Unscented Products — Why and How

Air freshener, laundry detergent, soap, shampoo, moisturizer, lip balm — these and other common household and personal care products are scented with fragrances that can be dangerous to your health. Dozens if not hundreds of synthetic chemicals go into these fragrances, including:

  • Phthalates — endocrine disruptors that cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems;
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that affect the neurological and respiratory systems and are carcinogenic;
  • Synthetic musks, which may also be endocrine disruptors and additionally, are persistent chemicals that remain in the environment and are contaminating marine mammals.

If you think bah, that can’t be — surely, some government agency vets the products before allowing the public to be exposed to them — think again. Advance safety testing is not required before the products go to market.

If you think you can find what chemicals are used in fragrances by checking product labels, rethink again. The composition of fragrances is considered a trade secret and may be kept confidential.

And if you think the word “unscented” on a package means what it says, well, you know what to do. That just means the product doesn’t have a smell that seems scented. It could very well contain a “masking” fragrance used to neutralize the natural smell of other ingredients.

Here’s how to avoid toxic fragrances:

  • Avoid air fresheners. Open the windows instead.
  • Use water, white vinegar and baking soda for routine cleaning jobs. If soap is needed, try castile soap.
  • Look up fragrance-free products and homemade alternatives in the Guide to Less Toxic Products.
  • Check Skin Deep, the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic safety database, to see if your favorite personal care products are safe and to find safer alternatives.
  • Make sure the words “fragrance” or “parfum” do not appear in the ingredient list of cosmetics.
  • Use fewer cosmetics and reduce or eliminate your use of perfume.

Read my January column for NRDC, Scented Products — Intoxicating and Toxic, to learn more and subscribe to This Green Life to get the column by email every month.


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18 Responses to Unscented Products — Why and How

  1. Nathan Empsall January 21, 2010 at 10:32 am #

    Very disturbing.

    Does this apply to scented candles, as well?

  2. Sue Kreft January 21, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    I didn't know my problem had a name – MCS. I can smell things (and taste – gross) things no one else in my office can. I thought someone was overdosing on perfume, when it turned out she uses scented dryer sheets. It triggered my asthma. She is a rare person – she went out and bought new laundry soap and fabric softener, and now I can't smell her anymore. I bought a product called Zero Oder, recommended to get rid of urine scent so my cat would not continue to "go" in a spot he shound not be. Well, the product name is a lie – it DOES contain a scent, and it's one that triggers my asthma. I emailed them to say why does it smell if it has that name? Apparently some people are not bright enough to remember where they just sprayed it, so it's a marker for that purpose. I wasted my money, will no longer use that prodcut.

  3. Sheryl January 21, 2010 at 10:51 am #

    Sue, some enlightened work places have developed scent-free policies. You might want to suggest one for your company. Here are guidelines for how a company can go about it (from the Canadian Lung Association): http://www.lung.ca/_resources/DevelopingaScentfreePolicyforaWorkplace.pdf

  4. Bernadette January 21, 2010 at 11:44 am #

    Wow-hard stuff to hear, however the info really opens my eyes! I am so careful to eat "pure" foods…now I need to work on cleaning, and personal care products! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Sheryl January 21, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    Nathan, scented candles may also contain phthalates and volatile organic compounds. Some even contain lead.

    See the following article for more info and some suggestions: http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/view/6551/1/321/

  6. Sue Kreft January 21, 2010 at 1:24 pm #

    Thanks for the additional info, Sheryl. I actually work for a state agency. Fortunately my supervisor has been supportive. But a lot of people aren't ready to give up their favorite chemicals, when it's not perfume. I have another trick for when smells bother me at work: I have a lovely round box made of cinnamon bark. I open it and inhale. It smells very nice and usually masks the chemical smell. I'm 58 years old, and have only had allergy/asthma issues in the past 3 or 4 years.

