Fragrance Is The New Secondhand Smoke | Eliminate Synthetic Fragrance To Improve Your Health

Fragrance is the New Secondhand Smoke | Branch Basics

Surely you’re familiar with one of these scenarios:

The Scented Candle That Won’t Go Away

You walk into a store full of scented candles. They smell so fresh and lovely, but a few minutes later, your nose starts to itch and you are starting to get a headache. You notice that you’re having a harder time focusing on anything and you start to feel light-headed.  You end up buying a candle and leaving, feeling better as soon as you walk out the door. A few days later, the smell of your new candle is on everything: your coat, your car, the living room – even when it’s not lit. The headache just won’t go away and you start to feel worn down and tired.

The Mist That Never Disappears

You spray a fine mist of air freshener all over that musty pile of backpacks in the mudroom. Your second-grader grabs his bag, now slightly wet and sweet-smelling, and starts to do homework, but is having trouble focusing. He’s getting a headache and starting to whine about wanting to play outside. Meanwhile, the fake scent of flowers dissipates as it numbs sensory receptors in your nose and starts driving your puppy a little crazy. Eventually, you can’t smell it anymore, but you’ve ingested it through your nose, lungs, and skin.

Fragrance Is the New Secondhand Smoke

If you’ve experienced anything like this and connected the dots, you know how insidious synthetic fragrance can be. It’s only human to seek out pleasant smells and to try to eliminate unattractive scents from our environments. However, the immediate and long-term effects of synthetic  fragrance exposure is hazardous to our health. Simply adding a pleasant smelling chemical to our bodies and air will not only affect our own health, but the health of the people (and pets!) who share the air with us.

The History of “Fragrance”

Trying to link the past with the present fragrance industry unfortunately reveals a radical disconnect and departure from the original therapeutic purpose and use of pure essential oils. Today’s synthetic fragrances are a far cry from the healing balms treasured so much by the ancient world that some were worth more than gold.   Instead of being medicinal, today’s fragranced products are associated with diabetes, obesity, autism, ADD/ADHD and hormone disruption.1 Sadly, the person wearing or using the fragrance is not the only one affected. Synthetic fragrance affects air quality for those sharing the space as well.

From pure to perverse, it is twisted irony that the word  fragrance has now gained infamy as the new secondhand smoke when the etymology of the word perfume comes from the Latin phrase, “per” meaning “through” and “fumus” meaning “smoke”.

The emerging awareness of this very “volatile” situation reveals problems much more pervasive and dangerous than tobacco smoke.2 Even washing clothes in detergents and fabric softeners containing fragrances releases toxic chemicals onto the skin and into the air all day long.  At night, sleeping in pajamas and on sheets washed in the same toxic materials has the same effect.  Because of this, people are awash in fragrances 24 hours each day.

Fragrance Is the New Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand Fragrance

When people go to a public place, they are sharing what is now being called “secondhand fragrance”. This is the combination of harmful chemicals being released into the public air space from air fresheners, cleaning products, and scented candles, plus all the products people are wearing (from hair spray, shampoo, clothes, to perfume, etc). Everyone is involuntarily breathing contaminated air even if they choose to not wear fragranced products. It’s time to clear the air and prioritize human health, not economic interest. Already, cities like Detroit have created Fragrance Free Zones, where perfume and aftershave are discouraged. There is a growing tension between two fiercely opposing camps: the National Perfumers Guild and Fragrance Houses versus the “Anti-Fragrance Activists.”3

What could be wrong with a beautiful fragrance? Nothing, if it is a genuine and authentic plant derived, unadulterated essential oil or an organic, wildcrafted scent oil. These oils have been effectively used for fragrance throughout history. However, since World War II, inexpensive, synthetic chemicals can produce fragrances that are abundantly available and can be terribly toxic.

What’s Actually in A Fragranced Product?

