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By HHI Staff

Synthetic fragrances and scents, added to a wide-range of consumer products, are among the most common household air pollutants. Disinfectants, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, dish soap, all purpose cleaners, air fresheners, bleach, candles, solvents, carpet cleaner, furniture polish, drain cleaner and cosmetics are just some of the many products used in homes every day which contain chemically-laden, artificial fragrances.


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Marketers of air fresheners often imply that their products will somehow “clean” the air; makers of laundry detergents and fabric softeners advertise their products as making clothes “fresh.” Sadly, fragrance additives in a single product can contain hundreds of chemicals, many of which are likely to be known carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, triggers for asthma and other respiratory illness, hazardous to major organs and caustic to skin. 

Common symptoms of exposure to chemical fragrances include headaches and irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and skin. More serious symptoms include drowsiness, dizziness, nausea and confusion. People with asthma, allergies, respiratory diseases and chemical sensitivities can experience more dramatic reactions or develop chronic illnesses as a result of continued exposure.

A 2008 study, “Fragranced Consumer Products and Undisclosed Ingredients” by the University of Washington researcher Anne Steinemann, identified close to 100 Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCS) in six popular household products with fragrance additives.


VOCs evaporate and spread throughout the air quickly, which means the chemicals are readily inhaled.

Steinemann tested six best-selling air fresheners and laundry products. All products tested positive for twelve to twenty VOCs. Ten of those chemicals are classified as toxic or hazardous and three as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs).

Common chemicals found in the products included ethanol, d-limonene, pinene, acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane; all of which are known or suspected carcinogens.

Steinemann noted that the fragrance compounds not only cause primary VOC emissions but can react with other chemicals in the immediate environment and create additional, even more dangerous pollutants.

An investigation of air fresheners by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) found phthalates in twelve of fourteen products tested. Phthalates, chemicals associated with reproductive health issues and birth defects, are often used as “carriers” in products with fragrance additives. Some of the air fresheners tested in the NRDC study were labeled as “natural” and “unscented.”

Manufacturers are not required to identify the chemicals used to create synthetic fragrances. Protected in part by laws governing “trade secrets,” fragrance formulas are considered proprietary and exempt from labeling and disclosure laws.

Lack of regulation is largely because no single federal agency has oversight of the use of fragrance additives in consumer products – in part because the number of chemicals and applications involved spans across so many jurisdictions. 

Avoiding products with fragrance and scent additives will help minimize the level of indoor air pollution in your home. Ways to freshen the air in your home include:

  • Opening windows or using mechanical ventilation are effective ways to reduce indoor pollutants.
  • Minimize or eliminate odors by keeping the kitchen, bathrooms and other sources of offending smells clean and well-ventilated.
  • Distilled white vinegar mixed with water in spray bottle is reported to be a safe and effective way to prevent odors on countertops, appliances and bathroom fixtures.
  • A box of baking soda sprinkled with a few drops of essential oil will help keep rooms smelling fresh. Be careful, though, since not all essential oils are safe for everyone.
  • Replace standard scented candles with ones made from soy or non-petroleum based material.


  1. “Fragranced Consumer Products and Undisclosed Ingredients”
    Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington
    Anne Steinemann, Author
    Environmental Impact Assessment Review 29(1): 32-38, 2009
  2. Creating a Healthy Household: the ultimate guide for healthier, safer, less-toxic living
    Lynn Marie Bower
    The Healthy House Institute (HHI)
  3. Polar Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Microenvironments
    David A. Wallace, Environmental Protection Agency, March 1991
  4. “Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners”
    National Resource Defense Council
  5. Toxnet
  6. US National Library of Medicine
  7. Environmental Defense Fund


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Fragrances:  Created on January 23rd, 2010.  Last Modified on January 23rd, 2010


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