Walk into any store or mall and your nose is met with a blend of scents. It’s hard for you to identify any single one but as you walk around, you catch a whiff of aromatic candles and soaps, perfumes, cleaners, sanitisers and air fresheners. Breathing in the scented air long enough can leave you light-headed, even nauseous. So you go out for a bit of fresh air, but it takes a while to clear your lungs. Once you’re home, the fragrance lingers on your clothing and hair long after you’re nowhere near the source of it.
We have come to associate fragrance with a sense of delight and nostalgia. A wonderful aroma makes us feel that everything is clean, fresh and healthy. Newly laundered sheets, sparkling clean dishes, a freshly bathed baby – all seem better when they smell good. This has led to a proliferation of scented products in the market – from sanitary pads to garbage bags. Many of the fragrances carry pleasant, innocuous-sounding names redolent of nature: citrus, vanilla, jasmine, sandal and others.
The new secondhand smoke
The fragrance in most commercial products is a mixture of more than 4,000 chemicals added to products to mask the sharp odour of other chemical ingredients. Some of these substances may be aromatic ingredients of botanical origin, distilled or extracted from natural sources such as flowers, spices, fruit, wood, resins and grasses. But about 80-90 per cent are volatile organic compounds such as alcohol and petrochemicals that vaporise into the air, which is why we can smell them.
Some of the commonly used contents of fragranced products are phthalates – solvents used as vehicles or carriers of the aromatic compounds. Phthalate exposure is often associated with endocrine disruption in adults and neurological impairment such as ADHD and autism in children.
Fragranced products emit hundreds of different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as terpenes which are hazardous air pollutants, They also react with other substances such as ozone to generate secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde.
A 2015 study that examined the emissions from 37 fragranced consumer products found they emitted 156 VOCs, many of which were classified as toxic or hazardous to human health. Fragranced products pollute indoor air quality and are linked to a range of disorders, from headaches and asthma to cardiovascular problems and cancer. Risks of fragrance-related illnesses are highest among people, including professional cleaners, domestic help and women, who are regularly exposed to scented products.
We absorb the chemicals in fragrances through our skin when we use scented cleaners or wear clothes washed with perfumed detergents; we breathe them in, and even ingest them through the residue in our dishes.
Primary exposure to fragrances takes place with intentional use of products, but secondhand or involuntary exposure takes place when we are in environments such as workplaces, restrooms, malls, airports, transport and other public places.
Most toxicology tests on chemical exposure are done one chemical at a time, but we are never exposed to isolated chemicals, but combinations of them, through the scented products we use through our lifetimes. Further, the fragrance industry, which is largely self-regulated defines its own safe-use standards, which means that products vary in their scent from mild to strong.
The study mentioned above found that relatively few ingredients (<10 per cent) are disclosed on labels or safety data sheets of scented consumer products. In India too, lax regulation around the use of these label terms allows manufacturers to get away by making these claims without disclosing the full list of ingredients used.
What about products that claim to be ‘herbal’, ‘ayurvedic’ or ‘organic’?
Like in the case of conventional consumer products, there is no law that requires manufacturers of herbal and natural products to provide full ingredient disclosure. This makes it easy for brands to list only the botanical ingredients used and omit all information about synthetic bases, preservatives, fragrances and dyes, claiming these formulations are trade secrets.
It is not uncommon for so-called ‘green’ products to contain synthetic chemicals that effectively mimic natural fragrances, making them as toxic as their regular counterparts. The lack of transparency around fragrances makes it difficult for customers to make informed choices and understand the consequences of usage and exposure.
What about essential oils?
Essential oils are extracted from botanical sources but differ in how they are processed, treated and combined with other substances. Many chemically-sensitive people (and animals) are intolerant to certain essential oils, especially those of the citrus (limonene) and pine (alpha-pinene) families which are classified as air pollutants and skin irritants.
How to stay safe
The problems of secondary fragrance exposure and related health effects are serious enough that many countries including the UK, US, Australia and Sweden have implemented fragrance-free policies. Much like smoke-free policies, they aim to curb the use of fragrances in indoor environments in public places such as schools, hospitals and offices.
Removing scented products from your home will immediately improve indoor air and minimise your exposure to hazardous chemicals. This is especially important since many of us are spending more time indoors than ever before.
Here’s how you can stay safe:
- Replace scented products with fragrance-free alternatives that do not contain any artificial smells.
- But don’t get taken in by ‘fragrance-free’ or ‘unscented’ claims. Double-check product labels for hidden ingredients.
- Look for products that use pure essential oils unadulterated by solvents.
- Avoid combining multiple fragranced products, for instance, washing your laundry with a scented detergent combined with a fabric softener, a disinfectant and dryer sheets.
- Educate yourself about label terms. Labelling regulations often require brands to list the exact chemical formulation of the ingredients, for instance, acetic acid instead of the familiar vinegar or sodium bicarbonate in place of baking soda – both relatively harmless chemicals.
- Opt for home cleaning products that forgo the vague ‘fragrance’ loophole and spell out all the ingredients used.
- If your favourite product doesn’t carry a list of ingredients, visit the manufacturer’s website to learn more.