Fragrance chemicals can wreak havoc

Have you noticed lately that almost everywhere you go, fragrance follows? Research is uncovering a dark side to our newly fragranced world, but we can fight back by going scent-free.

Scents-itivity problems

Along with the booming industry in scents, a booming number of people are being negatively affected by the proliferation of scents. In recent research:

  • 5 percent of people reported scented products worn by others are irritating
  • 19 percent of people reported adverse health effects from air fresheners (like those in public washrooms)
  • 9 percent of people reported irritation by scented laundry products vented outside

What makes the problem of scent sensitivities so complicated is that people react differently to fragrance—and often people will react to one fragrance but not another.

Reported symptoms include:

  • headaches (including migraines)
  • dizziness/lightheadedness
  • nausea/loss of appetite
  • fatigue/weakness
  • confusion/difficulty with concentration
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • upper respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, etc.)
  • skin irritation

Repeated exposure can increase sensitivity or create new cases of asthma in adults.

What’s that smell?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what that smell is in the cologne or shampoo we—or those around us—are using.

The reason? Regulations allow manufacturers to keep the ingredients that make up that scent secret. The word “parfum” or “parfum/fragrance” is all we may see in the ingredient list.

More than 3,000 fragrance ingredients have been reported in various consumer product studies, and a single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of between 50 and 300 different chemicals.

More than a bad smell

In a 2010 study, researchers found that tested fragranced products emitted 133 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 24 of them classified as toxic or hazardous air pollutants. Many are carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants with no safe exposure level, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.

If you use scented products

  • Be aware that something called “olfactory fatigue” can prevent you from detecting the power of your own fragrance.
  • Ask others if they can detect your scent from an arm’s length away.
  • Tone down your scent if you spend time in shared spaces, including boardrooms, vehicles or classrooms.

Tips for the office

  • Help those around you understand that fragrance chemicals don’t just pose a problem for the allergic or sensitive; chemicals contained in fragranced products can include human carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxins that can enter and persist in the environment.
  • Suggest your workplace switch to cleaning products without fragrance and eliminate air fresheners, like those found in public washrooms.
  • Ask to relocate your workstation or desk away from a problem fragrance source.
  • Try using an air purifier at your workstation to help eliminate fragrance; use one with a gas or carbon filter.
  • Use a portable fan to deflect odors from your workstation.
  • Discuss the possibility of establishing a scent-free policy at your workplace. For information about developing such a policy, visit the Lung Association at