Fragrances May Emit Potential Toxins

Study Shows Fragranced Products Emit Chemicals Considered Hazardous; Industry Says Products Are Safe

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 25, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

July 25, 2008 -- Fragranced laundry products and air fresheners emit dozens of different chemicals, including some regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal law, according to a new study.

Yet none of the potentially toxic chemicals is listed on the product labels, according to researcher Anne C. Steinemann, PhD, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle. She says consumers should be given more information about such products.

"I didn't find a brand that didn't emit at least one toxic chemical," says Steinemann, who analyzed six different products.

But her research drew protests from representatives of the industry that markets fragranced products; industry spokespeople say the products are safe when used as directed and that the chemicals are present in amounts not known to cause problems.

"This research really lacks a real-world risk perspective," says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group. The small number of consumers who may have sensitivity to certain fragrances can simply avoid them, industry representatives suggest.

And Steinemann is careful to point out that the study simply identifies chemicals "known to be hazardous" but did not study a link between exposure and ill effects in people.

Lab Tests of Fragranced Products

Steinemann decided to do the study, she tells WebMD, after receiving more than 200 consumer complaints about side effects from fragranced products.

"I actually witnessed someone having a seizure when exposed to an air freshener," she says. She picked six fragranced products -- laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, and air fresheners in solid, spray, and oil form.

In a laboratory, she put each product in an isolated space at room temperature. Then she analyzed the surrounding air for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- small molecules that evaporate from the surface of the product into the air. She used advanced methods called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to identify the VOCs.

She detected nearly 100 VOCs, all at levels above 300 micrograms per cubic meter -- an arbitrary threshold picked by Steinemann because it is considered high enough to pose potential concern in case of exposure.

Of the identified VOCs, 10 are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal law, with three of those classified as hazardous air pollutants, she says. The three classified as hazardous air pollutants include acetaldehyde, chloromethane, and 1,4 dioxane.

Many products contained one or more of the VOCs. The plug-in air freshener, for instance, included 20 different VOCs, including seven regulated as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws.

Among other VOCs detected were acetone, the ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover, and limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent.

But the product label lists none of the VOCs -- classified as hazardous or otherwise.

In an analysis of federal law, she says, she found that "no law requires disclosures of all chemicals in fragrances."

"If an ingredient is hazardous they [the manufacturers] still don't need to list it," she says. "They can just put on a warning label," she says, such as ''Don't inhale."

Steinemann won't specify what the brands were. One of the air fresheners tested is used, she says, in the bathrooms of commercial airliners; the spray air freshener tested is often used in schools and health care facilities, and the plug-in air freshener is used in homes.

Her study is published online in Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

Fragranced Products: Industry Response

Industry representatives took strong exception to the study.

"There is really nothing useful here for consumers, regulators, or manufacturers," Sansoni says. "They are trying to raise all these red flags, and the amount of ingredients in these products is not known to cause any problems."

While all ingredients don't have to be listed on a label, he says, certain information does have to be given consumers under the guidelines of the Federal Hazardous Substances Act if a potential hazard exists. Listing all the ingredients on a label is unrealistic, he says. Sometimes there are so many they would not fit.

In a prepared statement, another industry group, the Fragrance Materials Association of the United States, points out that the VOCs found in the products are at low levels. The same VOCs are actually found, sometimes in higher levels than in the fragranced products, in everyday items, including food, according to the statement.

"Not everyone is affected equally'' by the fragrance chemicals, Steinemann says. "Everyone has individual susceptibility."

Her advice? Pick laundry products without a scent, if possible. For air fresheners, turn to natural options, she says. "Use baking soda, open a window, cut open an orange, or use spearmint leaves."

Consumers who experience sensitivity to fragranced products can simply avoid using them, according to the statement issued by the Fragrance Materials Association, while those who enjoy the products can continue to buy them.

Show Sources


Anne C. Steinemann, PhD, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs, University of Washington, Seattle.

Steinemann, A. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, online, July 23, 2008.

Brian Sansoni, spokesman, Soap and Detergent Association.

Fragrance Material Association.

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