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 |

Anti-bacterial Ingredient Triclosan Found to Weaken Muscle

Washing Hands with Liquid Soap

Triclosan, a chemical added to many dozens of household products, has been in the news this past week as a new study finds that the chemical weakens muscle by interfering with the movement of calcium in cells. Data from the study “provide strong evidence that the chemical is of concern to both human and environmental health.”

Where are the environmental protections that we rely on? Earlier this year, the Canadian Ministers of Environment and Health announced a finding that “triclosan is not harmful to human health, but in significant amounts can cause harm to the environment.” The U.S. Centers for Disease Control Fact Sheet on Triclosan still says, “More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to triclosan.” Despite the slow-moving national regulation of chemical additives, the research finally seems to have reached a tipping point.

Environmental Working Group, in their 2008 report on Triclosan, recommended removing the chemical from all consumer products. That might seem an extreme conclusion at first. For those companies that add the chemical to dozens of products, it might seem impossible to discontinue its use. Continued research and persistent pressure have brought us to the point where a ban on triclosan seems possible, even probable.

Claims As a Germ Killer

Triclosan has been added to consumer products as a germ killer. We know it best as an ingredient in anti-bacterial soap. Does antibacterial soap work better than other soap to kill bacteria? No, dozens of studies have found that triclosan does not work better than plain soap.

It’s Not Just Soap

You might think you would find this so-called anti-bacterial pesticide just in anti-bacterial soap, but it is used in consumer products throughout your house: toothpaste, toys, filters, vacuums, cart covers, and even hockey helmets.

A few of the products containing triclosan include: Colgate Total, Revlon ColorStay LipSHINE Lipcolor Plus Gloss, Faberware Microban Cutting Boards, Fellowes Cordless Microban Keyboard and Microban Mouse Pad, Biofresh socks, Playskool toys (Stack ‘n Scoop Whale, Rockin’ Radio, Hourglass, Sounds Around Driver, Roll ‘n Rattle Ball, Animal Sounds Phone, Busy Beads Pal, Pop ‘n Spin Top, Lights ‘n Surprise Laptop), Ticonderoga Antibacterial pencil, Bauer hockey helmets, Miller Paint Interior Paint, Dupont Air Filters, BioEars earplugs, Petmate LeBistro feeders and waterers, Infantino cart covers and baby carriers, Bissell Healthy Home Vacuum, Rival Seal-A-Meal Vacuum Food Sealer, CleenFreek SportsHygiene Yoga Mat. (See Beyond Pesticides for their list of products containing triclosan, and see the SkinDeep database for a list of cosmetics that include triclosan. Check the Good Guide for product ratings, and download their app so you can scan bar codes as you shop.)

Especially as more research shows potential harm from triclosan, you might find that the chemical disappears from some of these products. As Beyond Pesticides points out, “many companies are quietly taking triclosan out of their products Remember to always refer to product labels to determine whether triclosan is contained in your product.”

Getting Rid of Triclosan

As with so much of the chemical body burden resulting from the experimental innovations of modern synthetics, chemicals accumulate in our bodies. There is a way a woman can rid herself of these chemicals: breastfeed. That’s right. Triclosan and other chemicals are found in breastmilk then passed to babies. It is unlikely we can prevent all exposure to Triclosan and other dangerous chemicals without a complete ban from consumer products, but we as individuals can limit our exposure by understanding the products that use these chemicals and avoiding those products.

Environmental Working Group recommended in 2008 that Triclosan be banned from all consumer products. Just this week, Johnson & Johnson announced that they will remove Triclosan from all products by the end of 2015. Consumer pressure does work to remove these dangerous ingredients from the products that surround us. It helps us all to vote with our dollars and avoid products with experimental chemical ingredients, but we also need to keep up the pressure as consumers to encourage changes like this.

Naturally Antibacterial

As you pack your child’s school bag, if you are looking for naturally antibacterial cleaners that do not add to your child’s chemical body burden, consider Clean George (Made in USA) and Graydon (Made in Toronto). Both products use essential oils as the antibacterial ingredient.

Image © Umiterdem |

Avoid Toxic Laundry

Baby with Laundry

I’m fairly sure it won’t surprise you to hear that mainstream laundry detergents contain a long list of chemicals known to cause health issues: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Dioxane (1,4-dioxane), Linear Alky Benzene Sulfonates (LAS), Nonylphenol Ethoxylate (NPE), Ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid (EDTA), and the common Sodium Hypochlorite (bleach).

Even some laundry products labeled “natural” or marketed as “green” include potentially dangerous toxic chemicals, but how will you know that? Will you read the ingredient list? Not so fast. Manufacturers don’t have to list laundry ingredients. You may have to call your manufacturer to ask about particular ingredients or check with reliable organizations that have investigated laundry ingredients.

You can avoid some of these common laundry toxins by avoiding:

  • perfumed detergents that don’t specifically tell you that the scents are derived from natural sources,
  • fabric softeners of any kind,
  • optical brighteners of any kind (which leave a synthetic coating on fibers), and
  • common household bleach (sodium hypochlorite).

There are more natural or less toxic ingredients that scent, soften, and clean—and you really don’t need your clothes to glow under a black light, so skip the optical brighteners altogether.

