David Suzuki Foundation in partnership with the Canadian Lung Association

Join the growing movement for fragrance-free homes and workplaces! Removing unnecessary scented products from where you live and work can be beneficial for your health, the health of those around you, and the environment. Read on for tips on how to go fragrance-free at work and at home.

For the past few decades, companies and advertisers have done an impressive job of Lung Association Logocasting a romantic light on perfumes and colognes. And we now live in an age where you can buy scented air fresheners that instantly make your car smell like a pine forest and candles that can make your living room smell like a big bowl of potpourri. What isn't disclosed on the tidy billboards and romantic TV commercials are the hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals that are used to provide these scents.

What does "fragrance" really mean?

The vast universe of fragranced consumer products includes the obvious scented products like colognes, perfumes, and air fresheners. But it also includes countless body products (e.g., shampoos, conditioners, lotions, deodorants), cleaners, candles, laundry detergents, and more. Each product can contain dozens or even hundreds of fragrance-related chemicals, but companies are not required to provide this information to consumers.

In the case of cosmetics, the generic term parfum or fragrance on the ingredient list can represent a complex cocktail of chemicals. "Parfum" was the most commonly reported ingredient in the David Suzuki Foundation's 2010 cosmetics survey and can be found in nearly every type of personal care product.

Even products labelled as "unscented" and "fragrance-free" may contain masking agents — that is, fragrance chemicals that hide odours (source: Health Canada).

Why go fragrance-free?

Some of the hidden chemicals that make up the "fragrance" in your favourite shampoo or laundry detergent can cause serious health problems, especially for people with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Being near a scented product can make some people sick. The chemicals in scents enter our bodies through our skin and lungs and can cause many different reactions. While some people are only mildly affected by scents, others have severe reactions. Even products containing natural plant extracts can cause allergic reactions in some people (source: Canadian Lung Association).

Some common symptoms include:

  • headaches
  • feeling dizzy
  • feeling tired or weak
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • cold-like symptoms
  • worsening asthma symptoms

Some fragrance chemicals are of particular concern because they don't readily breakdown in the environment and thus tend to build up (bioaccumulate) in animals. For example, measureable levels of man-made synthetic musks are accumulating in fish in the Great Lakes and the levels in sediment are increasing. Laboratory tests commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Working Group even detected common synthetic musks in the umbilical cords of seven out of 10 newborns.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission states that individuals with environmental sensitivities (which are often triggered by fragrance chemicals) have the right to be accommodated in the workplace. This can include implementing a fragrance-free policy.

How can you go fragrance-free?

With all this information, you're probably wondering what you can do to go fragrance-free. Your consumer habits are a good place to start:

  1. Use safer household cleaning products, or better yet — make your own. David Suzuki's Queen of Green has simple recipes for do-it-yourself green cleaning. See also the list of recommended cleaning products and recipes in the Less Toxic Guide.
  2. Forgo air fresheners — they only mask odor problems and worsen air quality. Instead, open a window or turn on a fan.
  3. When it comes to personal care products and cosmetics, opt for those that do not list "parfum" or "fragrance" as an ingredient. Now that you're scrutinizing the ingredient list, check out our Shopper's Guide to a Dirty Dozen Ingredients to Avoid in Cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database is another useful resource.
  4. Find out if your (or your child's) school, workplace, place of worship, gym, local theatre and other public places you frequent have adopted fragrance-free policies. If so, what's being done to promote awareness? If not, resources on on how to create and implement scent-free policies are available from the Canadian Lung Association at: Developing a Scent-free Policy for the Workplace.

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