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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