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Fragrance 101: What's Lurking in Your Favorite Fresh Scent?


Air fresheners, fabric sheets, and detergents often smell anything but toxic: lavender, pine trees, lemons, green apple ... how could something that smells so good possibly be bad?

fragrance chemicals

Chemicals from air fresheners, detergents, and dryer sheets may smell nice ... but at what cost to your health?

Or so you might think when you pick up such products at your grocery store. Even a quick check of the label is unlikely to yield anything suspicious. In fact, most fragrances are listed as nothing more than "perfume," "biodegradable ingredients," or even "essential oils" and "organic perfume."

What the manufacturers don't want you to know is that about 95 percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic, petroleum-based compounds. What's more, a new study by University of Washington (UW) researchers found 100 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- which can cause cancer or damage to your respiratory, reproductive, or neurological systems -- in popular products you use in your home.

"Consumers are breathing these chemicals," UW engineering professor Anne Steinemann, who led the study, told Seattle P-I. "No one is doing anything about it."

What Kinds of Chemicals are in Your Favorite Home Products?

Steinemann selected top-selling items from the following categories:

  1. Dryer sheets

  2. Fabric softeners

  3. Detergents

  4. Solid, spray and plug-in air fresheners

She then had the air tested around the products to see what types of chemicals you might breathe in. What did she find? One hundred VOCs, 10 of which federal rules describe as toxic or hazardous. Three of these latter chemicals are "hazard air pollutants" that, according to the study, are unsafe to breathe at any concentrations. These are:

  1. 1,4-dioxane: A potential carcinogen that can be toxic to your neurological, respiratory, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems, as well as your skin, liver, blood and kidneys.

  2. Acetaldehyde: Which has been linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, organ toxicity and also is an irritant to your skin, eyes and lungs.

  3. Chloromethane: This ingredient has been banned or restricted in cosmetics in the European Union. It's been linked to cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and organ system toxicity.

Avoid the Fragrances and Other Chemicals in Typical Fabric Softener & Dryer Sheets!

The Static Eliminator's woven sheets take static cling out, and soften fabric without any toxic chemicals whatsoever -- plus they are incredibly economical, as one box can be used to maximum effectiveness 500 times! (Or go for the super-economical double-pack for 1000 loads!)

  • Completely Non-Toxic: The unique technology is based on the weave of the cloth so it is chemical-free!

  • Very Economical! Each box highly effective for 500 loads of laundry! (To do 500 loads with chemical based dryer sheets takes 13 boxes!)

  • 100% Hypoallergenic -- Safe for infants, allergy sufferers, eczema sufferers, and the chemically sensitive

  • Softens Clothes & Eliminates Static without any harsh toxins

  • Safe for Even the Most Delicate Fabrics

  • Works at Any Heat Setting, with any amount of clothing

  • Won't Stain or Spot Clothing

  • Easier to Use & Reduces Waste: Unlike conventional dryer sheets that must be discarded, just leave the 100% safe polynylon Static Eliminator sheet right in the dr yer for load after load

  • Won't Clog Up Your Dryer Vents because it contains NO chemicals!

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Despite containing these potentially toxic ingredients, the labels of the products gave no warnings, and even went so far as to cite most ingredients as "essential oils" and "organic perfume" in their technical documents (used for the safety of workers and emergency responders).

Other studies have also raised concerns. An investigation into fragrances, perfumes and colognes by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that:

  • 16 percent of the products they reviewed contained ingredients that may cause cancer

  • 5 percent may contain harmful impurities linked to cancer or other health problems

  • 18 percent contained penetration enhancers that increase exposures to carcinogens and other ingredients of concern

  • 98 percent of products contained ingredients not assessed for safety in cosmetics or with insufficient data

  • 76 percent contained ingredients that are allergens

  • 13 percent of products posed other potential health concerns

Aside from the obvious potential impacts on human health, the UW researchers expressed concern over the environmental impacts of such chemicals.

"These chemicals get into our water systems and into Puget Sound," Steinemann told Seattle P-I, calling them "extraordinarily hard to get out of the environment."

The products' manufacturers maintained that the ingredients are "routinely tested" and the potentially dangerous chemicals exist "at levels too low to cause harm."

Yet no one knows what happens after a lifetime of exposure to numerous products (many people use dryer sheets, detergents, and air fresheners, all in a single day). And for those with asthma, allergies or chemical sensitivities, just one exposure may trigger a severe reaction.

Even "Fragrance-Free" Products May be Risky ... So What Can You Do?

According to Steinemann, products that claim to be unscented may still contain fragrance to make them odor free!

"If it smells bad, it's bad; if it smells good, it's bad," said Aileen Gagney, Asthma and Environmental Health Program manager with the American Lung Association in Seattle, in Seattle P-I.

open window fresh air

An open window is still the most natural air freshener there is.

This leaves you in a frustrating predicament. Is anything still safe when it comes to cleaning your home and laundry? Yes, if you know where to look.

Eight Safe Tips for a Fresh-Smelling, Toxin-Free Home

  1. Use PerfectClean cloths, dusters and mits when you clean. PerfectClean terry cloths contain patented built-in antimicrobial protection and are made of ultramicrofibers that are only 3 microns in size, which is even smaller than many bacteria. Because of this unique ultramicrofiber construction, you can reduce the amount of chemical cleaners you use, or even eliminate them altogether.

    So, unlike ordinary cleaning rags and sponges, you can use PerfectClean wet with water or dry, and you don't need to use chemical cleaners to achieve the deepest clean.

  2. Avoid air fresheners of all kinds. If you want a bit of fragrance, purchase pure essential oils, add a few drops to a spray-bottle full of water, then spritz away to your heart's content.

  3. Don't use perfume or cologne (they almost always contain toxic chemicals).

  4. Do not buy anything that lists "fragrance" or "perfume" as an ingredient.

  5. Swap out your dryer sheets and fabric softener for the Static Eliminator Reusable Dryer Sheet System, which is 100% non-toxic and reusable for up to 500 loads of laundry.

  6. Choose non-toxic cleaning supplies. Baking soda, lemons and vinegar are the three mainstays in this department.

  7. Open the windows. As long as you don't have allergies, take advantage of the warm weather to let some fresh air into your home. It will make everything smell cleaner. And be sure to have plenty of ventilation any time you will be using cleaning supplies.

  8. Avoid cleaning products with pine, lemon or orange scents, which are among the most toxic.

Recommended Reading

What Dangers Can Perfumes & Other Fragrances Pose to Your Health?

Warning: Certain Smells May Make You a Dangerous Driver (Really!)

Sources July 23, 2008

Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database

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