Artificial Fragrances in Your Home

Fresh outdoors smell

Artificial fragrances lurk unmarked in many of your household cleaning products. These fragrances can be bothersome as they leave residues, irritating when they are allergens, and harmful when they pose known health risks.

“Fragrance affects us all. For some, it can enhance a moment, invoke a memory, or even improve a mood. As consumers, we seek it out in all kinds of products we use in our everyday lives. And for many of us, there’s a positive sensory experience associated with fragrance. But unfortunately, this may not be without consequence. In addition to the potential health consequences of certain fragrance ingredients linked to cancer, interference with hormones, and reproductive harm, a significant portion of the population suffers from fragrance-related allergies.” Women’s Voices for Earth, “Secret Scents: How Hidden Fragrance Allergens Harm Public Health,” February 2013.

Bothersome, Irritating, and Harmful

Fragrances are just bothersome when they leave a residue. I’ve been writing about residues and the consequences for your cloth diapers, so you probably have an idea that residues of oil, minerals, or any other substances can hold on to nasty stink. It’s just strange to me that we allow ourselves to be convinced that we need to spray fragrance around our homes or plug oil burners into our outlets. Both of these leave a film on the walls, the fabric of furniture, and everywhere else in our houses. That is the least of what artificial fragrances in household products do.

Worse, artificial fragrances are often allergens. Even some cleaning products formulated to be allergy-safe have unlisted ingredients that are known to cause problems for those with sensitivities or allergies. There is a lot of work being done right now to expose then remove allergens from household products.

Worst of all, though, are the toxic chemicals in household cleaning and freshening products that expose us to a long list of harmful effects. We don’t even know all of the effects because these chemicals are not tested and approved for use.

Naturemom works hard to help you remove toxins from your home by choosing carefully which products to sell at and by educating customers about the problems with conventional products. She told me that if she could convince parents to do just two thing to keep toxins away from their children, those would be: 1) ditch artificial fabric softeners, and 2) don’t use fragrances that are sprayed around the house. Those artificial fragranced plugins are her worst nightmare.

So, you avoid the problem ingredients, right? Not quite so easy. You can’t avoid them because toxic fragrance ingredients aren’t on labels. Now what?

Disclosure of Ingredients

Have you ever noticed “fragrance” as an ingredient on shampoo, cleaners, or laundry detergent? What is “fragrance”? Can I get a Material Safety Data Sheet on that? No, of course not. Manufacturers are not required to list individual ingredients. They argue that proprietary blends must be kept secret.

Sure it’s a problem that manufacturers include toxic ingredients in their products marketed to clean our houses, but it’s an even bigger problem that they aren’t required to disclose ingredients. How can I stay away from allergens, irritants, and even neurotoxins or carcinogens if I don’t know what is in these products? I can’t—unless I read studies that have independently tested these products for the offending ingredients.

Some manufacturers argue that their websites (or side project websites, away from consumer traffic) are the best place to list ingredients. That just makes the information more difficult to find when we make our buying decisions. Deep on those websites where they are difficult to find and even more difficult to download to your phone while you are shopping, a couple of manufacturers have provided master ingredient lists. These lists don’t help me know which products to avoid because of specific allergens, though. They are not helpful in the way that we as consumers need help.

Listing ingredients on products should be the standard. Some companies (Clean Well and Seventh Generation) use peel-back labels to list all of their ingredients. The methods are available. Not listing ingredients is a choice that large manufacturers are making because it masks their inclusion of toxic chemicals.

Simple Actions You Can Take

  • Go through your house, pull up the Environmental Working Group database, and check every household cleaning, freshening, laundry, kitchen, bathroom, floor, furniture, and other product. Ditch the toxic cleaning products.
  • Use simple ingredients like boiling water, vinegar, and lemon to give your house a cleaner clean.
  • If you want to add fragrance to your homemade cleaning products, use natural smells, such as orange peels in vinegar for cleaning, or add essential oils, that contain no undisclosed chemicals. When you control what you smell, you can avoid anything that causes allergies or sensitivities for your family members.
  • Learn about chemicals of concern and the chemical body burden. The research and campaigns below will give you a lot of information to share with your friends and family.