  7. Linda A. January 22, 2010 at 4:51 am #

    Good post with some good tips, Sheryl. While I agree that the fewer chemicals I allow into my body the better, I'm not paranoid about them. I use whichever cleaning, personal care, etc., products I can afford, and if they happen to have fragrances, then so be it. (I have to watch every penny.)

    As for household cleaners, I don't use air fresheners as a rule, although I very occasionally use NeutraAir. (I know opening the windows is much preferable, but I live in a cold climate, and opening the windows in the winter just isn't all that practical.) I do use Endust, but for all-purpose cleaners for surfaces, like countertops and stovetop, I like the citrus cleaners in spray bottles, and I haven't used a commercial glass-and-chrome cleaner in a long time because I've been making my own out of a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. I like it better than anything I can get in a store.

  8. Susan January 22, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    The piece I don't see here is essential oils! I also hate the smell of Lysol and can't stand to be in the soap aisle at the grocery store. I once couldn't sleep at a bed and breakfast because the sheets smelled so strong.

    But there is no need to live a life devoid of good smells! Just use the actual essential oils! Near my bed I have a wonderful spray made of a few drops of Ylang Ylang, a few drops of glycerin, and water. I have another with citrus oil, and a bottle of rose water. I have put a few drops of cedar, or bay in my mop water to freshen the whole house. Doctor Bronner's soaps are great for many things requiring soap, and their wonderful smells are pure essential oils. I even have a couple of perfumes made of all essential oils, though I know I got lucky to find them (handmade by a woman north of Charlottesville).

    The good stuff doesn't make your nose want to close up, and it takes so little one tiny bottle can last for years!

  9. Marny Turvill, M.D. January 24, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    This article hits the nail on the head! It covers the critical issues of lack of industry regulation, ignoring personal rights, unconscious conditioning, marketing ploys, our obsession with what is fashionable at all costs (and specifically at the cost of our health), lack of safety testing requirements, lack of labeling requirements and more while being very easy and pleasant to read, bringing awareness of some common but little-known illnesses and giving practical examples and resources. Amazingly well done!!

    A few replies to other comments:
    1) Yes, this applies to the majority of scented candles because they use synthetic fragrance.
    2) Essential oils were touched on with the comment that they, too, can cause problems. People can be senstive even to natural things, which is a different topic. It is important to be aware that many products labels as "pure essential oil" to have pure essential oil in them but also contain synthetic fragrance or phthalates or other chemicals aimed at boosting or prolonging the scent – another example of inadequate labeling laws.

    Marny Turvill, M.D.
    Pediatrician and MCS sufferer

  10. Julie H January 25, 2010 at 8:32 am #

    Great tips! I stopped using commercial cleaners all together about a year ago. Vinegar and a microfiber rag work wonders on just about everything. We also use castile soap both as a cleaner, a body wash, and in our hand soap dispensers. Sometimes I use incense to cover a strong odor when it's not possible to open windows (say if we've cooked fish on a winter day and it still smells the next day). My husband is Native American so we burn dried white sage leaves. There's also a company called Juniper Ridge that makes natural incense sticks from sage, sweetgrass, and a variety tree needles (ie cedar, juniper, pine, etc). It's a great alternative to chemically scented candles and doesn't seem to bother members of the family who are sensitive to harsh scents.

  11. Linda Ashman January 26, 2010 at 9:41 am #

    Hi, Sheryl. We avoid perfumes and scented products as much as possible in our house, and rely on vinegar, baking soda and borax for much of our cleaning. But there's plenty more we can do. The Guide to Less Toxic Products is really informative and helpful–I'm looking forward to trying some of their homemade alternatives.

    I subscribe to This Green Life, and always find it thought-provoking. Thanks so much for another great entry.

  12. Sandra January 27, 2010 at 7:45 am #

    Sheryl, The deodorant problem can be solved by baking soda , too. Just dust a bit between your palms and apply underarms (or whereever). The effect lasts longer than any deodorant I have ever tried. Sandra

  13. lc January 27, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    not to mention asthma – i was once in a class at kaiser with a woman who had asthma. the first day, she left because there was a plug-in air freshener in the bathroom, and it set off her asthma badly.

    for me it was sickening and irritating but for her, it was a crisis. eventually our class persuaded kaiser doctors to remove it.

    thanks for the column.

  14. Davina January 27, 2010 at 8:04 am #

    Brava! The scent of clean air is far better than any pretender. And there are lots of things that can be used to deodorize bodies without poisoning them at the same time.

    Thanks for this article

  15. Regina January 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    I truly hope that this important issue gets more attention. I lost my job because of perfumed products. I worked for an environmental non-profit, in a building that was LEED certified, not using anything toxic in the building. But that didn't prevent people from bringing/wearing toxic perfumes. My asthma was so bad, I had three fans at my desk to try to keep the scented stuff out of my cubicle. They moved me to a desk that had a window, and still with the three fans blowing fresh air toward the perfumed stuff was not enough to help me. My boss would then say that maybe what was bothering me was the pollen from outside. I told her that I know my body, and it was not the pollen. My eyes, nose, and throat were not bothered as if it was pollen, the only effect was the extreme difficulty in breathing. I had been going to an allergist for years, and my pollen allergy is well under control. But this sensitivity to perfumed products isn't helped by my allergy medicine or shots. I was treated horribly at work, because they felt that they couldn't ask someone to stop using whatever they were using. They didn't even want to acknowledge that there was anything there that could possibly be causing my asthma. I know there was something there, because I would start to wheeze even before I saw the person wearing the stuff. If I'm sitting in my cubicle, I couldn't see when she was near, but I would feel it in my lungs, and I'd look, and there she was. I tried to be nice, and understanding, but she just insisted that she wasn't using anything that could possibly cause my asthma. I wound up having an emotional breakdown because I just was treated so badly. It was even suggested that it was "all in my head" — I had suffered depression, so the just insinuated that this was psychological as well. I kept insisting that it wasn't all in my head, until one day, I just couldn't take it any more. I absolutely loved that job, but I couldn't take the hostile environment any more, and I just had to go back to the hospital because I was becoming more and more upset about the breathing issue and their refusal to acknowledge that there was anything there that could possibly be causing me to wheeze.

    I have for years been unable to go in the laundry and airfreshener aisle of the large grocery stores, so I buy my laundry soap at Trader Joe's because it's not some big aisle with a gazillion chemicals in it to overpower me.

    I can always tell when someone in my neighborhood is doing laundry, because I feel in my lungs the dryer sheets that they use. My lungs have a very specific reaction to different things, and I can always tell when someone is using dryer sheets, as opposed to just detergent.

    anyway, I guess I just needed to vent. I absolutely loved my job, but because I stayed there so long, trying to put up with the scented products or have someone try to work with me on the issue, it seems that my asthmatic reaction to perfumed products is now worse than ever.

    Thank you so much for this article. I just wish there was more of this type of thing in the "mainstream media"


  16. Lynn from Chemical Soup.net February 1, 2010 at 11:25 am #

    I enjoyed your article, Sheryl. And good luck with your son. I applaud how you handled things. We do need to challenge the marketing messages that harm.

    I've spent the morning reading about the brain and fragrance. Makes me wonder how ethical scent marketing is in light of their sometimes drug-like effects.

    Anyway, I go scent-free after learning even the organic, natural air fresheners contain voc's. In short, I want to give my brain clean air.

  17. Anonymous April 13, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    Finally, it seems like the marketplace is catching up to those of us who want to live in a truly clean and scent-free environment. Brands like Method, Seventh Generation, Magick Botanicals, and even Cheer and Tide are now selling products without scent or dye. Hooray!

  18. fiona jacobson July 13, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    Good to realise that unscented doesn’t mean natural. This is exploding one of the big myths in this business. Nice post.