PART I: What does the word “fragrance” actually mean?
PART II: Decrypting Product Labels
PART III: Tips for being a fragrance-conscious person (with minimal effort!)
PART IV: Misconceptions
Making spaces accessible is a complex topic, but there is one aspect of accessibility that I know a LOT about: fragrance and chemical sensitivities.
If this is something you’ve never thought of before, you’re not alone. Making spaces accessible scent-wise might sound strange, but fragrance and chemical sensitivities probably affect more people than you realize. In fact, one-third of the US population reports “adverse health effects or irritation” from fragrance chemicals. Those who have chronic health issues, like those with asthma, migraines, cancer, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Mast Cell Diseases, and others often experience worse reactions.
More events and conferences are taking scent-accessibility into consideration when planning, but it’s become clear that there’s a lot of confusion over, well, all of it. Even for someone like me who has been navigating their own ever-increasing fragrance and chemical sensitivities for the several years, it’s still surprisingly confusing. I even still buy products only to get home and realize I’m allergic to it (which is why there’s a very fragrant container of dishwashing detergent on my front porch).
I can’t speak as thoroughly about international laws, but in the United States the laws around labeling and product testing and safety can make accommodating fragrance and chemical sensitivities an unnecessarily difficult challenge and lead people to use products they think are fragrance-free, even when they aren’t. So I’m going to break it down for you.
I hope this serves as a useful starting point in how to navigate accessibility around fragrance and chemical sensitivities, how to figure out which products are okay to use, and how to decrypt misleading and intentionally vague product labels.
PART I: What does the word “fragrance” actually mean?
The word “fragrance” refers to more than 4,000 potential chemical ingredients. The FDA’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act allows companies to use the term “fragrance” as a catch-all phrase to protect trade secrets since fragrance formulas are a mixture of natural and synthetic chemical ingredients and are often proprietary.
This is an enormous hurdle for those with chemical sensitivities because while international Fragrance Industry groups have published a list of the 4,000 or so chemicals that are used in consumer goods, there’s no way to figure out what chemical(s) someone is allergic to or identify which products those chemicals would be in. “Unfortunately, a “fragrance” can include dozens to hundreds of individual chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, or known to cause allergies. Toxic fragrance ingredients, like styrene, phthalates, and musks, which would raise eyebrows if they were listed on a package label, can legally be hidden from view by being collectively listed as ‘fragrance’.”
Unfortunately, a “fragrance” can include dozens to hundreds of individual chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, or known to cause allergies. Toxic fragrance ingredients, like styrene, phthalates and musks, which would raise eyebrows if they were listed on a package label, can legally be hidden from view by being collectively listed as “fragrance.”
When you ask someone who has fragrance or chemical sensitivities what is safe to use around them, they might have a difficult time giving you a straight answer. There isn’t really a way for them to tell which products will or will not make them sick because of their inability to identify what chemicals are causing their reactions. Even if they could, they still wouldn’t know what products contain the offending chemical(s).
Smell is the strongest sense tied to memory, so as you can imagine companies have capitalized on our emotions and memories by including fragrances in just about everything. There’s probably a certain smell that reminds you of home, like a specific laundry detergent, or a perfume or cologne that reminds you of a loved one. I’ve developed my sensitivities over the last few years as a byproduct of a chronic illness called Indolent Systemic Mastocytosis, but before then I remember going off to college and intentionally using the same detergent my mom always used because it reminded me of home. I get it.
Companies understand this too and they know using fragrances is a great way to build brand loyalty, and as a result, nearly all personal care products and cosmetics now include it. Backed by studies have shown that the right ambient scent “lifts customer’s moods and impacts buying behaviors, there’s even a terrifying growing trend of “ambient scenting” (sometimes called “scent marketing”)— a practice many companies use that involved scenting the air in their brick and mortar locations by installing multiple automated scent sprayers or using a system that pumps fragrances in through their HVAC system. I recently experienced this at a conference I attended, where all the common areas of the hotel had been doused in the brand’s “signature scent,” leading to this thread with lots of information and links about the scent marketing trend.
With the fragrance industry currently worth nearly $40 billion dollars worldwide, a number that continues to grow yearly, the best we can hope for is more transparency since fragrances aren’t leaving the marketplace anytime soon. A few companies such as P&G, Unilever, and Reckitt Benckiser have recently announced they’ll be making more efforts in the next few years to provide additional transparency about their fragrance ingredients.
While this is absolutely a step in the right direction, it’s unclear how much it will actually help those who suffer from fragrance and chemical sensitivities. The Clorox Company and SC Johnson have already released lists of all the fragrance ingredients used, but considering it’s a single list of about 3,000 ingredients and doesn’t specify which chemicals are in which products, it’s unlikely to be helpful to anyone. More importantly, most of the 4000 fragrance chemicals currently in circulation have never been independently tested for safety (but more on that later on).
