Skip to content

Health Reasons to Avoid Fragrances, Air Fresheners, Dryer Sheets

Did you ever wonder about all the consumer products that have fragrances in them and whether they are safe to use? Think of all the fragrances in personal care products and perfumes, in air fresheners, scented soaps, cleaning products, scented candles, even laundry detergents, and scented dryer sheets.

Fragrances are made up of many synthetic chemicals - with the "fragrance" in a product typically being a mixture of 50 to 300 chemicals. They are considered an important source of indoor air pollution and can have negative health effects on humans, especially developing fetuses and children. Fragrances are added to products to achieve a desired scent or mask other scents in the product. Air fresheners do not clean or freshen the air, but actually add chemicals to the air to mask other odors. Manufacturers are NOT required to disclose all the ingredients or chemicals in the products, and don't have to disclose any ingredients in any chemical mixture called "fragrance".

The few studies looking at health effects have found negative health effects, including on the lungs, respiratory effects, asthma, allergies, headaches, skin irritation, sensory irritation, hormonal effects, central nervous system effects, and inflammation. But more negative health effects are possible, especially because many of the chemicals are carcinogenic (cancer causing). We inhale the chemicals or absorb them through the skin, and from there they travel throughout the body - which is why they can be measured in the blood or urine.

Reading the studies that look at the chemicals emitted from scented products that people use every day can be overwhelming. Many of the studies specifically look at VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that the products emit, because these can affect air quality and human health. A big difficulty is that humans are exposed to mixtures of chemicals daily from many products, and the effects may take years to manifest themselves (such as cancer)

Bottom line: avoid, avoid, avoid fragranced or scented products if possible. Do not use scented detergent or dryer sheets (not necessary), do not use air fresheners (either in the home, workplace, or car), do not use incense or scented candles (post on scented candles). Read labels. Opening windows is the best way to air out a house or apartment. Studies find that fragrances labeled "organic", "natural", "green", or "with essential oils" basically emit the same toxic chemicals into the air (view such labels as marketing or "greenwashing") - therefore avoid those also.

Air fresheners are consumer products used in homes or in restrooms that typically emit fragrances,  including incense, scented candles, aerosol liquid wick and electric diffusers, and gels. Depending on which air freshener is used (and including those labeled "all natural"), they emit varying levels of allergens and toxic air pollutants (and which can also combine to produce other pollutants - "secondary pollutants"): acetone, aldehydes, benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, terpenes, styrene, esters, phthalates (which are hormone disrupting chemicals), limonene, and also ultrafine particles. None of these toxic chemicals are listed on the product labels. Typically, a fragrance is listed simply as “fragrance,” even though each fragrance can contain hundreds of individual chemicals. Only this past year has one company (Glade) started posting online (but not on the packages) some of the many chemicals used in its scented products. 

In 2009, Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington published a study of top-selling air fresheners and laundry products, and then expanded the study in 2015She found that all products tested gave off chemicals regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, including carcinogens with no safe exposure level, but most of these chemicals were not listed on any of the product labels or Material Safety Data Sheets. The 2015 study found 156 different VOCs were emitted from the 37 products studied, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. 42 of these chemical compounds are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals. Chemicals included acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; chloromethane, a neurotoxicant and respiratory toxicant; and acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane, both carcinogens. A plug-in air freshener contained more than 20 different volatile organic compounds, with more than one-third classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws. Even air fresheners called "organic," "green," or with "essential oils" emitted hazardous chemicals, including carcinogens.

2009 study in reported that 30.5% of the general U.S. population found that smelling scented products on others was irritating, 19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and 10.9% reported irritation by scented laundry products vented to the outside. 

A 2012 study in Environmental Health Perspectives Endocrine disruptors and asthma-associated chemicals in consumer products looked for endocrine disruptors and asthma-related chemicals in a wide range of cosmetics, personal care products, cleaners, sunscreens, and vinyl products. They detected 55 compounds, suggesting a wide range of exposures from common products, with the highest concentrations and numbers of detected chemicals in vinyl products, in all fragranced products (e.g., perfume, air fresheners, and dryer sheets) and sunscreen. Chemicals included parabens, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), triclosan, ethanolamines, alkylphenols, fragrances, glycol ethers, and cyclosiloxanes. 

In a 2013 study in International Journal of Public Health, researchers found that women who had used air fresheners during pregnancy were "significantly more likely to have babies that suffered from wheezing and lower respiratory tract infections."The use of household cleaning products during pregnancy was linked to lower respiratory tract infections and wheezing during early life."