Today, fragrance is the elephant in the room. “Fragrance” or “parfum” on an ingredient list actually represents a trade secret fragrance recipe that could be made up of not just one or two chemicals, but hundreds of synthetic chemicals.4 These chemicals are selected from a reservoir of 5,000 ingredients.5 And of this large number of ingredients, none of them actually have to be disclosed or tested for safety.6

According to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) study, 72% of products with the ingredient “fragrance” contained endocrine disruptors called phthalates.7 Phthalates have been linked to diabetes, obesity, liver and breast cancer, hormone disruption affecting fertility and development as well as linked to ADHD and Autism in first and third trimester prenatal exposure. The National Academy of Sciences, working with an expert panel, stated that there may be cancer-causing chemicals in fragrance recipes.8 Unfortunately, because of secrecy and a lack of transparency in labeling, there is really no way for a consumer to make informed decisions about fragranced products.9

Up to 95% of these the synthetic chemicals used to make fragrance recipes are derived from petrochemicals.10 These particular ingredients are known (according to a 1991 EPA analysis) to cause cancer, birth defects, nervous system disorders, asthma, and allergies.11 To make matters even worse for the unsuspecting public, many products labeled as “unscented” are actually the fragranced product with the addition of another masking fragrance.12

What about Natural Fragrance or Essential Oils?

Unfortunately, the term “natural fragrance” or “essential oil” on an ingredient list does not necessarily mean it is safe. In a study analyzing 25 top selling products, researchers found that the “green”, natural, and organic fragranced products emitted just as many hazardous chemicals as regular fragranced products.13 That’s because most essential oils in consumer products are processed with a toxic solvent. In addition, essential oils containing terpenes such as pine and citrus oils react with ozone in surrounding air to create secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, and ultrafine particles.14 To ensure safety, essential oils in products should be verified as organic and wildcrafted and extracted without solvents. 15, 16

How can we help protect the public?

Fragranced products  are harmful to our health. Babies, children, the elderly, and those with cancer or other chronic illness are particularly at risk. The current demand for products that  “smell good” reflects the misinformed innocence of consumers. Awareness of this issue is in its infancy, but the good news is that action is already being taken to pave the way in educating and protecting the public. The American Lung Association has created a fragrance-free policy for workplaces and for schools. Harvard University teaching hospital is a model for promoting fragrance-free policies in their hospital.17 Brigham and Women’s Hospital has even initiated a campaign for fragrance-free health care.

The best way for individuals to influence the fragrance industry is at the cash register – this will ultimately provide the impetus for change in the marketplace.  Be proactive and only buy products that are unscented or have pure, safe essential oils. Even just removing all products with fragrance as an ingredient will immediately improve air quality in your home.  Take charge of your family’s health and wellbeing – ditch these synthetics! 

Clean Up Your Act Branch Basics: Fragrance is the New Secondhand Smoke

Join us to Clean Up Your Act. We are pledging the following:

  1. Don’t Buy Fragranced Products (unless contain pure organic essential oils)
  2. Ditch All Synthetic Fragrances
  3. Invest in Fragrance-Free, Nontoxic Alternatives

We’ve seen how quickly these changes can transform our health and our indoor air quality.  Join us to try to for yourself! And let us know how it goes for you – we love to hear from you!


Branch Basics Marilee Nelson The House DoctorsMarilee Nelson is an Environmental Consultant, Building Materials Specialist, Certified Baubiologist, Certified Baubiology Inspector, and Board Certified Nutritionist. Her research and experience with clients around the country ties acute and chronic illness with exposure to environmental stressors – chemicals in air, food and water and the increase in exposure to electromagnetic fields. She is dedicated to educating people about how a nutrient rich diet coupled with an environment free of products with synthetic chemicals is foundational to health.


Further reading:

What is a scent oil and how is it safer than other fragrances? Find about the differences: Wildcrafted Scent Oils. Curious about fragrances and other chemicals that might be lurking in your home already? Check out this article on the dangers of common laundry chemicals and what they do: Do You Know What’s In Your Laundry Detergent? Want to replace your air freshener? Our favorite DIY options are here: Nontoxic Air Fresheners | Remove Odors Naturally.

SAFE-SIMPLE-Clare-Wood-Branch-Basics-Minimalist-Mama-6Ready to streamline your routine? Read Clare’s tricks in Safe + Simple: Tips from a Minimalist Mama.

