One of the first things you do when you step into your home after a busy day running errands, is take a deep breath. Heave a big sigh of relief and relaxation.
Are air fresheners bad for you? What if that “ocean breeze” or “linen fresh” scent you are inhaling from your fragrant home decor is actually hurting you?
Science is just beginning to scratch the surface of how artificial fragrances are destroying our health and indoor air quality.
Table of Contents for Answering How Are Air Fresheners Bad for You?
More and more unscented, fragrance-free, and free-and-clear products are commercially available as the public becomes increasingly aware of skin irritations and allergy symptoms associated with highly scented personal care and cleaning products. However, the problem goes deeper than the minor inconveniences on most consumers’ minds.
How are Synthetic Fragrances Monitored?
The lack of oversight in the US fragrance industry leaves the public open to massive exposures to a barrage of potentially deadly chemicals. We are surrounded by household cleaners, laundry products, air fresheners, sunscreen, shampoo, soap, body wash, deodorant, body lotion, makeup, facial cream, skin toner, serums, exfoliating scrubs, and perfumes—all with unnamed artificial fragrance blends.
Around 4,000 fragrance ingredients are disclosed on the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) transparency list, (1) and many of them are known to cause serious health problems such as cancer, respiratory difficulty, and hormone imbalances. This means that the word “fragrance” on a label can be any one of or a combination of over 4,000 ingredients!
Something else that causes concern is the concentration of artificial fragrances in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation, including most vehicles and offices, and many homes; modern homes are designed to be as airtight as possible. They are designed for comfort, cost-effectiveness and convenience, not health and wellness. This may save on our utility bills, but it exacerbates the issue of indoor air pollution from artificial fragrances (as well as other sources).
No Labeling Required
Unfortunately, due to a legal escape clause, manufacturers are not required to individually list the ingredients they include in their fragrance blends. Originally, this law was meant to allow perfume manufacturers to protect their proprietary blends as trade secrets.
Thus, the ingredients in a fragrance blend are protected from the normal ingredient declaration requirement under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). (2) In fact, the FDA is not charged with regulating labeling at all—only with overseeing the chemicals that go into the products. (3)
Fragrance free products cannot contain any artificial fragrances or fragrance masking ingredients. (4) However, they may contain ingredients that impart or mask a fragrance, and they may contain ingredients listed by IFRA as fragrance ingredients if the manufacturer claims they were included for a purpose other than fragrance. (5)
Sneaky Labeling of Harmful Fragrance ChemicalsOne example of this practice is including the very carcinogenic phthalates as a fixative, thus bypassing the need to admit there are synthetic fragrances in the product or to list phthalate as an ingredient. (6)
Unscented products do not elicit any discernible scent; however, this in no (technical) way means that it does not have synthetic fragrance ingredients. (7) In fact, a product labeled “unscented” usually has at least one synthetic fragrance added to mask the unpleasant odors of the active ingredients, surfactants, or cleansers.
Watch out for any product with the following words on the ingredient label:
- unscented (usually)
In fact, by using any of these words in the ingredient list, the manufacturer is boldly proclaiming that they refuse to disclose the actual ingredients to consumers whose health is at stake.
What are They Made Of?
When asking are air fresheners bad for you, consider the toxic chemicals involved! Fragrance blends may contain solvents, stabilizers, UV-absorbers, preservatives, and dyes as well as any chemical that imparts or hides a scent, including:
- respiratory irritants
- endocrine disruptors
- environmental toxins
What Can They Do to Me?
Synthetic chemicals on the fragrance list have been shown to wreak havoc on the human body. Any of the following health problems may be a result of exposure to artificial fragrances. Are air fresheners bad for you? See the symptoms that can result from exposure.
Allergies and Asthma
Many people are allergic to specific fragrances, and a few people with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) react very badly to nearly any synthetic fragrance. (8) This may be as minor as coughing, sneezing, and inflamed eyes or as severe as anaphylactic shock. In any case, these allergy symptoms are meant to tell you that your body is trying to expel and reject the substance, and bigger internal damage is afoot.
Synthetic fragrance overload is also implicated in many if not most instances of childhood asthma and in adult recurrence of childhood asthma.