This recent 2015 study discussed all the chemicals released from air fresheners and their possible health effects. From the Journal of Toxicological Studies: Characterization of air freshener emission: the potential health effects. They pointed out that although the VOCs emitted by air fresheners are known to be human hazards, pollutant emission standards or test methods have not been established. Also: "Phthalates are used in many household products including children’s plastic toys, adhesive, nail polish, perfumes, and air fresheners. All air fresheners that are labeled as “unscented” and “all natural” contain phthalates. In these air fresheners, they are used as solvents to dissolve or to retain the fragrances for a longer period."When the air fresheners are released into the air, they can be inhaled or land on the skin and enter the eyes, where they are absorbed.....These chemicals can also alter hormone levels and cause other health problems. Phthalates interfere with the production of hormones such as testosterone and can be associated with reproductive abnormalities."

A 2011 study found that the chemicals in laundry detergents and dryer sheets are sources of dryer vent air pollution - the strong smells that can be smelled in the vicinity of the laundry vent when clothes are being dried. The researchers identified components of dryer vent scented emissions that are classified as "hazardous air pollutants and known or probable carcinogens". There were 29 VOCs identified in this study, with the highest concentrations for acetaldehyde, acetone, and ethanol, but also benzene, ethylbenzene, methanol, m/p-xylene, o-xylene, and toluene (all hazardous air pollutants). They don't discuss the issue of people wearing the clothes that are coated in the laundry detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheet chemicals - but this is definitely something that people should be concerned with.

Currently Europe has stricter standards and laws about product ingredients and disclosure than the U.S., a result of  comprehensive legislation called REACH, which was passed in 2006. It requires that companies meet a "no data, no market" test, which means that producers know that ingredients used are safe. The regulation also calls on companies to substitute chemicals that have been placed on "high concern" lists.

The fragrance industry has projected global sales of $40 billion this year, and says it ensures the safety of its products through a "rigorous system of self-regulation" administered by its trade group, the International Fragrance Association. However, fragrance makers treat the chemicals in fragrances as "trade secrets", and so neither the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or Consumer Products Safety Commission screen fragrances for safety. Of course the fragrance industry remains opposed to greater transparency regarding the chemicals it uses. So right now it's Buyer Beware when buying any product with any type of fragrance in it.....

For information on safer products in every category, go to the Environmental Working Group web-site.  An informative (and angry) article on the issue of fragrance safety from Mother Jones: Is "Fragrance" Making Us Sick?

8 thoughts on “Health Reasons to Avoid Fragrances, Air Fresheners, Dryer Sheets

  1. Robin Brooks

    Is there any connection between scented dryer sheets and anemia? We know that the dryer sheets are loaded with hormone disrupters and a few known carcinogens. I am looking for a specific connection to anemia, especially in small house pets.

    1. Sima

      I did some quick medical searches (through PubMed), but did not come up with a link with scented dryer sheets and anemia.
      One problem is that products in the US do not have to list the ingredients or chemicals that make up "fragrances" used in the product.
      But dryer sheets are definitely linked to indoor air pollution, and there is also much concern over the chemicals in them coating laundry (which people then wear). Some more medical references about indoor air pollution from dryer sheets and fragranced consumer products - here, and here. More research definitely needs to be done.

  2. L.

    I wiped up a spill from a electric fragrance & instead of throwing the rag, it ended up in my washer & drier. Now my house smells like it. Is it dangerous? Will the smell eventually go away?

    1. Sima

      Electric fragrances are plug-in air fresheners and are considered an important source of indoor air pollution.
      My suggestion is to stop using air fresheners or electric fragrances, throw out the rag, and to try airing out the house (open up windows for a while). Can put out bowls of baking soda and/or vinegar (see article). Eventually the smell should go away.
      Once you stop using the products, the air quality immediately improves - because the product is no longer being released into the air.

  3. Mark Thompson

    When I was in my last apartment, my ex’s nephew was over and accidently spilled a fragrance refill all over my side table. It ended up completely stripping the finish layer (clear coat and paint), all the way down to bare white wood (significant change in color) I was shocked. I’m actually glad that happened and I haven’t used any sort of fragrance since that day. Whatever refills I had left I threw out. I don’t want to be breathing in whatever chemicals are being put out, if they are strong enough to be doing that to wood.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *