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There’s Something Fishy With Fragrances

2010 January 5

So, I have what feels like a confession to make: I’m one of those people who gets headaches after being exposed to fabric softener-laced clothes dryer exhaust. And my throat closes up when I have to sit near someone on the Metro wearing way too much perfume/cologne/etc… (Luckily, I’m usually riding my bike where I don’t have to worry about fragrances as much as car exhaust and getting flattened.) So what’s the deal—am I chemically sensitive? Is that a diagnosable condition? Are all of us affected in some way by fragrances and I’m just more aware of the trigger? What about the long-term health effects of being exposed to volatile organic compounds found in some fragrances? There are a lot of questions surrounding multiple chemical sensitivity and fragrances, of which these are just a few.

Fragrances are ubiquitous in our modern society. It isn’t too hard to avoid them in my own home (as long as I don’t rent the unit right by the dryer vents, which I sadly have some experience with), by choosing fragrance-free or mildly- and naturally-scented cleaning and beauty products. Kids don’t have much choice, and add to that the countless public spaces where even I can’t avoid overpowering smells. That adds up to the potential for a lot of exposure to volatile organic compounds and other chemicals in fragrances over the stages of childhood (and adulthood).

It’s also very difficult to figure out what is in fragrances, since there is no disclosure required by the Food and Drug Administration or other regulatory agencies for the fragrances in a wide range of consumer products. One recent study found 10 volatile organic compounds designated toxic and hazardous by the EPA in six common air fresheners and laundry products. Here at EPA, the team at Design for the Environment is promoting less harmful alternatives for fragrance chemicals in cleaners and the Indoor Air Quality team is monitoring the scientific research on the topic. I hope that the EPA’s new approach to chemicals management will shed some scientific light on fragrances and their health effects, and protect people from potential harm.

About the author: Matthew H. Davis, M.P.H., is a Health Scientist in EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, working there on science and regulatory policy as a Presidential Management Fellow since October 2009. Previously, he worked in the environmental advocacy arena, founding a non-profit organization in Maine and overseeing the work of non-profits in four other states.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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66 Responses leave one →
  1. Kimberly permalink
    January 29, 2011

    Finally, someone else like me! All I sense from scented personal, laundry or household products falls into three categories: Herbacide, pesticide or solvent. I makes me physically ill.

  2. dsre permalink
    February 17, 2011

    The more you fight something, the more anxious you become —the more you’re involved in a bad pattern, the more difficult it is to escape

  3. Leah permalink
    April 3, 2011

    Every woman I work with has started to wear an enormous (to me) amount of perfume, and every day I get a mild to bad headache. I want to say, Women: I should only be smelling your chemicals if I’m kissing your neck! Not from 3 desks away!

    To me, perfume smells like chemicals with the added bonus of weird fake fragrance.

    I run a fan at my desk all year round, even if it’s freezing, to try to circulate the smells away from me.

  4. Michelle Porter permalink
    May 27, 2011

    Consumers have the right to know what they are taking from the manufacturers of the products they’re buying. It’s not that the components/ingredients are not disclosed, they’re just something that you have to find out yourself through research. Like blood pressure machines, all we know is that they’re for blood pressure. But we don’t know how they are made so as to do what it is made to do.

  5. Chris W. permalink
    May 31, 2011

    I use essential oils and look for it in the personal products I buy when I want something to smell nice. If there are petroleum-based fragrances in a product, they are guaranteed to give me a headache and a eczema-like rash (or worse, hives). I found that my clothes are soft enough without dryer sheets or softener so I don’t buy them. My opinion is that if we don’t buy the products then they won’t make them! Nice article. Thank you for this info.

  6. Aka permalink
    August 22, 2011

    Good grief? Why wouldn’t you fire a cleaning lady who does not provide the service you want? I hope by now you have done so.

  7. Aka permalink
    August 22, 2011

    Last night, long after the neighbor stopped drying clothes, there was a heavy rain. Did it smell fresh in the yard? No. All one could smell was the scent from the dryer sheets. It was on the plants.

    The neighbor knows that this is s problem. I’m going to have to ask for a town ordinance that either dryer sheets are banned, or there must be some kind of filter added to the dryer vent.

    We don’t use pesticides in the yard. What good does that do when plant life is covered with this stuff.

  8. Jerri permalink
    November 17, 2011

    What a shame. I experience the same problem. Can’t believe that this type of pollution is being allowed.

  9. June 26, 2012

    Save the earth!

