From air fresheners and cleaning products to the body wash your teen just has to have, fragrances are everywhere. Although the goal is to make things smell better, all those smells can also result in headaches, rashes, and other unwanted side effects.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), about 2.5 million Americans have fragrance allergies. Fragrances don’t just affect the nose — when you use a scented product on your skin, some of the chemicals in it are absorbed. The AAD reports that allergies to fragrances are the main cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis — a condition that can range from skin itching and redness to blisters and swelling.
But even if they don’t show classic signs of fragrance allergies, many people are bothered by smells all the same. In several recent studies, nearly one-third of people polled said that they were irritated by scented products worn by other people. Nineteen percent said they got headaches, breathing difficulties, or other problems from air fresheners or deodorizers.
The Chemicals in Fragrances
It’s not surprising that fragrances might trigger reactions in so many people. It’s estimated that more than 3,000 chemicals are used to make up the fragrances that are found in everyday personal products, cosmetics, and cleaning items.
Some of those chemicals have been linked to health issues, including reproductive problems and asthma. Phthalates, for example, are a controversial family of chemicals that can mimic the effects of hormones in the body. They are often added to fragrances to help smells last longer.
But it’s not easy to know what’s in the products you put on your body and use to make your home and clothes smell better. The FDA does not require manufacturers to disclose the specific ingredients in a fragrance. They use the all-encompassing term “fragrance” on a label, which can include essential oils, synthetics, solvents, and fixatives.
The FDA doesn’t routinely test fragrances unless there has been some consumer or health concern about particular ingredients. Instead, the responsibility is on the product manufacturer to use ingredients that are safe.
Is “Unscented” Really Fragrance-Free?
But chemicals aren’t the only culprits. Even strong natural smells — such as aromatic flowers, for example — can trigger migraine headaches or asthma attacks in some people. Unfortunately, if you know that you or someone in your family has a negative reaction to smells, it isn’t as simple as looking for a product that is labeled as fragrance-free.
Unscented or fragrance-free products still may contain a small amount of added fragrance to cover up unpleasant smells, but not enough to have a strong scent.
Some Smell Solutions
So what if you want to avoid problems from synthetic or other strong fragrance? There are several ways to eliminate smells in a healthier fashion. You may want to start with some products that can be heavily scented, like laundry detergents and air fresheners. Here are some more natural, possibly less-irritating methods to rid the air of unwanted odors:
• Baking soda. Of course you can stick a box in your fridge and freezer to soak up nasty smells. But this standby deodorizer — which chemically neutralizes odors, instead of covering them up — can also be put to work in litter boxes, garbage cans, kitchen and bathroom drains, smelly sneakers, musty cars, and carpets to absorb smells before you vacuum.
• White distilled vinegar. The smell may be strong the first few moments you apply it, but it quickly dissipates. The uses for this all-natural product range from cleaning bathrooms and kitchens to washing windows and hardwood floors. Just dilute it and use as you would a typical household cleanser. You can also put a bowl on your counter to eliminate smells, such as when you’ve burned something in the kitchen.
• Citrus. When there’s something stinky in your sink, cut up a lemon or orange — or simply toss the rinds down the drain — and turn on the garbage disposal. For odors elsewhere, slice up a few lemons and place them in a bowl in the kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room. The citrus smell will help freshen the room and cover unpleasant odors.
• Coffee ground. Put a bowl of dried coffee grounds in your refrigerator or freezer or set them on your kitchen sink to absorb distasteful smells. Make a sachet with coffee grounds in some nylons or cheesecloth and hang it in your closet or other musty places.
• Scent-free cleaners. Although a “fragrance-free” label doesn’t always mean there aren’t any chemical scents in a household cleaner, they likely won’t have a noticeable fragrance. However, if you are actually allergic to fragrance, you may still have a reaction to those that contain fragrance.
• Air filters. Air cleaners and filters may be helpful in eliminating some odors, but research is mixed about whether these filters can help with odors, as well as relieve symptoms of asthma and allergies. There are many different types on the market, including mechanical (fan-driven HEPA) and electronic (ion-type cleaners). Avoid “ozone generators.” Although all air cleaners (and other electronic equipment) produce small amounts of ozone, you can confirm with the manufacturer that an air cleaning system is within the acceptable level of ozone byproduct.
• Fresh air. Sometimes the best way to eliminate smells is just by opening a window. As long as you don’t suffer from seasonal allergies, open your windows and let the air recirculate.
You can also cut down on your family’s exposure to fragrances by looking for personal care products such as shampoos, lotions, and body washes that are fragrance-free, or that don’t contain chemicals like phthalates. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database is a searchable guide that takes a look at more than 7,600 ingredients. You can use it to help you find out what’s in your personal care products.
American Academy of Dermatology: “Position Statement on the Chemical Identity of Fragrances.”
WebMD Medical Reference: “Allergies and Cosmetics.”
Caress, S. Journal of Environmental Health, March 2009; vol 71: pp 46-50.
Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposure, Institute of Medicine, 2000.
Shanna Swan, PhD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and of environmental medicine, director of Center for Reproductive Epidemiology, University of Rochester Medical Center.
Siobhan DeLancey, RVT, MPH, FDA Office of Public Affairs.
Environmental Health Perspectives: “Fragrances and Health.”
Mayo Clinic: “Migraine: Causes.”
Indiana Public Media: “A Moment of Science: Baking Soda.”
The Vinegar Institute: “Uses and Tips.”
Reader’s Digest: “Vinegar,” “Bad Odors.”
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: “Air Filters.”
Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on September 24, 2012
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