to develop rashes. Taking additional medications to cope with symptoms further complicates health.


Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Dryer Emission Blues

In the Spring we want to throw our windows wide and let the freshness in. We may be unpleasantly surprised though by chemical odors wafting into our homes from clothes dryer emissions. Admittedly, there are those among us who enjoy chemical fragrances but many don’t. Aside from aesthetic considerations, neighbourhood dryer emissions are far from harmless.

According to Dr. Anne Steinemann’s newest study, Volatile Emissions from Common Consumer Products (http://www.drsteinemann.com/publications.html), the major difference between scented and non-scented versions of the same products is the presence of an abundance of terpenes in the scented products.

Terpenes react with ozone to create dangerous secondary pollutants which can cause cancer. They can also irritate eyes, skin, sinuses and lungs, induce or aggravate heart and lung disease, raise blood pressure, cause inflammation, etc. Dr. Steinemann notes that cancer-causing emissions from “green” scented products are not much different from those emitted by regular scented products (p. 2).

Switching to unscented laundry products will not only help reduce air pollution in your neighbourhood, it is also the considerate thing to do for your neighbours. If you wish to learn which laundry products are safest, check out the Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://lesstoxicguide.ca/), Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning (http://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners).