Photo: Hazards are hiding in fragranced consumer products

Some fragrances in bath products and other cosmetics can trigger allergic reactions (Photo credit: Nietnagel via Flickr).

By Dr. Anne Steinemann

They're everywhere: air fresheners, scented soaps, hand sanitizers, laundry detergents, dryer sheets, and cleaning supplies. They emit numerous chemicals, including some classified as toxic or hazardous, and even some with no exposure level that is considered safe.

But you may not know about these hazards. Our laws do not require all ingredients in fragranced consumer products to be listed on labels or material safety data sheets (MSDS). If ingredients are disclosed, they are typically general or benign-sounding ones, such as "biodegradable surfactants" or "organic fragrance." What's more, a single "fragrance" in a product can be a mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals, most of them synthetic. Even products with claims of "green" or "organic" emit toxic and hazardous chemicals, often just as many as the standard brands.

This special issue of Doc's Talk is in collaboration with the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics


These products can cause a range of adverse health effects, such as headaches, breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, rashes, and even loss of consciousness1. I wanted to find out what ingredients could be causing these effects. Together with colleagues, I analyzed 25 best-selling fragranced products — air fresheners, laundry products, cleaners, and personal care products — to find out what's really in them. We used headspace analysis with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to detect the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from the products2.

The results were surprising: These 25 products emitted 133 different VOCs, with an average of 17 VOCs per product. Of these 133 VOCs, 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws, and each product emitted between one and eight of these compounds.

In most cases, consumers would have no way of knowing about these chemical ingredients. Only one was listed on any product label, and only two were listed on any MSDS. Moreover, about half the products made some claim of being "green" (such as "organic," "natural," with "essential oils" or "organic perfume"), and they emitted just as many toxic and hazardous compounds, and probable carcinogens, as the standard products3 (Full results).

Why is this, given that we have dozens of environmental laws designed to protect and promote public health? Here's why: No law in the U.S. or Canada requires manufacturers to disclose all ingredients in consumer products (such as air fresheners, laundry supplies, and cleaners), either on the label or the MSDS. For the subset of consumer products considered to be cosmetics (such as personal care products), manufacturers must list ingredients on the label, but they can include the general term "fragrance" or "parfum" rather than list the ingredients in the fragrance. More generally, no law requires the disclosure of any ingredients in a "fragrance" in any product4.

We found some other surprising results: Nearly half of the fragranced products emitted one or more carcinogenic "hazardous air pollutants" (1,4-dioxane, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride), which have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Further, even if a product doesn't contain hazardous chemicals, it can generate them. For instance, the most common chemical emitted from these products was limonene, which reacts with ozone in surrounding air to create a range of potentially hazardous secondary pollutants, such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and ultrafine particles5.

What can consumers do? They can use basic products to clean, such as baking soda and vinegar, and use products without any fragrance or scent. Consumers can also use direct approaches to improve indoor air quality, such as opening a window or turning on a fan, rather than using air fresheners or deodorizers (which do not clean the air, but only mask a problem and worsen air quality). It also helps to be skeptical when reading labels and MSDSs. They may list only some ingredients, if any. (Even products called "unscented" or "fragrance-free" can contain a fragrance, as well as a masking fragrance to cover the scent.) And don't be misled by product claims of "green," "organic," or "natural fragrance." Those terms are not regulated or defined, and these products can emit toxic chemicals just like other brands.

I continue my quest to figure out what's in these products and why they make people sick. Is it because of individual ingredients, mixtures, or both? Is it because an ingredient is synthetic rather than truly natural? Is it because these chemicals are found in mixtures not known to nature? More broadly, what is the impact of using these products on the environment, such as laundry-product chemicals that are vented outside or washed down the drain? Investigating these questions can improve our understanding of the links between environmental exposures and health, and can help us develop criteria for product testing and safety. In the meantime, as research moves forward, we can take action to reduce exposures. The David Suzuki Foundation provides important recommendations and clear guidelines to get you started.

steinemann.jpgAnne Steinemann is a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and professor of public affairs, at the University of Washington. Dr. Steinemann conducts research on pollutant exposures, consumer-product emissions, health impacts, climate change, and resources management. She works with agencies, industries, and individuals, providing science for decisions to protect human health and the environment. More information can be found on her website.

1 Caress SM, Steinemann, AC. Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population. J Environ Health 71(7):46-50, 2009.

2 We focused our analysis on VOCs; other product ingredients and pollutants (such as semi-volatile organic compounds and ultrafine particles) could also be emitted by the products.

3 Steinemann AC, MacGregor IM, Gordon SM, Gallagher LG, Davis AL, Ribeiro DS, and Wallace LA. Fragranced Consumer Products: Chemicals Emitted, Ingredients Unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 2010.

4 Steinemann AC. Fragranced Consumer Products and Undisclosed Ingredients. Environmental Impact Assessment Review 29(1): 32-38, 2009.

5 Nazaroff WW, Weschler CJ. Cleaning products and air fresheners: exposure to primary and secondary air pollutants. Atmos Environ 38(18):2841-65, 2004.

February 10, 2011

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Mar 05, 2013
8:49 AM

Interesting post. It’s hard to avoid many of the products in which these harmful chemicals are found, but more consumer awareness will hopefully prompt change in new product development.

Mar 06, 2011
7:48 PM

all of this information is so so important to me. i have 4 growing girls and pets. im always reading labels with everything i buy.i dont like that it can be so tricky.i prefer to use nontoxic everything,without overspending what r some names that i can loook for when shopping for laundry, dish detergent,deodrant etc. i seem to be on a constant search. we have arranged our meals to me more meatless and prefer local.. we drive less and walk and bike always looking for ways to improve the life of my family and make this lifestyle the way it should have always been.thanks so much for all this reading material it is a great help!

Feb 17, 2011
7:21 PM

It is great to see that some in the scientific community see that some chemicals are hazardous for our health, and the environment. Maybe if we can’t get people to stop wearing these products for our health, they might care about the frogs and other creatures who are losing the battle due to our misuse of the world we live in. These chemicals soak into our skin and make us sick, but they also make the natural hormone cycles of some animals so sick that they may not make it to another generation. Let’s clean up our act for ourselves and the animals we share this planet with.

Feb 16, 2011
11:16 AM

someone mentioned already. such a GREAT site!!

two other’s i’d like to share: and

both are wonderful products and natural. back to earth doesn’t have a lot on her site, more in her store, found in lavington (coldstream/vernon). save your jars and she’ll refill them for you!

i’ve never had insane allergies, but i used to have an on going cut by my nose and a stubborn pregnancy rash my doctor told me needed steroid antibiotics. when i switched to these bc local brands, both symptoms cleared up! definitely worth the research for your health and your family’s!!

Feb 16, 2011
10:52 AM

Thanks everyone for your comments — great to see Canadians are interested in these issues. Over 5000 people have already signed our Action Alert letter addressed to our Minister of Health, Hon. Leona Aglukkaq, demanding that companies disclose fragrance ingredients. If you haven’t already, please check it out at — and share the link within your networks!

Feb 14, 2011
4:47 PM

Hi! Have had allergy problems since a young age (74 now) and can’t use shampoos and soaps, even non-scented ones. Since my daughter recomended Neutrogena soap about three years ago, have reduced my allergy reactions (especially after showering). Would still like to know what is in that soap. It lists many ingredients but most mean nothing to me. Keep up the good work!

Feb 14, 2011
1:28 PM

@Kim: Check out the Skin Deep Database — it’s a great resource.

I’m looking forward to not suffering anymore once this issue becomes widely known and proper regulations implemented. I get reactions on transit, from my neighbour’s laundry products and from public washroom soaps. It’s actually painful and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, I have to ask a friend to reexamine his products because his fragrance sticks to my clothes when I hug him and I find it unbearable.

When I was a kid and had to walk through the cleaning aisle in a store, I’d hold my breath. One day as an adult, I walked through one and realised just why: it stinks of toxics!

Feb 14, 2011
1:27 PM

Another good reason to only use personal care producst that are certified organic or natural. Look for USDA seal or the European BDIH seal on products. All fragrances from these products are from essential oils. (Don’t be fooled by ‘fauxganics’ — putting the word ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ on a label is pretty much meaningless without 3rd party certification.)

Feb 14, 2011
1:02 PM

If you just told me which products meet your qualifications, I’d choose them.

Feb 14, 2011
10:02 AM

In 2006 we withdrew our daughter from regular high school because of anaphylaxis to VOCs in scented products. The male cologne, Axe, destroyed her immune system in Sept 2004.

Great that more info is being shared on these invisible hazards. There seems to be more awareness that scented products are a real health problem. Even better, our daughter is excelling in second year university in sciences (wears canister mask for labs). Thanks again for providing education on this important public health issue from a mom in Kamloops. BC

Feb 11, 2011
10:26 AM

Wonderful work — I am SO sick of getting sick just because someone walks past me….. It is time for a culture shift.

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