Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Scent Chemicals: Innocent Indulgence or Insidious Threat?

In a research paper presented at an American Chemical Society meeting in 2010, a fragrance designer candidly admits that “anywhere from 800 to 1500 chemicals … can be found in a product, depending on its complexity” (http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2010/august/secrets-of-scents-designing-the-smells-that-sell-household-products.html).

The multi-billion dollar chemical industry would have us believe that exposure to scent chemicals – some that should scare the pants right off us – is safe. We’re apparently okay because it’s only a small amount of 800-1500 chemicals in just the one product, right? But what about all the other scented products around us? Plus, unlike other indulgences, scent exposure is continuous, especially if it’s on your body, in your home and work environment.

Isn’t this rather like sprinkling a little arsenic on your cereal every day and expecting to be safe? No one can predict with certainty how our bodies will respond, especially in the long term. The chemical industry’s priority is to create the “smell that sells” by manipulating emotions and memory. Profits take precedence over health.

Should we trust an industry that commonly includes toluene in its formulations even though toluene can cause autism and asthma? (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422%2813%2970278-3/fulltext; http://www.bc.lung.ca/mediaroom/scents.html )

Fragrances have become such a ubiquitous part of our culture that people often wear them even when they don’t intend to, particularly if they haven’t checked the label of every hair, skin and laundry product for the term “fragrance,” “perfume,” “parfum” or “aroma.”

Carefully selecting unscented products may help reduce the health risks we all face from the onslaught of chemical scents. 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) are helpful resources.


Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Fragrance Industry Keeps Consumers in the Dark

To discover 1498 scientific research papers on the toxicity of fragrance, click on the link, “Research: Studies on the toxicity of fragrance cited in Pub Med,” located near the bottom of the webpage found at http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=222.

Yet as I write to you, shoppers are buying their loved ones scented products laced with respiratory irritants, sensitizers, registered pesticides, carcinogens and nerve toxins. Others are applying them to their skin and hair, clothing and homes. And doctors aren’t warning pregnant women to keep scented products out of their homes even though they are a primary source of exposure to phthalates or endocrine disruptors (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404651/).

How can there be so much evidence about the toxicity of fragrance yet such widespread use of scented products? Obviously, there is a gap between what scientists know and what the public knows. This gap is deliberately maintained by the fragrance industry.

If you think it’s impossible to keep people in the dark about adverse or even dire health consequences from commonly used products, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, consider this: In the 1940s and 50s, cigarette smoking was unequivocally proven to be the cause of the global epidemic of lung cancer yet 50 % of American doctors were still smoking by 1960 and only 1/3 believed that smoking causes lung cancer (http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/21/2/87.full).

The tobacco industry used propaganda to cast doubt on the validity of the research. Note that they did not actually have to prove anything. All they had to do was cast doubt. Doubt breeds inaction. We see the same phenomenon with big industry casting doubt about the greenhouse effect so they can carry on with business as usual.

The fragrance industry uses similar strategies as the tobacco industry, including propaganda. They label incriminating research papers, “Bad Science.” They liken today’s intense, persistent chemical concoctions with the plant-based fragrances of days gone by. They fail to disclose. They use misleading labels. They target young people. They attack the experts. They discredit those who have scent reactions as neurotics in need of psychiatric help. They claim they are a highly regulated industry yet Health Canada relies on them to voluntarily regulate themselves.

They form powerful lobbies to protect their interests. They create associations composed of fragrance industry members to “educate” the public yet their true purpose is to spread propaganda. They encourage wearers to keep their fragrance within an arm’s length but their products are designed to disperse widely, settling and sticking to every available surface, including the food we eat. They’ve even created food-approved fragrance chemicals (aroma chemicals) which are used in packaged foods.

We are all at the mercy of the runaway fragrance industry in ways that few of us have considered. Unfortunately, unlike cigarette smoke, the toxic VOC’s in scented products waft around us invisibly, day and night, indoors and even outdoors from dryer vent emissions. And, unlike the tobacco industry which created one type of product, cigarettes, the fragrance industry’s chemicals permeate a profuse array of products.

So, what can we do about it? We can carefully select the products we bring into our homes using websites like 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). We can minimize how many types of body products we use. We can try to avoid using too many packaged foods. We can ask for scent-free policies and we can speak up when people ignore them.

Finally, we can hope it won’t take too long for knowledge about the health risks of fragrance to flow from researchers to the public and for the government to start reigning in the industry.


Healthy Solutions to Scented Products

Phasing Out Scented Products

Perhaps after learning about the harmful ingredients in scented products, you wonder whether fragrance chemicals are triggering a family member’s asthma attacks, insomnia or headaches. Maybe you suspect you’ve been led down the garden path by the fragrance industry.

