What do we mean by "scents"?
When we talk about scents, we mean fragrances, aromas or perfumes – anything that adds a smell to something else. Scents can usually be found in personal-care products, such as perfumes, aftershaves, colognes, shampoos and conditioners, soaps, body lotions and deodorants. Scents are also found in household items, such as air fresheners, deodorizers, candles, some laundry detergents, fabric softeners and cleaning products. Scents can also be found in the workplace (e.g. cleaning products, adhesives, caulking).
How can scented products affect my health?
Chemicals used to add scents to products can cause serious health problems for some people, especially for people with lung diseases such as asthma or COPD . Being near a scented product can make some people sick. Scents enter our bodies through our skin and our lungs. The chemicals in scents can cause many different reactions. Even products containing natural plant extracts can cause allergic reactions in some people. While some people are only mildly affected by scents, others have severe reactions. Some common symptoms include:
- feeling dizzy
- feeling tired or weak
- shortness of breath
- cold-like symptoms
- worsening asthma symptoms1
What ingredients are in scents?
Scents are usually made from a mixture of natural and man-made chemicals. A typical fragrance can contain between 100 to 350 ingredients. The problem with scented products is not so much the smell itself as the chemicals that produce the smell. Scented products can contain several toxic chemicals that constantly turn into vapor in the air and attach themselves to hair, clothing, and surroundings. One commonly used chemical is diethyl phthalate, which is used to make scents last longer. It can cause allergic skin reactions (contact dermatitis) and is classified as a skin sensitizer and a reproductive toxin, according to HAZ-Map: Occupational Exposure of Hazardous Substances of the National Library of Medicine of the United States.2
Does "unscented" or "fragrance-free" really mean there is no fragrance?
No. Even products labeled "unscented" or “fragrance-free” may actually contain fragrances used to mask the smell of certain ingredients. Health Canada has specific rules about how companies can use these words on their labels. According to Health Canada's labeling regulations, "fragrance free" or "unscented" means that there have been no fragrances added to the cosmetic product, or that a masking agent has been added in order to hide the scents from the other ingredients in the cosmetic.
How to Avoid Using Scents at Home
Use safer household cleaning products, or better still, make your own. For a list of less toxic cleaning products or recipes on how to make your own, visit the Guide to Less Toxic Products. This online guide to less toxic personal care, cleaning and other products is published by the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, an independent, non-profit organization.
- Use scent-free personal care products. To find safer personal care products, visit the Skin Deep Database, a site that assesses and compares the safety of many brands of shampoos, skin creams, baby wipes, etc. Skin Deep is run by the Environmental Working Group, an American non-profit research organization. Less Toxic Guide also offers recommendations on personal and baby care products.
- Keep your home well ventilated. If you don’t have an air exchange system, open a window to get fresh air in and stale air out. Or put a fan in a window drawing air out and open another window to increase airflow.
How to avoid scents outside of your home
- Use scent-free products when available.
- Keep your workspace or office well ventilated.
- Keep detergents and soaps in sealed containers or a cupboard with a door that completely closes. Make sure the room where they are stored is well ventilated.
- Ask if you can post a "Scent-free building" sign at your work, school and place of worship. Scent-free sign.pdf
- If scent-free policies are not in place, work with your (or your child's) school, workplace, place of worship, or gym to adopt a scent-free or scent-reduced policy. Developing a Scent-free Policy for a Workplace.pdf
If you choose to wear perfumes
- Don't keep perfumes or scented products in your bedroom.
- Wear a lighter fragrance (or no fragrance at all), during warm weather. Fragrance intensifies with heat.
- Make sure you wear a reasonable amount of fragrance. No one more than an arm's length away from you should be able to smell your fragrance.
Video Series on Scents
The New Brunswick Lung Association has created a four-part downloadable video on scents. You can view the series here.
1. Indoor Air Quality – General. (2013). Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. Retrieved July 29, 2014, from http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/iaq_intro.html
2. “Diethyl phthalate” entry in HazMap: Occupational Exposure to Hazardous Agents. (2014). Retrieved July 24, 2014, from http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/category-details?id=457&table=copytblagents