Fragrance: Anything but Fresh


“Fresh scented” laundry detergent might get oils and dirt out of your clothing, but the chemical soup it’s comprised of is anything but fresh and clean. Fragranced products release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which lead to compromised air quality, negative health outcomes, and decreased job productivity and societal wellbeing (Steinemann, 2016). When you see the term “fragrance” on any label, it is in your best interest, and the interest of others and the environment, to leave the product on the shelf.

What And Where Is Fragrance?

There is no way of knowing just what fragrance is from the label since this information does not need to be fully disclosed. Fragrance is usually code for “a complex mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals,” which are mainly synthetic (Steinemann, 2016). When they react with ozone in the air, some of these chemicals can create dangerous secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde (Potera, 2011). Products typically containing fragrance include:

  • Laundry detergent, dryer sheets, soap, and other cleaning products

  • Perfume, deodorant, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, and other personal care products

  • Scented candles and air-fresheners

  • Hand-sanitizer and baby wipes

  • Even trash bags and toilet paper.

You can’t assume something is fragrance-free just because you bought it in a natural food store either. Many so-called “natural” body care and cleaning products still contain fragrance, making label reading essential.

Why Should We Care?

A study by Anne Steinemann (2016) reported that more than one third of Americans experience negative symptoms when exposed to fragrance. Even if you don’t personally react negatively to fragrances, consider this: 23.6% of people experienced negative health problems due to being near someone else wearing fragrance (Steinemann, 2016). The person next to you on the bus, behind you on the sidewalk, in the neighboring cubicle, or next door (in the case of laundry vents) might be negatively impacted by the noxious fumes. The most common side effects reported in Steinemann’s study included respiratory problems, mucosal symptoms, migraine headache, skin symptoms, asthma attack, neurological problems, cognitive problems, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular problems, immune system problems, and musculoskeletal problems. Even if you don’t notice any specific symptoms related to fragrance exposure, these chemicals add to your overall toxic load and increase your chances for health complications down the road.

Stephen Genuis (2013) points out that patients presenting with chemical sensitivity “have been received unsympathetically by some medical practitioners” due to the assumption that symptoms are psychological. However, growing evidence suggests that chemical sensitivity is indeed rooted in physiology with immune dysregulation at its core (Genuis, 2013). This is strengthened by the evidence that physiologic-centered treatments for chemical sensitivity “consistently seem to have superior and sustained outcomes compared with psychological therapies" (Genuis, 2013).

VOCs travel through the air. This means that even if we personally choose fragrance-free products, it is still difficult to go anywhere without being exposed via someone's hair product residue or perfume, the laundry aisle in the grocery store, air fresheners and scented soap in public restrooms, dryer vent exhaust billowing out onto the sidewalk, etc. For those who do have chemical sensitivity, the struggle is real. For others, fragrances and other chemical compounds might be triggering your symptoms without you knowing. We owe it to ourselves, others, and the planet to ditch the fragrance. Chemical companies shouldn't be allowed to make a buck at our health's expense. Vote with your dollars and buy fragrance free.

If you absolutely love scented products, look for those explicitly labeled to contain only pure essential oils. These tend to smell much better than the fake stuff and can actually have therapeutic effects.


Genuis, S.J. (2013). Chemical sensitivity: pathophysiology or pathopsychology? Clinical Therapeutics, 35(5), 572-577. Retrieved from

Potera, C. (2011). Indoor air quality: scented products emit a bouquet of VOCs. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(1). Retrieved from

Steinemann, A. (2016). Fragranced consumer products: exposures and effects from emissions. Air Quality, Atmosphere, & Health, 9(8), 861-866). Retrieved from