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

Elemental
Published in
8 min readOct 22, 2020

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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…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.