I’ve been weaning myself off of scented products recently, so I was pleased when I started seeing “scent-free building” signs around my community. My teenage daughters and their friends will be less thrilled with this trend. Their going-out preparations aren’t complete without a final spritz of fragrance—which goes on top of the scented deodorants, lotions, and hair products they’re already wearing. The result can be quite an aromatic cocktail!

So what’s wrong with a little perfume, anyway? Is the emergence of scent-free public and private spaces overkill, or is it a valid response to a real health issue?

Some people are more sensitive to fragrance than others. My mother-in-law couldn’t enter many gift stores, because the concentration of scented candles made it difficult for her to breathe. People with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) are particularly vulnerable to the effects of fragrance. When exposed to scented products, they may experience headaches, dizziness, weakness, trouble breathing, nausea, or cold-like symptoms. This can make leaving home very challenging.

Concern for our sensitive friends, neighbours and co-workers should be reason enough to support scent-free zones in our communities. But even those of us without known sensitivities can benefit from less artificial fragrance in our lives. The more we’re exposed to certain chemicals, the more likely we are to become sensitized to them over time. Just because we’re not having an immediate noticeable reaction to a chemical, doesn’t mean that it won’t have a long-term cumulative effect. Many researchers are increasingly concerned about the dangers of prolonged low-level exposure to chemicals.

My own journey towards a scent-reduced lifestyle began when I was adopting greener practices in general. As I read about the potential environmental and health impacts of the products I used regularly, I learned that synthetic fragrances had some less-than-pleasant side effects. Sure, fabric softener made my laundry smell “fresh,” but it took a frighteningly long list of chemicals to create that effect. And many of those chemicals were known toxins, neurotoxins, and carcinogens. Every time my family inhaled that spring-breeze scent, or wore it next to their skin, they risked headaches, light-headedness, fatigue, skin irritation and longer-term health issues. Young children are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals. (As a side note, in the Q&A section of a leading manufacturer’s website I found this warning: “Avoid using fabric softener on children’s clothing or linens, as fabric softener can cause fabrics to become more flammable.” Yikes!)

But fabric softeners are just the tip of the iceberg. Fragrance is added to a huge range of domestic and personal products, either to mask the scent of other ingredients, or to make the products smell enticing in their own right. After all, scent plays a very powerful role in our lives, evoking memories, creating moods, and drawing us to (or repelling us from) foods, experiences, and people. It’s when we artificially add fragrance to a product that we face potential problems. When a label lists “fragrance” as an ingredient, it’s shorthand for a blend of many substances. The Canadian Lung Association’s website reports that a single fragrance may contain as many as 100 to 350 natural and synthetic chemicals. Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is one of the more common ingredients in man-made fragrances, and is used to make scents last longer. On the down side, it’s classified as a skin sensitizer and reproductive toxin, and may cause allergic skin reactions.

Sadly, it’s not only the air quality or health of our immediate surroundings that is affected by scented products. Everything we wash with, clean with, or wear on our skin eventually goes into the air or down the drain, creating environmental issues downstream. For example, when we use dryer sheets, the chemicals get vented outside, affecting our neighbours’ air quality. When we shower, any perfumes or scented products we were wearing enter the waste water system, and travel from there into our lakes, rivers and oceans where they may bioaccumulate in aquatic organisms. One example: studies have found increasing levels of synthetic musks in the fish of the Great Lakes.

Scent-free suggestions:
Unfortunately, adopting a scent-free or scent-reduced lifestyle is not as simple as switching to unscented products. In accordance with Health Canada regulations, products labeled as “unscented” or “fragrance-free” may still contain fragrances or masking agents to hide the scents of other ingredients. It’s also important to note that “organic” or “natural” on a label doesn’t necessarily mean that a scented product is harmless. Many people are sensitive to essential oils or fragrances derived from natural plant extracts.

Eliminating unnecessary products is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce scent. Air fresheners, for example, only mask odour problems, and actually worsen air quality. It’s much healthier to find the source of a bad odour and to eliminate it, or to increase ventilation by opening a window or turning on a fan. Dryer sheets are another unnecessary product. Intended to reduce the static cling of synthetic fabrics, they do nothing beneficial for natural fibers like cotton. In fact the film they leave actually decreases the absorbency of towels.

Choosing healthier cleaning products or making your own non-toxic versions is another excellent way to control the amount of scent in your environment. You can find a list of recommended cleaning products and DIY recipes at web link.

When purchasing cosmetics or personal care products, avoid those that list fragrance or parfum in the ingredients—especially if those products are intended for babies or young children. The Skin Deep Database at web link provides health information for a comprehensive list of personal products. If you do choose to wear scented products or perfumes, consider the people around you and go with a less-is-more approach.

Following these recommendations doesn’t mean you have to live a life of scent-deprivation. Since cutting back on artificial fragrances, I’m much more appreciative of the natural ones around me: my children’s skin, the rain, a freshly baked apple pie. Now these are scents I love!

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at web link.