Going on a trip? Check out our Healthy Travel Guide for our favorite travel snacks and tips for preventing sunburn, jetlag, and more!

Want another trick for improving indoor air quality? Find out why we’re loving Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps! Keep reading about chemicals to avoid in your home: Common Chemicals to Avoid – A Branch Basics Series.

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100 Comments

  1. We went to Tucson to visit our daughter back in October. She had the nasty “fragrance” outlet thingies in almost every room and one for her car’s lighter. I couldn’t breathe! So I went through and took out all the poisonous offending items even tho she wasn’t happy with me. It was so much easier to go through the day with her. After we left she plugged everything back in and it wasn’t long before she realized that her “allergies” and headaches came back right away with the noxious “fragrances”! She had not realized that the “nasties” were the cause of her maladies. So Momma was right again (wink, wink) 😀

    Thanks,

    Peggy

    1. Peggy – thanks for your comment! We’re so glad to hear that you helped your daughter realize the source of her health issues. Fragrance is definitely a problem that many people don’t associate with their health and discomfort. Way to go Mom!!

    1. Great question! Safe replacements for synthetic fragrances are not hard to find. As we mention in the article, you should first ditch the stuff that is degrading your indoor air quality. Then, when shopping, look for products that contain essential oils or wildcrafted fragrances. For candles, it’s best to find a clean-burning soy candle with an essential oil fragrance. Beware candles and other products that include both essential oils as well as synthetic fragrance though! That’s an inexpensive alternative for the manufacturing process, but will have the same negative effects on your health. Invest in good quality ingredients!

    2. Beeswax candles are all natural, have a great natural scent and great golden color. They are more expensive than the petroleum/parrafin-based candles, but I prefer the trade-off for better health.

      Also, if you research the history of candles, they were commonly made with tallow (animal fat). I read that most butcher shops will give you the leftover tallow for free, so you can make your own natural candles. There are recipes online for rendering the tallow.

    3. YES there are non toxic candles…electric ones! They work great, create ambiance and don’t kill people. They also don’t burn to the point of disappearing nor are they fire hazards. You just have to change the batteries.

    4. Pure bees wax is the best. The natural sweet fragrance is all we need.
      Or add a little pure essential oil if you need to.

    5. I use 100% beeswax candles. Other candles made with petrochemicals and/or lead wick holders. An alternative is soy candles, but since I am allergic to soy, that is not an option for me. I have never researched the other ingredients in soy candles.

  2. Hi – Any advice for dealing with “excessively perfumed” people in the office space who don’t understand and don’t care that they are making me sick? Thank you.

    1. Hi Sandy,
      Thanks for your comment! Responding to these issues in the workplace can be rather delicate – it’s hard to alert people to the health hazards of their actions. However, there are good precedents for creating a safe, fragrance-free workplace. As the article mentions, there are templates (like this one: http://action.lung.org/site/DocServer/fragrance-free-workplace.pdf) that may help you negotiate with others in the office. It’s likely you’re not the only one who is already suffering from the effects of the fragrance! Best of luck to you and let us know how it goes.
      Madeleine

    2. I had the same issue at work. Depending on where you live you might want to check to see if your state recognizes chemical sensitivity as a disability. In the state of California it falls under the American with Disabilities Act and is considered an invisible disability.
      I was able to ask for a reasonable accommodation at work. Although it was a fight in the beginning to get people to understand, however through education, I’ve made many people aware of the issues that I suffer. We now have a fragrance free policy in our office.
      The main thing is don’t be afraid to speak out and educate people. A good site for that is http://www.thinkbeforeyoustink.com or www.http://cleanerindoorair.org
      Good luck!

    3. I had no choice but to educate my co-workers. Many were considerate and stopped using perfumes and fragrant lotions. Others said, essentially, “screw you, I like this stuff”. I put a sign up on my door that said “your perfume is my poison” and listed some of the symptoms I can get.

      I went to HR and was successful in getting it officially labeled as a disability, and got a window A/C installed in my office. We ran it summer and winter.

      I learned that the best time to tell a new co-worker was at 4:30 in the afternoon. There is nothing they can do for you that day, and if you tell them in the morning they keep going to the bathroom and washing their hands and arms and then coming back to tell you. It doesn’t help and it just embarrasses both of you.

    4. I used to wear a charcoal mask and/or an ionizer necklace. You might look strange, but it drives home the point and makes it so you can think clear anyway.

  3. Hi, I have Lupus and now a heart problem. I love to use Scentsy, what would be a good alternative. I would like to still use it, do they sell something safe for Scentsy?

    1. Lisa,
      Thanks for your comment. We don’t know much about Scentsy, but we encourage you to look for natural fragrance products. When you are shopping, only buy products with nontoxic ingredients like wildcrafted oils and safe essential oils. Don’t compromise on products that use a mix of synthetic and natural ingredients! Happy Cleaning!

    2. Hi Lisa,
      You might try scented products from a company I work with called For Every Home and Style. We offer plant-based candles, wax cubes, and non-toxic plant based odor absorbing sprays and gels, all made in Utah. Our wax products are made from soy and coconut wax and are fragranced with only essential oils. You probably own Scentsy warmers, but our warmers are dual purpose in that you can put a candle directly on the warming plate to melt the wax and enjoy the fragrance without lighting the candle. Learn more at http://www.foreveryhomeandstyle.com/janine And by the way, I also have lupus–for 30 years now. I’d be happy to chat with you to hear how you’re doing.

    3. Hi, Lisa. I am an independent essential oil distributor for a company called Young Living. They sell 100% therapeutic-grade oils that actually help with health problems, like lupus and heart conditions. Their oils also smell out- of-this-world good! If you’re interested in learning more, you can email me at maestra1_99@yahoo.com and I can tell you more about more about them.

    4. Hi Lisa,

      I have Lupus as well. I loved fragrance for a long time, but always got really bad headaches from them and kept getting sick all the time. Plus, my RA only seemed to keep getting worse.
      My cousin convinced me to try Young Living. I did my homework first and found out that you could go onto their farm and see they had no synthetics in their Therapeutic Grade oils. I had read this was part of the problem with a lot of products I was using, so glad they talk about it in this article, because most people don’t realize the affect it has on individuals.
      This is the first time I have not been sick during the winter months and actually felt better. On top of that, my cousins Lyme Disease numbers have gone down using them. But best of all, my husband doesn’t snore anymore. lol
      If you are interested, here is more information about the company: http://www.ylwebsite.com/younglivingpureoils
      Go to the Essential Oils tab on top, when the drop-down comes up, click on Seed to Seal.

  4. Thank you for this article! I’m just recently learning about all these daners and switching but I’m not sure what products are safe. Is there fragrances that you recommend that are good or a link where I can find detergent, air freshners, candles that can be safe? I have two small girls and want to make sure the air in our house is safe. Thank you again!

    1. Thank you for your comment! There are many safe products available. We sell nontoxic, plant-based, concentrated soap that you can use for laundry (www.branchbasics.com/shop) and we also sell scent oils that can be used for air fresheners as well. When shopping for candles, look for natural materials and nontoxic scents made from wildcrafted or essential oils. Happy cleaning!

  5. THANK YOU for this article! I have a huge problem with fragrances, perfumes, etc., and the problem has gotten worse over the last few years. I could go on and on about the times I’ve had to leave rooms, move to different tables or seats, etc because some person has overused their fragrance. And women’s restrooms that have automated fragrance cartridges…I cannot go in those rooms. I am going to share this and share it again several times.

  6. I agree with this wholeheartedly
    Thought potpourri was a natural product though,
    I’ve coined a new word some time ago, Perfumigated
    As I walked the aisle I was Perfumigated by so and so,s perfume

  7. I have been plagued my entire life with headaches, overall pain, bronchitis, sinusitis, and laryngitis. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with asthma and COPD. I know to avoid these things. Are there any groups for people like us? By the way, even soy candles bother me. I find anything with “oil” bothersome. Petroleum products in particular bother me. My dad was a truck driver. He hauled gasoline and his clothing always smelled of gasoline, which explains why I was often sick as a child.