Consequences of Artificial Smells

One of the consequences of all of the conditioning to artificial smells is that you begin to believe the underlying message: your smell is wrong. If you or your house are stinky, there is a remedy for that. Find the source and clean it up. Doesn’t that sound simple?


A 2007 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found pthalates in air fresheners, even those labelled “all natural.”

In a 2011 study, Women’s Voices for the Earth looked at toxic chemicals in popular household products, including not just air fresheners but laundry detergents, all-purpose cleaners, disinfectant sprays, and more.

Women’s Voices for the Earth created the report card The Dirt on Cleaning Product Companies to show what major manufacturers are doing about toxic chemicals in their products.

Campaigns & Organizations
NRDC Take out Toxics campaign points out that 80,000 chemicals permitted in products in the U.S. have never been tested for health effects.

Safer Chemicals / Healthy Families is a coalition of professionals, businesses, advocacy groups, and others. This is an active organization you can follow on social media for alerts about toxics and efforts to remove them from household products. Safer Chemicals / Healthy Families lists the major chemicals of concern and their consequences.

Women’s Voices for Earth Secret Scents campaign focuses primarily on the issue of allergens used as fragrance ingredients in common products.

Women’s Voices for Earth What’s That Smell? campaign focuses on chemicals of concern used as fragrance in cleaning products.

Image © Erik Reis |

Antimicrobial Overkill

Disinfectant overkill with spray bottle and plastic glove

Antimicrobial cleaners and treatments—disinfectants—kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but they also have potential harmful health and environmental effects. They don’t distinguish between good bacteria and bad bacteria. But, a lot of people continue to use antibacterial household products that promise hygiene and safety. Everyone wants to be safe, don’t they?

Use of disinfectants such as nano silver in everyday situations is overkill. Even in more extreme situations, there is a lot of debate about whether the antimicrobial benefits outweigh the potential risks.

Nano silver is not new but it has been used in more household products in the past decade, so concerns have seen more publicity. It can be embedded in plastics (pacifiers and baby bottles), coated on textiles (anti-bacterial socks or baby products), and even added to soaps labelled “all natural” (though it is banned in Canadian organics).

The U.S. EPA is considering an application to register nano silver as a pesticide, which the Natural Resources Defense Council vigorously opposes as “illegal, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous to the public.” Unfortunately, the application to use nano silver as a pesticide is just a clever way to keep it on the market until a final decision is made. Nanomaterials are regulated by Environment Canada as pollution and waste.

Though marketed by some as an alternative cure-all, even most alternative medicine practitioners warn against claims made for unregulated medicinal silver use.

Nano silver particles are super small, 1-100 nanometers, which is a lot closer to the size of an atom than to the width of a hair. Their size means they can penetrate and accumulate in tissue. Particles coating fabrics don’t necessarily stay on fabrics. Since the particles are too small to be filtered out during the wastewater treatment process after they have been freed from antibacterial soap or socks or diaper bags or towels or even washers, the particles stay in the water after they wash down the drain. These antibacterial particles could even kill microbes used in wastewater treatment. Once these nano particles are released into the waterways, aquatic life will encounter them. A study of the effect of nano silver on zebrafish “found that some died and others were left with dramatic mutations.” Studies find problems in plant life with nano particles in soil.

Given that nano silver can have an effect on the immune system, cause neurological problems, result in kidney damage, and boost greenhouse emissions, it looks like a threat to public health.

Too many disinfectants do the job so well that they harm more than the bacteria they are intended to kill. It’s like using a sledgehammer for a push pin. For cautions and alternatives to heavy-handed disinfectants like chlorine bleach, Triclosan, and nano-silver, read Disinfectant Overkill from Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Reduce toxins and potentially risky new technologies hidden in household products by making your own cleaners. Women’s Voices for the Earth has a room-by-room guide to reducing disinfectant exposure.

Image © Photka |