But phasing out scented products can seem like a daunting proposition, once you start looking at labels and find synthetic scent in every hair and body product you own, plus the laundry and cleaning supplies. There it is in the toilet and tissue paper, candles and potpourris. Why, it’s even in the diapers, kitty litter and garbage bags.

You could ease into it by replacing each scented product that runs out with an unscented one. An “unscented” product may still contain a masking fragrance to cover up the smell of other chemicals. “Fragrance free” usually indicates that the product is free of scent chemicals.

I started by feeding the brand names of my personal care products into the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/) and was dismayed to learn that my shampoo and conditioner had high toxicity ratings because of respiratory irritants, hormone disruptors, common allergens and sensitizers. Like so many people today, I had inadvertently made unhealthy, uninformed choices.

I used the Cosmetics Database to learn which products had lower toxicity ratings, consulted lists of less toxic products at the user-friendly Guide to Less Toxic Products (http://lesstoxicguide.ca/) and phoned around until I found stores that carried those products.

Sure, it was a hassle at first, not very convenient and some products were more expensive. But then, I also found recipes for making natural products out of ingredients in the kitchen and these were much less expensive. I began to feel better. I found products I liked and, after a while, choosing safer products became second nature.

It is not only possible but highly desirable to replace unhealthy scented products with healthier alternatives. The BC Lung Association says, “The only safe assumption about scented products is that they contain numerous toxic chemicals, which constantly vaporize into the air and attach themselves to hair, clothing, and surroundings” (http://www.bc.lung.ca/mediaroom/scents.html). Keep in mind, too, that the impact of multiple exposures day after day has never been studied.


Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Hormone Disruptors in Scented Products Linked to Attention and Behavioural Disorders in Children

They’re everywhere; in our homes and schools, theatres and work places, in and on our bodies. Fragrance even wafts from our dental floss. Those that don’t like fragrance are supposed to grin and bear it. Those that get sick from it are supposed to suffer in silence. But, maybe there are valid reasons why some instinctively recoil and others get sick.

It’s not common knowledge that registered pesticides, probable human carcinogens and hazardous, toxic and polluting volatile organic compounds constantly vaporize and disperse around us from scented products (www.drsteinemann.com/Articles/Steinemann%20et%20al.%202010.pdf).

If that’s not enough to rattle your cage, consider this: hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates are routinely used to stabilize scent in scented products. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system of glands produces our hormones.

Scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Cornell University and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention link prenatal exposure to the phthalates in scented products to attention and behavioural disorders in children (http://ehsehplp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.0901470). In their public release statement, Dr. Engel says, “There is increasing evidence that phthalate exposure is harmful to children at all stages of development” (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-01/tmsh-msf012710.php).

Why is that? Phthalates are classified as both developmental and reproductive toxins so not only can they affect the unborn child, they can interfere with child development (http://www.cela.ca/publications/regulating-toxic-substances-consumer-products).

An Environmental Health Perspectives study of a wide range of consumer products, Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products, found that scented products are a primary source of exposure to phthalates. Other than vinyl products which contain very high concentrations of phthalates, they discovered that scented products and sunscreens contain the highest concentrations and kinds of phthalates (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404651/).

Phthalates are implicated in childhood cancers, in addition to prostate, testicular, breast and ovarian cancers. Yet none of this is disclosed on product labels nor is the general public aware of the phthalates in scented products or the many toxic and hazardous compounds emitting from scented products. Don’t consumers have the right to know so they can make informed choices about the risks they are willing to take with their health and the health of their families?

Consumers baffled about how to change over to healthier products might find 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) excellent resources.

Additional Sources:

Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Dept. of Preventive Medicine: Dr. Shanna Swan (http://shswan.com/articles/)

  • Women’s exposure to phthalates and personal care products:
  • Lifestyle behaviours associated with exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals in a Mennonite population

Environmental Health Perspectives Paper of the Year, 2009: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2702420/

Chemical Exposure Linked to Attention Deficit Disorder in Children: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/children-chemicals-fragrences-cosmetics-pthalate-attention-deficit-womb/

Breast Cancer Fund: http://www.breastcancerfund.org/reduce-your-risk/tips/choose-safe-cosmetics/

Metametrix Library: Phthalates & Paraben Profile: Urine https://www.gdx.net/product/phthalates-parabens-test-urine

Healthy Child Healthy World: Avoid Phthalates: Find Phthalate- Free Products Instead http://healthychild.org/easy-steps/avoid-phthalates-find-phthalate-free-products-instead%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8/


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

Stigma & Sensitivities: Must They Coexist?

