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JANUARY 2010 (links updated 2013): The fragrances in personal care and household products put your health at risk. Learn why and how to avoid them.

Scented Products
Intoxicating and toxic

Walking into my teenage son's room the other day, I nearly gagged. No, it wasn't the smell of unwashed clothes or half-eaten food that got me. It was the opposite problem—air freshener. His own personal can.

I know what you're thinking. He's up to something. Well, maybe...but if he is, this isn't the sign.

("It's good you put that in," he says on reading the preceding paragraph. "Otherwise, people might think you were gullible.")

Like many young people, my son has been conditioned to expect everything to have a good smell—not the genuine good smell of things themselves nor of fresh air wafting in from an open window, but an aggressively pleasant, artificial smell.

(He nods in agreement.)

It's a mark of the times. From fabric softener to garbage bags, and moisturizer to lip gloss, today's household and personal care products are perfumed. Cleanser companies encourage us to choose their products based on scent rather than cleaning properties. Personal care items are advertised as fashion statements. The deodorant made by Secret is promoted, literally, as a form of self-expression.

(I lose him here, but not before getting his consent to publish the above.)

To me, it's absurd, but I'd say "to each his own" if it were just a question of fashion. Unfortunately, it's also a matter of health. An individual fragrance may be made with dozens if not hundreds of synthetic chemicals and need not be cleared for safety before going to market. As a result, dangerous substances may be—and are—routinely added to the cosmetics, cleansers and laundry products that end up in our homes.

Not only doesn't government require safety testing. It doesn't require that the ingredients in fragrances be identified on product labels. The ingredients are protected as trade secrets. And our right to know what chemicals we're exposed to? Trumped, for now, by the fragrance industry.

However, we are not totally in the dark, thanks to independent testing done by academics and public interest groups such as NRDC. What these tests show is not reassuring.

A 2007 study of air fresheners by NRDC found phthalates (pronounced tha-lates) in 12 of 14 brand-name products tested, including some marketed as "all-natural" or "unscented." Phthalates are endocrine disruptors that can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems. None of the air fresheners tested listed phthalates on its label.

Similar results were found in a 2002 study of cosmetics by a coalition of environmental and public health organizations. In this case, phthalates were identified in 52 of 72 products tested. While a follow-up study conducted in 2008 found some reduction in their use, many personal care products for men and women still carry these dangerous chemicals.

Other hazardous chemicals in fragrances include volatile organic compounds, some of which are carcinogenic and cause neurotoxic and respiratory effects. Another class of chemicals of concern is synthetic musks, which, according to preliminary research, may be endocrine disruptors, like phthalates.

For reasons that are not yet well understood, fragrances also seem to trigger allergic-like reactions in certain people. The phenomenon—called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or sometimes sick building syndrome—can be terribly disruptive to sufferers' lives. People with MCS may experience headaches, nausea, confusion, abdominal pain and a host of other symptoms when exposed to common chemicals at levels others find tolerable.

So should you buck the trend and eliminate or cut back your use of scented products? Yes, it's the safe thing to do. These chemicals may have long-term effects not just on you and your family, but if you are of reproductive age, children to come.

How should you go about it?

Do not rely on product claims of being "unscented" or "fragrance-free." A product labeled as such may still be made with fragrances. It's just that the purpose of the fragrance is to mask the natural odor of other ingredients, instead of giving off a detectable scent. From a health and safety standpoint, it's all the same.

Nor should you rely on the words "natural," "organic" or "hypoallergenic." They do not guarantee the absence of fragrance.

Instead, avoid air fresheners, use fewer cosmetics and little or no perfume, consult online resources to find safe products, and try truly natural cleaning agents: water, white vinegar and baking soda. See the sidebar for more specific tips, including product look-up information.

As to my own efforts to protect my son—I've thrown out his air freshener and forbade him to get more. Our next battlefront: deodorant.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

Intoxicating but toxic scents
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On This Topic


Open window
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.
Potpourri NATURAL AIR FRESHENERS

1)Homemade potpourri from flowers, fruits, spices and/or herbs. Choose fragrant varieties, such as roses, lemons, oranges, cloves, lemon verbena, mint, rosemary and lavendar (not all, just a few that go together). Air dry the flowers and oven-dry the fruits. Mix them together, along with a fixative, such as oris root, to make the scent last. (Orris root can be grown in your garden or bought at a health food store.)

Many potpourri recipes call for essential oils, but these can cause allergic reactions. Try making yours without.

Lay out the potpourri in open bowls to scent the air. When not in use, store in covered jars to retain the smell.

2)A simmering pot of spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, in water. Turn the burner off after the scent spreads through the rooms so as not to waste energy.

3)Baking soda. Put an open box in small, enclosed spaces such as the refrigerator to deodorize the air.


Resources


NRDC
Clearing the Air: Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners

Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products & the FDA and A Little Prettier

Rodale
VOCs and Laundry

Environmental Working Group
Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database

Environmental Health Assoc. of Nova Scotia
Guide to Less Toxic Products



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.