Many fragrance ingredients in popular use are listed by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and other authorities as known or probable human carcinogens. (9) Our society must question why we are willing to literally torture and kill ourselves for the sake of pleasantly-scented body care and cleaning products. This is not a new question—some of the ingredients such as formaldehyde have been known carcinogens for decades.
Possibly the most common complaint caused by artificial fragrances, acute or chronic skin irritation is not as minor is it may seem. (10) Inflamed skin becomes more porous, and it allows product to penetrate in far greater quantities and with far greater speed than healthy skin.
Human skin is not like living plastic wrap which nicely separates each ingredient; it is more like living fabric, allowing fragrance ingredients to absorb into the skin layers themselves and to penetrate through the skin into the subcutaneous fatty layer and the blood stream, and thus to circulate throughout the body.
Especially in people who are highly sensitive to scents, these chemical blends can alter brain chemistry, resulting in increased incidence of depression and/ or panic attacks.
Migraines and Other Headaches
A very frequent presenting symptom of neurology patients is persistent migraines or cluster headaches with migraines or cluster headaches with no known cause. (11) Many doctors actually track the particular scents, and scented products that are most likely to cause problems for their patients.
Plug-in style air fresheners often top the lists, with fabric softeners, laundry scent crystals, and specific perfumes or colognes not far behind. If you find yourself suffering from frequent headaches, eliminating artificial fragrances may help!
Nervous System Disorders
Some fragrance-related illnesses are quite serious; in addition to cancer, some fragrance ingredients are capable of causing neurological damage and harm to the central nervous system. (12) Examples of neurological disorders include brain damage, some autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and seizure disorders. Clearly for this type of damage to occur, the exposure would have to be excessive, and/ or long-term.
Acute breathing difficulty is not uncommon upon exposure to synthetic fragrances even in minute quantities, and they can also cause long-term respiratory harm. At high exposures, some can cause respiratory failure, that is death by asphyxiation.
The material safety data sheets (MSDS) of many fragrance ingredients recommend use of a respirator when handling the chemical because the manufacturers are well aware of the pulmonary risks. (13) Our pursuit of unnatural odors is literally strangling us.
Vertigo, Dizziness, and Nausea
These symptoms are early warning signs of chemical overload that is harming the nervous system. Don't ignore what you body is telling you – learn how to see, and avoid, these harmful chemicals in your home. When looking to relieve nausea symptoms or treat dizziness naturally, look to eliminating unsafe fragrances from your home as a first step!
Are Air Fresheners Bad for You? Evidence of Harmful Chemicals
These harmful chemicals are often used as synthetic fragrances. But look at the known harmful effects of these dangerous scents. Then ask yourself how are air fresheners bad for you? So many ways!
Phthalates – A Common Scent Ingredient
Due to the ubiquitous presence of phthalates, including use in fragrances and fragrance-free products everywhere, most people are far more exposed to phthalates than they think, and children’s exposure may be 20 times the safe limit. (14) Phthalate overexposure in American children begins long before their first use of scented baby soap.
Maternal phthalate levels late in pregnancy have emasculating effects on otherwise healthy newborn boys including irreversible reduction of genital growth and development, diminished levels of male hormones during adolescence, and impaired sexual function during adulthood, and all of these effects are more severe for boys and men exposed to phthalates in the womb than those exposed during childhood or adulthood. (15)
There is evidence of reduced IQ among 7-year-old children whose mothers were exposed to phthalates during pregnancy, even when the levels were within safe limits. (16) Most scented baby care products, including baby wash, shampoo, lotion, diaper cream, and powder, raise the infant’s urinary level of phthalates. (17)
They are linked to hormone imbalance, reduce sperm counts, reproductive and genital malformation, breast cancer, liver cancer, diabetes, obesity, autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders. Phthalates are found in almost all body care products (around 75% that list “fragrance” as an ingredient), and many household cleaners, including some unscented and fragrance free products.
Acetaldehyde – A Dangerous Perfume
Acetaldehyde is used so frequently in the fragrance industry that perfumers describe its distinctive fragrance notes as “aldehydic” in their marketing copy. (18) Unfortunately, numerous agencies have listed it as carcinogenic, meaning there is compelling evidence that it’s use may cause cancer. (19) It is responsible for significant damage to the kidneys, lungs, nervous system, and reproductive system. (20)
Benzene Group of Chemicals (annulene; benzol; benzole; benzolene; bicarburet of hydrogen)
Benzene and its many relatives have long been known to cause leukemia and other cancers. (21) It is derived from toluene, another known carcinogen. It is a respiratory, developmental, reproductive, and environmental toxin, yet it is among the most common fragrance ingredients used.