Those with environmental sensitivities look like others do but their bodies react differently to substances like automobile exhaust, mould, fragrance, tobacco smoke and pesticides. While reactions vary, neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety and difficulties with coordination, memory and concentration are almost universal. Symptoms like these strongly impact employability.

Though the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions formally recognize environmental sensitivities as a disability, people tend to respond differently to those with non-evident disabilities than they do to visibly-disabled persons. What happens when accommodating the needs of someone with a non-evident disability involves personal sacrifice? Let’s explore the impact that environmental sensitivities may have on personal relationships, when a person – like many afflicted with environmental sensitivities – has adverse reactions to synthetic fragrance.

Say a scent-sensitive person wishes to attend a function and asks someone attending to please reduce or refrain from wearing a fragrance that has made them ill before. The person may be outraged that someone would presume to suggest what they can and cannot wear. Why should they change their personal habits? They may feel controlled and suggest the person making the request has an overly developed sense of self-importance. They may delegitimize the person and trivialize their concerns by suggesting the disability is psychosomatic. Thus they rationalize their decision to wear fragrance anyway.

And what of the person with the disability? As they struggle to come to terms with being exposed to fragrance in virtually every indoor environment, as they grieve the loss of rights and freedoms, do they lash out? Most likely. When everything from buying eggs to going to work becomes complicated by fragrance sensitivity, do they talk about it too often? Perhaps they speak out while anxious or disoriented from a fragrance reaction. How sensitive are they when they make their request? Yet, how can a request for someone to alter personal care habits be sensitive?

Actually, the person making the request may feel as uncomfortable as the person being asked. According to Dalhousie University’s scent-free program, although such a request may seem intrusive, “when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a … personal and private matter” because it involves “real harm to real people.”

Those unwilling to resign themselves to a life of either sickness or isolation, may repeatedly request that others respect their health needs. Do they grow weary with frustration and despair? Do they find themselves viewing others with fresh eyes? Do others begin to see them differently? These types of dynamics can lead to the stigmatization of people with environmental sensitivities.

Going back to our hypothetical situation, is the refusal to accommodate the request, the equivalent of a person placing a barrier across a wheelchair ramp and then going in to enjoy the function while the person with the disability sits alone outside? No, it’s not similar, is it? The effect may be the same – in both cases, a person with a disability experiences a barrier that prevents them from experiencing a full and normal life – but, in one situation, a person creates a physical barrier, whereas, in the other, a person creates a chemical barrier by wearing fragrance.

Some might suggest that the person with environmental illness can still attend. But, if they do, they may be ill for 2-3 days. Should they wear a mask? A mask impedes breathing and talking which can compound feelings of alienation. Others may not know how to respond since they cannot see their facial expressions. A mask can lead to ostracism and is not conducive to personal comfort or dignity.

Though it is not common knowledge, “about one-third of the Canadian population is sensitive to fragrances,” according to Nancy Bradshaw, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Will society continue to ignore the needs of those with sensitivities? Are we to fight the good fight unsupported, even stigmatized, by community? Alternatively, need we resign ourselves to a life of isolation from others?

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer


Canadian Human Rights Commission, Accommodating Environmental Sensitivities: State of Knowledge, Balancing Conflicting Interests, see introductory section and Section 4: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_legal_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 6: Typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals (and may contribute to initiation of environmental sensitivities): http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 7: Environmental sensitivity symptoms/reactions: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page4-en.asp

Canadian Human Rights Commission, What are “environmental sensitivities”?, Summary: http://www.chrc-ccdp.ca/research_program_recherche/esensitivities_hypersensibilitee/page2-en.asp#2

Dalhousie University, History of Dal’s Scent-Free Programhttp://www.dal.ca/dept/safety/programs-services/occupational-safety/scent-free.html

Dalhousie University, Questions & Answers: http://environmentalhealthandsafetyoffice.dal.ca/radiatio_7451.html

Dalhousie University, Statement on the Use of Scented Products: http://environmentalhealthandsafetyoffice.dal.ca/radiatio_7450.html

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, 2.2 A broader approach to understanding disability: a social perspective: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/PolicyDisAccom2?page=disability-2_.html#Heading119

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 4.1.1, Respect for Dignity: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/PolicyDisAccom2?page=disability-4_.html#Heading176

The Environmental Illness Resource, Secondary Reactions and Effects of Having MCS, excerpted from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide by Pamela Reed Gibson, PhD: http://www.ei-resource.org/articles/multiple-chemical-sensitivity-articles/secondary-reactions-and-effects-of-having-mcs/

Women’s Health Matters, Why Fragrance Free Works at Work: http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca/resources/show_res.cfm?ID=43933


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


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).