Photo: A better sense of scents

Can the fragrance in your shampoo and clothing really stay within your scent-circle? (Credit: Casey Meshbesher via Flickr)

Champions of fragrance propose keeping smell inside a "scent-circle" — about an arm's length from the body. But what happens when your scent-circle overlaps with my scent-circle and I'm left with a headache?

I've lost count of the times I've had to move seats on the bus or in the movie theatre, or discretely roll down the car window (not unlike my dog with his head out the car window, minus the drool) to escape powerfully scented hair sprays and dryer sheets.

Years ago I basked in artificial scents. Today, I've embraced going fragrance-free, and you can too! Avoiding unnecessary scented products in your home and workplace can be beneficial for your health, the health of those around you, and the environment.

To dig deeper on this issue, I interviewed Dr. Barbara MacKinnon, President and CEO of the New Brunswick Lung Association.

QoG: Is there a difference between "fragrance-free" and "scent-free"?

Barbara: Although most of us think these terms are interchangeable, scent is beginning to mean the smell of something. For example, white vinegar has a scent but no fragrance has been added. Fragrance means a substance, either artificial or natural, that has been added to either mask the smell of something or to give it a specific scent. (Note: Health Canada allows the terms fragrance-free and unscented to be used interchangeably in the marketing of cosmetics to mean either that no fragrances have been added to the cosmetic product, or that a masking agent has been added to hide scents.)

QoG: What's the biggest misconception about going fragrance-free?

Barbara: The terms "fragrance-free" and "scent-free" are misnomers. It's difficult to be completely scent-free because so many substances smell. Some people react to natural scents as well as artificial fragrance. And, some people think that going fragrance-free means just not wearing perfume or cologne. But scented detergents or fabric softeners can linger on clothing, as can the fragrances in body wash, hair spray, shampoo, and conditioner. Not everybody realizes that each scent is actually made-up of 100 to 350 chemicals derived from petroleum — not real lemons or flowers.

QoG: How would people know if they suffer from the adverse effects of scents? What are the symptoms?

Barbara: Symptoms may include headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, nausea, fatigue, weakness, insomnia, malaise, confusion, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, numbness, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, difficulty with concentration, and skin irritation. (See more here: Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety).

QoG: Why should workplaces, schools, and other public spaces consider going fragrance-free?

Barbara: In today's world, going completely fragrance-free is very difficult because fragrance chemicals are in everything. But everyone should at least try to go "scent-reduced." That might be a more realistic term. Many people are sensitive to fragrance. And the concern is that they cannot be at their best or most productive when they do not feel well. In some cases reactions to fragrance can also be quite serious.

The Scented Products Education and Information Association of Canada advises that people simply stay inside their respective scent-circles. But if you've layered yourself in fragrance on a daily basis, and those products have smells created to linger, can anyone truly stay within their scent-circle?

Is your school or workplace already fragrance-free?

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

February 22, 2011

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1 Comment

Mar 01, 2011
8:11 AM

I just read the Queen of Green blog on fragrances…BRAVO!! Efforts such as this indeed change the world for the better. It may help to know that Nova Scotia has been a scent-free province for over a decade, so much practical information is available. Schools, universities, businesses, government offices, and much more have scent free programs. The Department of Health and others have official policies. To learn more about how to create effective fragrance-free programs and toxin-reduced environments for workplaces or schools go to and search for Scent-Free Management Plan. Also,, as mentioned in the blog, is a great source of practical information.

Thank you! Karen Robinson President and CEO of CASLE (Canadians for A Safe Learning Environment) and board member of EHANS (Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia

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