Some natural cleaning products will tell you specifically that they are petrochemical free or 100% non-toxic. Don’t just look at the bottle with a green label and a leaf and think that’s a guarantee. Follow up and check the ingredients before you commit to any detergent because you are putting this next to your skin (and you’ll sweat, making it easier for the chemicals to enter your body), next to your baby’s delicate bottom (and you know the warm, wet atmosphere of a cloth diaper makes chemical absorption more likely), and next to your face on your pillowcase while you sleep. You will live close to the chemicals in your laundry, so take care what detergent you choose.

DIY Non-toxic Laundry

You could also choose to keep a very close eye on every ingredient by making your own laundry detergent.

If you are going to create your own cleaning products, keep in mind the green cleaning basics: acidic cleaning solutions break down mineral deposits (hard water) and alkaline cleaning solutions break up fats and oils. Cleaning works better closer to neutral pH, so investigate the pH of your water before you make any assumptions or additions to your cleaning.

If you are willing to learn responsible chemistry and you don’t mind the extra time it will take to do your chemistry experiments, make your own. There are hours of DIY videos on YouTube instructing you to make your own laundry detergent, liquid or powdered. Some of these recipes even use the same ingredients you are trying to avoid. Don’t add more petro-chemical derived cleaners. Don’t add more coatings to your fibers. Choose the simplest ingredients to do a simple job: lift and rinse the dirt away.

Image © Pavla Zakova |

Party for a Change

Green Cleaning Party Kit

If you want to help those around you remove toxic substances from their lives, you don’t have to have a heavy conversation or make an inspiring speech. Lighten it up. Throw a party and make it fun for your friends to learn about green cleaning.

Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) is a great nonprofit that focuses on a clear mission (“eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women’s health”) and a clear theory of how women can make change. They encourage women to come together around change—actually come together in person, as in house party!

Green Cleaning Party

WVE provides resources to help you throw a green cleaning party. Invite your friends over to make their own clean cleaning supplies. Talk about why you use basic household ingredients rather than buying toxic cleaners, but most of your party is just about making the cleaners. Then, everyone goes home with their own supplies. After they get a chance to try out their new clean cleaners, you can even invite them back so everyone can talk about how to make improvements.

The WVE Green Cleaning Party kit includes:

  • Supplies list
  • Video
  • Recipe cards for cleaners
  • Labels to attach to jars
  • Suggested agenda
  • FAQs
  • Background on chemicals
  • Action instructions

Download for free or pay for a hard copy (with DVD) to be mailed to you.

If your local green cleaning movement really takes off, you can become a Women’s Voices for the Environment Actionista.

Toxic Threats to Child Development

In Harm's Way Toxic Threats to Child Development

Are you looking for some substantial reading you can do over the weekend? I’ve been reading more about the toxic environment in which our children grow and develop. I’m not concerned about the good dirt and exposure to naturally occurring bacteria that help children build their immunity naturally. I’m concerned with the heavy toxins introduced into our environment through industrialization.

In 2000, a group of physicians released In Harm’s Way, a long, peer-reviewed study of toxic chemical influences on developmental disabilities. The study is written in more plain language that most medical studies, so it’s easier for most of us to read and understand.

Though trends are difficult to establish with certainty, there is a growing consensus that learning and behavioral disorders are increasing in frequency. These disabilities are clearly the result of complex interactions among genetic, environmental, and social factors that impact children during vulnerable periods of development. Research demonstrates that pervasive toxic substances, such as mercury, lead, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, solvents, and others, can contribute to neurobehavioral and cognitive disorders.

Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, “In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development,” 2000.

If you want to understand your child’s normal brain development and how chemical toxins alter development, you will find it in this study.

You can buy a paperback version of the 149-page study for $100+ or you can download it for free in pieces or as one long PDF.

The themes that emerged from this research were:

  1. Neurodevelopmental disabilities are widespread, and chemical exposures are important and preventable contributors to these conditions.
  2. Our initial understanding of the impacts of neurotoxic substances regularly underestimates the potential for harm.
  3. Carefully conducted, long-term epidemiological studies have proven to be much more sensitive measures of developmental neurotoxicity than animal studies.
  4. Regulatory policy has repeatedly failed to protect children from widespread harm due to exposures to developmental neurotoxins.
  5. The failure of the regulatory system to protect public health can often be traced to the influence of vested economic interests upon the regulatory process.
  6. Neurodevelopmental disabilities impose social and economic costs upon impacted families and the economy as a whole.
  7. Special interests are not merely tolerated but are actually an integral part of the regulatory process.

The conclusions point the way to improving a regulatory system that has not yet adequately protected children’s health. Who, though, is going to say that they don’t have children’s health as their goal? This is common ground we all share. Starting from there, we can look at what barriers stand in the way, name them out loud, and make the changes necessary to prevent such damage to our children’s present and future.

The project didn’t stop with the publication of this study. Training programs have been created to act on findings, and they have produced many more guides for clinicians and for parents. If you find yourself intrigued by this study, there is much more where that came from.

We have to be well informed as parents if we are going to make the best decisions for our children.