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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Health Hazards of Fragrance in Cleaning Products: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You

By Alexandra Scranton

This essay is in response to: What are the health hazards of exposure to fragrances in consumer products and cosmetics? How can our regulatory system effectively address such hazards?

Take a walk down the cleaning aisle in your grocery store, and there’s no doubt that fragrance is a major player in the cleaning products industry. The combination of all those products next to one another can be overwhelming – and for those who are especially sensitive, it can even be debilitating. But what about for most of us? The strong smell of cleaning products may encourage us to make our shopping trip down the aisle quicker, but could it actually be harming our health?

Unfortunately the research on impacts of fragranced products is extremely limited. One reason for this is that research into fragrance impacts is hampered by the fragrance industry’s long standing tradition of holding fragrance ingredients as trade secrets. While you can measure a person’s exposure to a fragranced product by calculating the frequency and duration of use, you can never really be sure what chemicals they are actually being exposed to. Those individual fragrance chemicals are kept secret from researchers, consumers, and even regulators. And individual fragrances can differ tremendously – as they can be made up of potentially hundreds of different chemicals each. 

What do we know about fragrance chemicals?

In 2008, in an effort to improve transparency, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) released a master list of over 3,100 chemicals that are used by the fragrance industry.[i] Among the chemicals on the list are carcinogens like p-dichlorobenzene and styrene oxide; endocrine disruptors like galaxolide and tonalide (both synthetic musks); the phthalates diethyl phthalate (DEP) and di-isononyl phthalate (DINP); and problematic disinfectants like triclosan and ammonium quaternary compounds. Not surprisingly, numerous allergens are also included in the list. Unfortunately, there is no data provided on how commonly these chemicals are used, by amount or even by type of fragranced product. 

Yet we do know that exposure to fragranced chemicals is ubiquitous. The cleaning products sector alone reaches almost all of us. Women especially are exposed to fragranced cleaning products. Women, on average, still do much more housework then men, and are significantly more likely to do cleaning for a living. Perhaps not surprisingly, it appears that women’s health is much more impacted by fragrance than men as well. Women are much more likely than men to suffer from fragrance contact allergy.[ii] Women also more frequently report adverse effects like headaches or breathing problems from exposure to fragranced products.[iii]

Fragrance is a key component to cleaning products – as it is often what distinguishes one product from another, and what creates brand loyalty. Companies take great measures to ensure that the fragrance is experienced fully by the user. Laundry detergent is a great example. If you think about it, washing machines and laundry detergent are designed to remove odors from clothes. Yet fragranced laundry detergent is designed to withstand the washing cycle and penetrate your clothes, so that they are still scented even when they come out of the dryer. This means exposure to the fragrance chemicals continues even after the washing is done. Those fragrance chemicals can then enter our bodies and, potentially, cause harm. One study demonstrated this by showing that women who use fragranced laundry detergent during pregnancy had higher levels of tonalide, a synthetic musk, in their breast milk.[iv]

The constant exposure to fragrance chemicals poses potential health problems. However, due to trade secrets provisions, these potential health problems remain largely unexamined. More information about fragrance composition is clearly needed to better understand the potential health impacts faced by so many as a result of fragrance exposure. Self-regulation by the fragrance industry, given the inherent conflict of interest, is simply not sufficient to protect public health.

Therefore, governmental regulation is needed to protect public health from the impact of fragrance chemicals.

First, we need to mandate fragrance ingredient disclosure across the board, both in cleaning products and other fragranced products. Ingredient disclosure will give consumers the ability to avoid chemicals of concern, and will help them and their health care providers better diagnose allergies and other reactions. 

Secondly, disclosure will help researchers better examine the chemicals most frequently used in fragrances, so that they can conduct appropriate health hazard research on the most important chemicals.

Confidential business information mechanisms may be appropriate on a limited basis to protect certain proprietary ingredients. But with public health at stake, blanket trade secret protection for all ingredients in fragrance is simply no longer acceptable. 

[i] International Fragrance Association (2010) Ingredients

[ii] Buckley, D. (2002) Fragrance as an occupational allergen. Occupational Medicine, Vol. 52, No. 1, pp. 13-16. 2002.

[iii] Caress, S.M. et. al. (2009) Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population. Journal of Environmental Health, Vol. 71. No. 7. P. 46-50. March 2009.

[iv] Lignell, S. (2008) Temporal trends of synthetic musk compounds in mother’s milk and associations with personal use of perfumed products. Environmental Science and Technology. Vol. 42, No. 17. Pp 6743-6748. 2008.


Amy Cochran said ..

Anything that has a scent immediately makes me panic. Being sensitized to formaldehyde, the presence of a scent makes me worry about the hidden chemical and going into anaphylaxis

November 19, 2011
Chester Kos said ..

Urinal deodorizer blocks. I am looking for studies to support my argument to my place of employment that there is in fact something not so good with urinal blocks. Paradichlorabenzene is the main ingredient. Its MSDS lists that it does cause cancer in rats but only when ingested. (There is usually a snicker or covered smile at this point.) I argue that being in an office environment where they are stored or used nearby is similar enough to be ingested - even though I feel & taste it on my tongue within a minute of being simply near these things or even just quickly using the bathroom. Once noticed, the sensation lasts for hours and minimizes my sense of smell and taste. They are also sometimes used as room air fresheners where I have seem up to 6 placed in a bathroom (near the soap dispenser, outside of and next to the toilet, in lockers, ...) Thanks

November 4, 2011

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