Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Fragranced Products Could Hurt Your Health

Americans are cleaning more than ever — and all those scented products are worrying consumer-health researchers

Even before the pandemic, Americans were among the world’s most enthusiastic users of scented home-cleaning products. Market research from the industry-tracking firm Statista shows that the United States ranks first in the world in spending on household cleaners; the U.S. spends more on these products than the next three countries on the list, combined.

The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 has only intensified the country’s zeal for scented wipes, sprays, detergents, soaps, and sanitizers. According to a recent study in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, the pandemic has initiated a “sweeping and surging use” of such products both in the U.S. and abroad.

While there’s certainly a heightened need for regular and thorough hand-washing, and probably also for frequent disinfection of door handles and other oft-touched surfaces, it’s not at all clear that Americans can scrub and spray the novel coronavirus into lavender-scented submission — especially if they’re doing so at home.

In August, an expert comment appearing in The Lancet reviewed some of the best research to date on surface-contact transmission. It concluded that the risks of a person catching the virus by touching an infected surface are “exaggerated.” Likewise, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that while surface-contact transmission is probably possible, it “is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads.” (Most experts now agree that close-range exposure to an infected individual — especially indoors — is the primary mode of transmission.) Even if surface-contact transmission is a thing, hand-washing and masks would foil most of the virus’s opportunities to move from a surface into a person’s body.

“A primary source of indoor air pollutants is fragranced consumer products, such as air fresheners and cleaning supplies.”

It would be one thing if commercial cleaners or disinfectants came with no downsides. And this seems to be the operating assumption that governs a lot of people’s approach to their use. But experts say that many of the chemicals in these products — and, notably, the chemicals that lend these products pleasing scents, which contribute nothing to their germ-clearing effectiveness — are linked to health harms ranging from headaches and skin rashes to asthma, immune system dysfunction, and heart trouble.

They may even contribute to some Covid-19-related risks.

The hazards of fragrance chemicals

Chemicals that give a product fragrance — whether that product is an all-purpose cleaner, a scented candle, an air freshener, or hair spray — have lately been worrying some consumer-health researchers. A 2020 review in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health summarized some of the latest findings.

“As background, most of our exposure to pollutants occurs indoors,” writes Anne Steinemann, PhD, author of that review and a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “A primary source of indoor air pollutants is fragranced consumer products, such as air fresheners and cleaning supplies.”

Steinemann is an expert in product emissions and environmental health, and has authored or co-authored dozens of studies on these topics. Her review catalogs a long list of health harms associated with fragrance chemicals, among which migraine headaches, breathing problems, and skin reactions are most common.

While a product’s list of ingredients may include a single word like “fragrance” or “parfum,” these or similar words often refer to a proprietary blend of several or even dozens of chemicals. The chemicals used in this blend do not have to be publicly disclosed, and may lawfully contain any one (or more) of the thousands of chemicals that are now approved for use in consumer products. This list includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and also endocrine-disrupting chemicals, so named because they may interfere in some way with the activity of the body’s hormones.

And that list of allowed fragrance chemicals is growing. “Even 10 years ago, the list included just one phthalate,” says Robin Dodson, PhD, an environmental exposure scientist at the nonprofit Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts. Phthalates are a type of chemical that research has linked to elevated risks for breast cancer, reduced fertility, and asthma. “Now there are several phthalates on the list,” she says.

Dodson sometimes gives talks on the risks of consumer chemicals. She says that even health-conscious, in-the-know consumers are often unaware of how the U.S. chemical industry is regulated — or, in many cases, not regulated. “Something people are always surprised to learn is that only a minority of the chemicals in our products are thoroughly tested for toxicity,” she says. “Companies are allowed to put chemicals into products that have not been fully evaluated for safety, and often these chemicals are only flagged as harmful after evaluation by independent scientists.”

She highlights research findings that have linked phthalates and other fragrance chemicals to a heightened risk for asthma, suppressed immune function, and diabetes. All of these are on the CDC’s list of conditions associated with severe Covid-19 disease. “I don’t think it’s overboard to say that exposure to the chemicals could make you more susceptible to something like Covid-19,” she says.

More chemical concerns

Fragrance chemicals aren’t the only ones in consumer products that are associated with health problems. Far from it.

“Unfortunately, with Covid, we’re seeing a resurgence in the use of antimicrobials and other disinfectants that wipe out the virus but can be toxic or endocrine-disrupting in humans,” says Heather Patisaul, PhD, an expert in environmental chemicals and health at North Carolina State University.

