Cleaning products that are artificially scented with smells like lilac, lemon, pine, and tropical rainforest may be popular with consumers, but the fragrances themselves shouldn’t be. Each fragrance is potentially made up of hundreds of chemicals — many of them toxic, according to Erin Switalski, executive director of Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE).
“It’s basically chemical soup in a lot of these products,” Switalski says.
WVE is a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women’s health. The group compiled What’s That Smell?, a landmark report that examines the health effects of hidden fragrance chemicals.
Women are disproportionately affected by the chemicals in fragrances since they use them more frequently than men. They also experience more health effects from the fragrances, such as skin rashes, headaches, and breathing problems. Plus, they can pass chemicals on to their children during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
The problem is that very little is known about these chemicals, and they can be dangerous, according to What’s That Smell? The report divides fragrance chemicals into three groups: synthetic musks, phthalates, and allergens.
Products containing synthetic musks are hazardous because they “are persistent, can bioaccumulate, are potential hormone disruptors, and may break down the body’s defenses against other toxic chemical exposure,” according to the WVE report.
Phthalates are also known to be risky. They don’t contribute to the scent but help to carry the fragrance. Phthalates can cause reproductive and developmental harm, says Switalski. They are linked to sperm damage, birth defects, and feminization of boys.
Laundry detergent, furniture polish, and fabric softeners contain high levels of fragrance chemicals. “This is a major public health concern,” Switalski warns. “Fragrance usage has more than doubled since 1990.”
Anyone can have allergies to a chemical contained in a product — regardless of whether the chemical is natural or synthetic. What’s That Smell? says, “Exposure to allergens in fragrance through inhalation or absorption through the skin can cause skin and eye irritation, as well as more serious impacts such as breathing problems.”
Unlike food, drug, and cosmetic companies, cleaning product companies are not required to list ingredients unless those ingredients are also used in pesticides — which is where much of the concern lies. In the European Union, companies are required to list 26 different allergens.
“[Complete product labeling] would be a great, simple, first step for the United States,” says Switalski. “People could avoid certain scents they’re allergic to.”
Yet, companies want to keep their “recipes” secret — and, by law, they can do just that.
Senator Al Franken recently introduced legislation that would require companies to disclose all ingredients. If made into law, it would put an end to corporations hiding product ingredients from consumers who use them.
In the meantime, Switalski suggests alternatives to harsh cleaning products, such as cleaning with vinegar or using “fragrance free” products. She cautions consumers to avoid “unscented” products, however, as that label is misleading: A chemical is added to “unscented” products to mask the scent.
Seventh Generation and certain other companies are offering safer options by disclosing every ingredient on the label, which Switalski calls “a great start.” And Clorox has removed synthetic musks from their products.
Another idea Switalski offers is calling the makers of your favorite cleaning products to ask what chemicals they contain. “If a company is willing to disclose ingredients, then there are less red flags,” she says.
For More Information
Find more information about the chemicals contained in various consumer products at the following websites:
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)