    1. Although there are several names for some of this I use Multiple Chemical Sensitivity because that pretty much covers what I am dealing with: sensitivity to multiple chemicals. There are lots of websites and facebook accounts for people who need more information or support.

  8. Target’s candle section is overpowering. Has made me physically ill. Burning candles close up my throat and give me blinding migraines.

  9. I am soooo going to post this link on my facebook page.

    I’ve long been aware that perfume/fragrances are one of the major triggers for my migraines (although for me it’s not restricted to artificial smells – oranges are a big trigger for me) – the problem is trying to educate everyone around me so that they realise it is a genuine problem and not just me making it up! We had a desk move at work a few months ago, and I ended up with people near me wearing products that caused me a mix of migraines and breathing issues…I had to raise the issue with a manager who was able to get certain colleagues to change what they use. The situation still isn’t perfect, but it improved a lot at that point.

    I went to a concert a couple of years ago – and had to change seats as I couldn’t breath sitting next to the stranger to my right – turned out she hadn’t even put any perfume on that day, and it was just the residue hanging around on her jumper.

    And I’m currently having a ‘discussion’ with the gym I attend regarding the product they use for wiping equipment down after use. Sadly, even though they claim to be a health club they clearly don’t grasp the health implications of the products they continue to use.

    I think the UK are really lagging behind on awareness of this issue at the moment – but it’s about time more people were made to understand the negative impact their choices have on people around them.

    1. Look up Betty Bridges, RN in UK, fragrance. She got sick while working as a dialysis nurse. One day she came to work and the disinfectant spray had a new formula with a different fragrance. It took her time to find this out, eventually she had to quit working. Her website(s) are VERY informative. It was NOT the cleaning part of the product that made her sick, but the fragrance.

  10. Excellent article , thank you ! I am badly affected myself after initial poisoning from organophosphates in contaminated cabin air on aircraft. I first became aware of the toxic fumes in perfumes when I got very nauseous, dizzy followed by a bad headache after inhaling a mouthful of a fragrance called White Linen ( don’t know if it still exists) – I will never forget that horrific smell and the name . Sharing the article. Well done ! B.

  11. Been doing this for a long time in my house. Fragrances are a migraine trigger for most members of the household.

    But how in the heck does one “Invest in fragrance-free products” ? They are an expense, not an investment. The word “invest” is all too frequently used as a synonym for “buy” or “spend”, but it is not.

  12. This is a great article, however, many people who are sensitive to synthetic fragrances are also sensitive to essential oils. If you know someone who is sensitive to fragrance, it’s best not to wear any scents at all.

    Also, the term fragrance-free means no scents at all. Please don’t confuse people by implying that essential oils are okay in a fragrance-free environment.

  13. Forgot to add, that essential oils are NOT SAFE for EVERYONE. Please avoid making blanket statements like that in the future. Thank you.

    1. Does this include all the Do-Terra products? I have friends that sell them and my boss uses one of those misters. They are really bothering me, headaches, itchiness, etc! Plus the smell itself, yuck!

      1. Hi Shelly! People are often sensitive even to the safest essential oils. What is safe for someone else may bother you tremendously. Even natural fragrance is not safe for everyone!

  14. This is an outstanding article! I have been fragrance-free for years now. It’s not as hard as people might think as there are many products out there that are made without scents. The problem is the public has been brainwashed into thinking we MUST STINK in order to be accepted. We MUST buy scented shampoo or smelly soaps because the work better. What is needed is more basic public education on the toxicity of these products. What I really like about this article as it calls for people to come together and support a common purpose. I would like to see more public education and to be part of it, I want to buy a t-shirt or something to show my support and wear it around in my own community. I think people who are chemically sensitive are going to find this article, but how do we spread the message more effectively to people who don’t have a clue? They are the ones who are the problem.

  15. Loved this information and respect your voice! Did you know there is a difference between non toxic and toxic free? Are you ware that the earth has provided us with phytonutrient rich antioxidant superfood that neutrilize free radicas….100% toxic free…check it out
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