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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

Posted on November 3, 2011

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.


Leigh said ..

I have asthma allergies and have had issues with employers and recently have worked in grocerystores with fluorescent lights and strong smells from cleankng detergent aisle my chest hurts eyes burn and skin itches .... I am concerned about air pollutants a how they affect myself and children who have no voice... Also scentzies in schools

September 14, 2016
Janine said ..

I have recently learned that a big brand laundry detergent has been making me very ill actually to the point of disability having been really sick with multi system dis function as my symptoms were so diverse I was eventually diagnosed with a scary condition that left me with a very bleak further to look forward to, I never thought of removal not my laundry detergent when I was removing and reintroduceing foods and personal care products as tbh I never imagined it could be a danger! My mum called me one night in January to tell me to watch a YouTube video about the harmful effects detergents were having on aquatic life and to follow the links to human side effects so the next day when doing my washing I left the detergent out I also ordered a natural laundry system as I was willing to give anything a go and to my surprise within days my symptoms were becoming less now 4 months on I'm leading a fairly normal pain free life and I had been needing some very heavy pain medication morphine that kind of thing! I got in touch with the company who make the detergent thinking that they would be interested in testing to find out why I had reacted I told them that I thought many chronic illness sufferers could well be like me thinking they would want to see if this was the case but after receiving a letter from them telling me I am a lone case and I have allergies that no one else has they are glad im feeling better and that I need to find a suitable product, they also sent me £20 in vouchers to spend on their products! I am really angry about this as I know their product is dangerous I am not a cleaver person but can read and research as good as the next person and I was horrified to learn what the ingredients were along with the known side effects, it is disgusting that these products are not properly regulated and as your article says under trade secrets that don't have to even tell us what we are poisoning ourselves with! It is an absolute joke ! I have requested their ingredient list including the parfume part and doubt very much to even get a response from them however I am very grateful to people like yourselves who are trying to get the message out allowing people like me to get well agin and have a second chance at life ☺️

April 8, 2016
Suzanne said ..

I also have had allergic reaction to urinal deodorizers. I spent two days out of work on Benadryl and inhalers. Itching, burning skin and eyes and coughing. I never got the MSDS sheet from first time. It happened two more times. The last being today. They promised each time they would never use them again. It is now 12 hours from exposure and I am still symptomatic.

September 17, 2015
Lidia Tindle said ..

Like Amy Cochran I too panic as soon as I smell 'pong' as I walk down my supermarket, what has that product got in it, its toxin. Worse as I walk into any public, or toilet of family, I am hit by a obnoxious smell, the scent. I have cleaned my own home up, but I babysit and now I am very nervous of doing this, an occupation I love, my grandkids are my joy, I look after them and play with them, our love is mutual for all to see, but to babysit I have to face a gamount of smells, cleaning stuff, washing stuff, shampoo in my babys hairs that is toxic to my taste buds, I know this because like Chester Kos above the taste is on my tongue for hours, not just the taste and smell, my eyes water, I can't breathe, my tougue and lips come out in blisters, yet my family who claim to love me will not accept my word that this is what happens to me within minutes of smelling the false fragrances that are indeed toxic. I too like Chester would like to see more referenced research, however the fact that it makes you ill and people can see this, surely they should listen to what you tell them, not close their minds, eyes and ears to your pain and subsequent stress because you are not believed.

September 7, 2015
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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