  10. Michael permalink
    April 21, 2013

    My wife has eczema, psoriasis and lichen sclerosus. We have long wondered if there could be an environmental cause like this.


  11. Michael permalink
    April 21, 2013

    Hmm, first attempt didn’t go through, let’s try again.

    My wife has eczema, psoriasis and lichen sclerosus. We have long wondered if there could be an environmental cause like this.


  12. May permalink
    April 3, 2014

    Dear EPA:
    PLease ban dryer sheets, Please please please, I beg of you. Your nice little blog makes light of the enormous problem of fragrance chemical pollutants. If you ban dryer sheets I’ll give you a big hug and I guarantee the planet and I will thank you. I have lost my life due to fragrance chemicals and choke on dryer sheets all the time. They are bullying me! I am just a little lady in this big perfumy world and I’m desperate for the EPA to be a big man and do a good job BANNING DRYER SHEETS!

  13. AKA permalink
    August 2, 2014

    Another summer’s eve destroyed by neighbor’s use of scented conditioners and dryer sheets. No smelling the flowers. No tending the garden. They refuse to stop. The municipality won’t ban them. This makes for 100% prohibition from enjoying the yard. And the stuff is coating the vegetable plants, and the bees. In the cooling of the evening after a very hot day, doors and windows closed. There needs to be a law.

  14. Steve permalink
    August 18, 2014

    I agree with May and Aka. Scented dryer sheets have become the bane of my existence. I have nothing against P&G making huge profits, but please not at my expense. I would like to be able to enjoy a summer evening on my deck without being driven inside by the sickly sweet toxic odor coming from my neighbor’s dryer vent. It is time for the EPA to take steps to protect the citizens from this easily controlled environmental pollutant and health hazard.

  15. Paul Stewart permalink
    January 2, 2015

    I stumbled upon this story years after it was written, and sadly, the situation has just gotten worse. The point that I wanted to add was that people who notice the negative effects from fragrance exposure are NOT allergic to these chemicals! EVERYONE is effected by being exposed to toxic chemicals. The only difference is that the lucky ones, and I mean that literally, who’s bodies react to the exposure and alert them to the danger, know to avoid the toxic chemicals.

    The problem has become severe, as it is now IMPOSSIBLE to avoid these toxic substances. If you buy food from ANY store, the packages, and even the produce, smells of fragrance. Every retail location in the country smells of either shoppers fragrance or is deliberately doused by the retailer in an attempt to draw shoppers in with “scent marketing.” In the summer, windows can not be left open because neighborhoods all across the Untied States have become permeated with the smell of Tide. In the fall, you no longer smell the leaves or the distant wood smoke. All you smell is Tide. I remember when I was young, I am now 48, and my brothers and I would be playing football or hockey outside, we could always tell what we were having for dinner because the aroma of the food would fill the neighborhoods. You could smell ham cooking or smell someone’s backyard barbeque. Today, all you can smell is Tide. Our society has become perverse, as most people willingly accept, and in fact, invite, chemical fragrance into their lives without a single question as to their safety. Science has proven that fragrance chemicals, and especially the carrier chemicals, are toxic. And there in lies the real issue, these chemicals are proven TOXIC, yet our government has done NOTHING to regulate them or to protect our children from exposure. It is a very sad example of how our government has lost its way.

    Politicians have ceased to care about the health of their constituents. They care only about the money that flows into their re-election accounts from corporations like those in the fragrance industry. WE have become nothing but an obstacle that needs to be overcome every 2, 4, or 6 years. We can only hope that we will soon reach a tipping point, where the health care costs associated with exposure to these chemicals will financially force the government to act.

  16. Greg permalink
    April 14, 2015

    This blog entry is more than 5 years old, and what has the EPA done about it since then? Not much, if anything. The offensive use of “fragrances” today is where the offensive use of cigarettes was 50 years ago. There was a time when almost half the population smoked and smokers would think nothing of lighting up in any public place — restaurants, movie theaters, or even public transportation.

    The inappropriate use of fragrances is just as offensive to many people as walking up to someone and blowing cigarette smoke in their face. Yet most offenders don’t have a clue that they are doing anything wrong. You wouldn’t put poison, or even unwanted flavors, in someone else’s drinking water — why would you put it in the air that someone else has to breathe?

    Although the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) provides limited help to some people, it is not enough. Do we need to get legal proof of a disabling medical condition and file a lawsuit to show that someone smoking next to us in a restaurant is harmful? No! So why should we have to do this for offensive fragrances? The sooner the EPA can make this problem a priority, the better.

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