Formaldehyde – A Serious Carcinogen
Formaldehyde has long been recognized as a human carcinogen. This is the same toxic chemical used to preserve frogs in biology class and to keep cadavers from decaying for scientific experiments.
Synthetic Musk (tonalide; galaxolide; musk ketone; musk xylene)
Synthetic musk causes cancer, is linked to increased rate of breast cancer, and is a known endocrine disruptor. (22, 23) One form of synthetic musk is detected in the blood of at least 95% of women who seek specialized care for endocrine dysfunction. (24) Synthetic versions of musk accumulate in human tissues, and are found in human breast milk, body fat, and umbilical cord blood.
Dichloromethane and (methylene chloride)
Dichloromethane is listed as potentially carcinogenic by the IARC and the NTP. It is also implicated in breast cancer, and it is one of only 11 ingredients considered so toxic that it is prohibited by the FDA. (25, 26) Almost unbelievably, it is still used in fragrance blends.
Styrene (ethenylbenzene; vinylbenzene; vinylbenzol; styrolene; styrol; styrole; styropol; styropor; styron; cinnamene; cinnamol; phenethylene; phenylethylene; phenylethene)
1,4-Dioxane is a Toxic By-Product
1,4-Dioxane is usually present as a contaminant or byproduct of other components, so it is rarely listed on ingredient labels. However, it is highly toxic, is associated with birth defects, and is listed as a known or possible carcinogen by most authorities.
Myrcene (β-myrcene; beta-myrcene; 2-methyl-6-methylene-2,7-octadiene; 7-methyl-3-methylene-1,6-octadiene)
This fragrance ingredient is still widely used in fragrance blends despite a conclusive 2-year study that demonstrates it causes liver and or kidney cancer in every class tested. (29) It was nominated for testing by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) because it is in high production, has a high level of human exposure, is chemically similar to another known carcinogen, and is used in food and drink as well as numerous body care products.
Ethanolamines (MEA; DEA; TEA; etc.)
Ethanolamines readily form nitrosamines when used in products with specific, common preservatives. Nitrosamines are listed by both the IARC and the NTP as potentially carcinogenic while the California EPA lists several ethanolamines as known carcinogens.
Lovely, Viable Alternatives To Avoid Harmful Air Fresheners
By now, you may be concerned about ever again using anything that smells nice, and rightfully so. But are air fresheners bad for you if they don't include these harmful chemicals? Good news! Here are some safe, effective alternatives to all the toxins and carcinogens in synthetic fragrances.
Homemade Air Freshener – Use your favorite brands of essential oils to create a heavenly room spray.
Exchange Plugins for Diffusers – Create your favorite essential oil blends for diffusers to create lovely scents for your family without the toxic chemicals. (use caution with infants).
Homemade Potpourri—add your favorite dried flowers or herbs to a warming pot or try sachets or decorative bowls around your home.
Plant Fragrant Herbs – Plant herbs such as mint, rosemary, and lemon balm in kitchen window herb gardens to freshen the air and provide culinary herbs for your meals. They also help keep stray insects out.
Air Purifier – Eliminate musty odors from mold and mildew with a professional quality air freshener. Visit AIR Doctor with our referral link to get a 50% discount just for Dr Z readers!
Buy Wisely – Consult a watchdog group like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for recommendations on safe, green versions of your usual products. (30) Don’t be a victim of greenwashing! (31) See some of our favorite, trusted companies and products.
Synthetic chemical fragrances are frequently detected in products claiming to use only natural fragrances, so read labels carefully and do your homework. (32)
It’s so easy to get tricked by the pleasant scent we’ve been trained to look for in our laundry, cleaners, body care products, and other household items. But more often than not, these fragrances are harmful and aren’t what we need in our homes for us or our family.
God says in Scriptures that He breathed into us the breath of life. The last thing we want is to be breathing death into our homes with dangerous chemicals and fragrances.
Living the abundant life can be as simple as making simple changes in your life's routine. Start with a switch to God-given fragrances from natural sources.