“More and more, I walk into homes, stores and businesses and am greeted with an immediate blast of perfumed air. . . . And what is added scent but a chemical? Why breathe that in constantly?”
When a Washington Post reader wrote the comments above and implored me to write an article about how to avoid scented products, I was an easy sell. I find artificially perfumed products so distracting that I have trouble concentrating in their presence. I can’t stand to have certain brands of dryer sheets in my house, even in an unopened box in the basement. And I confess that I once sneaked an air freshener out of an Uber and tossed it in the trash!
Despite negative reactions from some consumers, scented products seem to be gaining popularity. For example, plastic garbage bags never used to be scented, but an industry blog says that many now are and that “the market is a fiercely competitive one, so the battle to win the noses of consumers is on.”
As manufacturers make more of their products smell, consumers are putting up more of a stink. Dozens of blogs rail against scented products, including one called “Fragrance Free Living” and another called “Think Before You Stink.” These bloggers call fragrance “the new secondhand smoke.” They’re not crazy. The Environmental Protection Agency says indoor air pollution is real, partly because of fragrances, and that our homes and offices “can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities.”
The people who suffer the most from fragrances are those with multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS. “Fragrances rank high among the chemical exposures I find problematic,” said Alison Johnson, who has MCS and founded the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation. “One thing that alarms me is that in the last few years, the phone calls and emails I’m receiving are now predominantly from people in a panic because exposure to fragrances in the workplace is making it impossible for them to keep a job.” Johnson produced an educational video and is lobbying lawmakers to mandate fragrance-free workplaces.
But artificial fragrances aren’t just a problem for certain groups. More than a third of Americans surveyed reported experiencing health problems when exposed to them, according to a study by Anne Steinemann of the University of Melbourne. “All fragranced products that I tested . . . emitted chemicals classified as hazardous air pollutants,” Steinemann said in an email. “You may not realize you’re being affected until it’s too late.”
The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety lists the following possible symptoms of exposure to fragrances: “headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, weakness, insomnia, numbness, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, skin irritation, malaise, confusion and difficulty with concentration.”
If you’re allergic to nuts or sensitive to gluten, you usually can read the ingredients on a food package and steer clear. By contrast, fragrances have long been considered trade secrets, so the federal government doesn’t require manufacturers to print what’s in them. The Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to list the ingredients in personal-care products, but they are allowed to just state “fragrance” as an ingredient, rather than spelling out what chemicals are in the fragrance.
Federal regulations for household cleaning products are even looser. Manufacturers are not required to list any of these products’ ingredients. A few big companies have begun disclosing their ingredients voluntarily, including SC Johnson, Clorox and Reckitt Benckiser, maker of Lysol. Two states, California and New York, recently took matters into their own hands, passing laws requiring manufacturers to divulge the ingredients in their cleaning products.
Here’s another confusing labeling issue involving fragrances: The terms “unscented” and “fragrance-free” sound the same but are totally different. Unscented means that a product doesn’t have a detectable odor — but it does not mean that it contains no artificial scents. Manufacturers are allowed to use artificial scents in “unscented” products if they are there to cover up the smell of other ingredients.
By contrast, “fragrance-free” is the label to look for if you are bothered by chemical fragrances, as it means no artificial smells have been added to a product. You can double-check this claim, if there are ingredients listed, by looking for the words “perfume,” “parfum” or “fragrance” on the list.
Here are some resources for finding fragrance-free products.
EPA Safer Choice-certified products: The EPA scrutinizes product ingredients for safety and certifies those that meet its criteria. When you search the Safer Choice database, you can check a box to look for fragrance-free products only. I found 860 when I looked. You can also look for the Safer Choice label on products at the store. Those that have no chemical scents are marked “fragrance free” in the upper left-hand corner of the label.
Environmental Working Group guides: The EWG provides easy-to-use online databases where you can search for what it deems healthy cleaners and healthy personal-care products. You can then check those products’ ingredients, if provided, to see whether “fragrance” or “perfume” is listed.
New York state’s asthma-friendly guide : Because people with asthma suffer more than most from exposure to chemicals and fragrances, New York created a list of green cleaning products for them that could be useful to you, too. If you type “fragrance free” into the keyword box, the site returns a page full of options.
DIY cleaning product recipes: Women’s Voices for the Earth has been working for better cleaning-product disclosures. Meanwhile, the group provides several recipes to make your own cleaning products. Note: The essential oils used as fragrance are considered more natural but still bother some people. If they bother you, skip them!
Non-perfumed magazines: If you’re subscribed to a magazine with perfume inserts that bother you, contact the publisher. Most large publishers have programs in place to send you magazines without the scented pages.