That fresh, clean scent killing you?

U. WASHINGTON-SEATTLE(US) — Widely used fragranced products—including those that claim to be “green”—give off many chemicals that are not listed on the label, including some that are classified as toxic.

Researchers from the University of Washington discovered that 25 commonly used scented products emit an average of 17 chemicals each. Of the 133 different chemicals detected, nearly a quarter are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law.

Only one emitted compound was listed on a product label, and only two were publicly disclosed anywhere. Details are reported in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

“We analyzed best-selling products, and about half of them made some claim about being green, organic or natural,” says study leader Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. “Surprisingly, the green products’ emissions of hazardous chemicals were not significantly different from the other products.”

More than a third of the products emitted at least one chemical classified as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and for which the EPA sets no safe exposure level.

Manufacturers are not required to disclose any ingredients in cleaning supplies, air fresheners or laundry products, all of which are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Neither these nor personal care products, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, are required to list ingredients used in fragrances, even though a single “fragrance” in a product can be a mixture of up to several hundred ingredients, Steinemann says.

The study analyzed air fresheners including sprays, solids, and oils; laundry products including detergents, fabric softeners, and dryer sheets; personal care products such as soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorant, and shampoos; and cleaning products including disinfectants, all-purpose sprays, and dish detergent.

The most common emissions included limonene, a compound with a citrus scent; alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, compounds with a pine scent; ethanol; and acetone, a solvent found in nail polish remover.

All products emitted at least one chemical classified as toxic or hazardous.

Eleven products emitted at least one probable carcinogen according to the EPA. These included acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride.

“The products emitted more than 420 chemicals, collectively, but virtually none of them were disclosed to consumers, anywhere,” Steinemann says.

Because product formulations are confidential, it was impossible to determine whether a chemical came from the product base, the fragrance added to the product, or both. Tables included with the article do not disclose the products’ brand names.

“We don’t want to give people the impression that if we reported on product ‘A’ and they buy product ‘B,’ that they’re safe,” Steinemann says. “We found potentially hazardous chemicals in all of the fragranced products we tested.”

The study establishes the presence of various chemicals but makes no claims about the possible health effects. Two national surveys published by Steinemann and a colleague in 2009 found that about 20 percent of the population reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and about 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors. Among asthmatics, such complaints were roughly twice as common.

The Household Product Labeling Act, currently being reviewed by the U.S. Senate, would require manufacturers to list ingredients in air fresheners, soaps, laundry supplies, and other consumer products.

Steinemann says she is interested in fragrance mixtures, which are included in the proposed labeling act, because of the potential for unwanted exposure, or what she calls “secondhand scents.”

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chat5 Comments


  1. N K Loudon

    Tell me, if you swallowed some of these products which would make you sicker – the fragrances… or the product itself?

  2. George

    If you swallowed a cleaning product with fragrance you should call poison control and explain why you chose a combined quick and slower poison.

  3. Jill

    Since skin is the largest organ, and as every moisturizer producer knows it absorbs, I have never understood applying unknown products to it.

  4. Diana Pardee

    Fragrance chemicals enter your blood stream very quickly through your lungs, as well as certain chemicals with the right molecular structure are absorbed directly into your blood stream before being filtered by your liver/kidneys. Acute reactions are more obvious as an allergic reaction of some kind.

    With 80,000 new chemicals in the last 60 years, we have no idea the total impact of long term exposure since we live in a kind of “chemical soup”. Our children & grandchildren will be the “guinea pigs” unless we fight for more testing & regulations. Since asthma/allergy/learning disabilities are on a rapid rise, it is logical to conclude that there is some connection.

    Consumers think they are “safe” and companies just want to give them what they want…clean, “fresh” laundry & no body odor, plus make a profit. Educating consumers is essential! We vote with our dollars. Thanks for the great article.

  5. Trisha

    I searched for a long time to find a safe alternative for all my consumable necessities and had a very hard time finding any one product line that covered everything from my bathroom to my kitchen…..about 3 years ago, I stumbled across a mom’s blog site and a new store…I love it and all my products are safe and now I advertise for them. Find what works for you and stick to it!!! Green is the way to go, as long as they are tested and certified green!

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