Patisaul highlights a category of disinfectant chemicals called quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs or “quats”), which are found in products that were once mainly used in medical or commercial food-service settings but have since migrated into the home. According to a report from Mount Sinai and New York University, QACs now turn up in everything from disinfectant sprays and wipes to dish soaps, all-purpose cleaners, and baby products. Products labeled “antimicrobial” or “disinfectant” are most likely to contain QACs, which can be hard to avoid unless you memorize their names and look for them on the list of active ingredients.

“We’re exposed to a whole soup of these on a daily basis, and it’s that soup that most concerns me.”

“Although they are marketed as household disinfectants, they are actually certified by the EPA as pesticides, and they are overkill for cleaning at home,” Patisaul says. QAC’s are lung and skin irritants, “which is not great if you’re worried about Covid,” she says. They’re also “teratogenic,” meaning they have been shown to interfere with fetal development. They can also disrupt the actions of hormones in ways that may promote the development of cancer or immune dysfunction, though those specific harms are still theoretical. And that’s just one category of chemical among the hundreds found in household cleaning and personal care products.

Patisaul is part of a community of researchers and public health advocates who for years have worked to raise awareness of the dangers of consumer chemicals — both to people and to the environment. The emergence of Covid-19 — and the persistent misconception that a “clean” person, place, or thing is one bathed in some kind of scented product — threaten to undo much of their good work.

The Silent Spring Institute’s Dodson says that U.S. health authorities, unlike oversight bodies in some other countries, tend to apply an “innocent until proven guilty” standard to consumer chemicals. And especially when it comes to cancer, immune dysfunction, and other slow-to-emerge, multifactorial health conditions, establishing “proof” of harm is next to impossible.

“We’re ubiquitously exposed to these chemicals — they’re everywhere — and so there’s really no way to compare people who’ve been exposed to those who have not been exposed to see what might happen 30 years later,” Dodson says. Even if you could do that type of experiment, it wouldn’t reveal how the combination of hundreds of these chemicals might interact with an individual’s unique biology in ways that could create disease or damage.

“We’re exposed to a whole soup of these on a daily basis, and it’s that soup that most concerns me,” she adds.

How to avoid the risks

Ditching fragranced products is a good first step, Dodson says. Even if you’re unwilling to part with a favorite cologne or perfume — and yes, those products also contain potentially harmful chemicals — she points out that most American households contain a panoply of scented cosmetics, lotions, detergents, air fresheners, candles, and cleaning products. “None of us needs fragranced trash bags,” she says. “We can all skip those.”

Unfortunately, avoiding fragrance chemicals may be easier said than done. While products labeled “fragrance free” are often good options, those labeled “unscented” may actually contain additional chemicals used to mask a product’s unpleasant odor, Dodson says. Searching out products labeled “green” or “organic” also isn’t much use; research has found that those products often emit some of the same harmful pollutants as regular products.

On the other hand, simply buying and using fewer cosmetics and cleaning products is one good way to cut back exposure. And if ditching a product isn’t possible, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group provides helpful resources for finding safer options for cleaning and personal care. The Silent Spring Institute’s Detox Me app is also a useful tool.

“None of us needs fragranced trash bags. We can all skip those.”

When it comes to safely ridding your home, car, or other areas — not your hands or body — of SARS-CoV-2, simple and old-school cleaning solutions may be the safest options. “Hydrogen peroxide, citric acid, or octanoic acid are safe and effective,” says NCSU’s Patisaul.

Each of these is on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of products that can effectively inactivate SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces. They’re all inexpensive and easy to find. Just make sure you’re not mixing them with vinegar or other cleaners, which Patisaul says can create a toxic cocktail. (According to resources from the University of North Carolina, mixing one part over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide with one part water creates a solution that will inactive the coronavirus on surfaces.)

To clean your hands and body, the CDC says that plain old soap and water is the best and safest way to go. If you can’t wash, hand sanitizers are a next-best option; fragrance-free, alcohol-based products that contain at least 60% alcohol are effective, per the CDC, and need not contain any other chemicals to effectively neutralize the virus.

Looking beyond the pandemic, Dodson says that in order to meaningfully reduce the public’s exposure to harmful consumer chemicals, regulators will need to implement more robust safety standards. Today, even if a person is diligent about avoiding harmful chemicals, that person may still be exposed to harmful levels at work, at school, or elsewhere.

“We really need better safeguards in place,” she says.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store