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Why scent-free makes sense

By Patricia Nicholson

You may have noticed that a growing number of organizations – workplaces, schools, public spaces and health-care facilities – are adopting scent-free policies, and asking employees and visitors to forgo fragrances and scented products. It’s not because someone doesn’t like your particular perfume, it’s because scents are some of the most common pollutants of indoor air.

That’s right: many fragrances – including air fresheners! – are actually air pollutants.

“A single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of hundreds of chemicals that can react with ozone in ambient air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde,” says Gloria Fraser, nurse education co-ordinator with the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital. “A survey of selected scented consumer goods showed the products emit more than 100 volatile organic compounds.”

Volatile organic compounds are gases that can have adverse short- and long-term health effects. They are emitted by many solids and liquids ranging from varnish, paint and gasoline, to air fresheners and dry-cleaned clothes.

Scent sensitivities

About 30 per cent of the Canadian population has some type of sensitivity to fragrances. The chemicals in fragrances and scented products can act as irritants and trigger reactions. In most cases, these effects cause physiological symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, stuffy or runny nose, watery or burning eyes, fast heart beat, nausea, skin rash, difficulty concentrating, and asthma-like symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. However, in some cases scents can trigger anxiety.

The number of people with scent sensitivities is growing, Fraser says. A key reason for this is the vast number of new chemicals compounds created since World War II. Nearly everything now contains chemical fragrances, from candles to lotions, and most of the hundreds of ingredients in any of those fragrances are man-made compounds developed in recent decades.

Scents and other chemicals present in everything from building materials to carpets to paint to cleaning products to personal care products mean that indoor air can be more polluted than outdoor air.

“Given that a proportion of people are sensitive to scents, I think it’s very reasonable for places like hospitals and workplaces to try to accommodate people with environmental sensitivities,” Fraser says. “We’re hearing more about fragrance-free workplaces, but it’s not as common as it should be.”

Fragrance-free choices

If you work in or are visiting a fragrance-free environment, you should avoid wearing perfume or cologne. Also, all personal care products such as lotions, hair styling products and deodorant should be scent-free, and laundry products should be unscented. A good way to start is by trying scent-free versions of products and brands that you already use.

Other ways to minimize your exposure to scents and other indoor air pollutants include using scent-free cleaning products at home and allowing new items such as furniture to off-gas before using them. Off-gassing means to give off fumes. New manufactured items ranging from shower curtains to furniture to carpets give off fumes, as do new paint and building materials. A major source of pollutants in indoor air is renovations. If possible, Fraser suggests giving new renovations a few weeks to off-gas all the fumes before using the space.

“The quality of the air we breathe, indoors and outdoors, plays a direct role in lung health,” Fraser says. “Going fragrance-free can improve lung health and improve the air we breathe.”

Learn more about environmental health in our Environmental Health Centre.


This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: March 21, 2012

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