Fragrances Are Actually Bad for EVERYONE
Think of people who have fragrance and chemical sensitivities as the canaries in the mine, because that’s basically what we are. Just because you’re not getting obviously sick doesn’t mean fragrance chemicals aren’t doing you harm.
The Environmental World Group (EWG) tested 17 popular name brand fragrances and each contained an average of four hormone-disrupting chemicals and ten chemicals known to be sensitizers that can trigger allergic reactions. Of the 91 different chemicals used in the 17 fragrances tested, only 27 had ever been assessed for safety by the international fragrance associations that are responsible for setting the voluntary safety standards for chemicals being used in “fragrances.”
Think this article has nothing to do with sex? Well, many fragrances contain chemicals like diethyl phthalate (DEP), which was found in 12 of the 17 fragrances tested. It’s known to disrupt hormones, including testosterone, and “there’s evidence connecting phthalates to developmental disorders, especially among newborn boys.” DEP has also been linked to poor lung function, sperm issues, increased risk of childhood asthma, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). But since you can’t intentionally expose pregnant women or children to phthalates just to see what happens it’s difficult to gather enough irrefutable proof, which is enough to allow it to remain legal. Unfortunately, in the US, chemicals are considered safe until it can be proven otherwise (the opposite of how many other countries operate).
Many fragrances also contain synthetic musks, a chemical that’s drawn to fatty tissue and stored there. Since breasts are mostly fat, these chemicals frequently end up in breast milk. Based on a Swedish study from 2008, the more fragrance products someone uses, including fragranced detergent, the more musks there were likely to be in their breast milk.
In another study at the University of Washington, Seattle, they tested 25 of the best selling air fresheners, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, disinfectants, dish detergents, all-purpose cleaners, soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorants, and shampoos and found more than 130 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), “including some that are classified as toxic or hazardous by federal laws.” VOCs are a type of chemical that turns into a vapor or gas easily at room temperature, meaning you’re breathing all those delightful chemicals in.
Other studies have shown the impact of fragrance chemicals on fetuses and newborns. “In 2005, the Environmental Working Group published a combination of two studies that found toxic chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of newborn babies born in the U.S. in the fall of 2004.” Out of the 400 chemicals that were screened for, 287 were detected in these newborn’s umbilical cord blood—217 of thee chemicals found were neurotoxins and 208 were known to cause birth defects or damage growth development.
As of 2001, “fragrance” was considered among the top five allergens in North America and European countries, and research shows that “repeated, cumulative exposure to chemical sensitizers like allergenic fragrance ingredients increases the chance that a person will develop allergic symptoms later in life.”
PART II: Decrypting Product Labels
Unscented or Scent-Free vs. Fragrance-Free
These terms are completely misleading. You’d think that they would mean the same thing, but that’s not the case. Furthermore, none of these terms have an official legal definition so companies can use these terms to mean what they want them to mean.
Unscented or scent-free products frequently contain fragrances, which are sometimes written as “masking agents” in the ingredients list. The FDA’s website describes “unscented” as “just enough fragrance to mask the unpleasant smell of other ingredients, without giving the product a noticeable scent.”
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but using an “unscented” product with masking agents or fragrance has the same effect on someone with fragrance and chemical sensitivities as if you’d used any other scented product.
Fragrance-free products typically do not have any added fragrance, which means this is probably okay, but double check the ingredients—I’ve found products that claim to be “fragrance-free” on the front of the package and still had fragrance listed in the ingredients.
The tricky part is that sometimes “unscented” products actually don’t have any fragrance in them and sometimes products that are fragrance-free don’t actively promote that. The best thing you can do is to read the ingredients on a product.
Pure, Green, Fresh, & Clean: There are marketing tactics that companies use to make products seem safer, but that has no correlation with the safety, ingredients, or fragrances in the product. They’re sneaky like that. For example, using words “Pure” or “Clean” in the title, using white or recycled-looking packaging, listing other chemicals that aren’t in the product, like that it’s dye and paraben free, or making a product clear (this one STILL confuses my mom—she’s convinced clear hand soap won’t trigger my fragrance and chemical sensitivities). While that’s all great, none of it has any impact on whether the product is fragrance-free.
Natural, Organic, Non-Toxic, and Hypoallergenic
This is another way that companies are really sneaky and misleading. While products labeled with these terms sound like they’d be safer for people with chemical and fragrance sensitivities, they also have zero bearing on whether they include fragrance chemicals or any other chemicals people are more likely to react to. Most natural, organic, non-toxic, hypoallergenic products usually have fragrance in them still.
Organic food cannot be called “organic” without meeting specific USDA guidelines, personal care products don’t follow the same rules. Cosmetics and personal care products labeled as “organic” might follow those USDA guidelines, but it also could be called organic by an international or private group (who might not have strict regulations on the word), or it could mean nothing at all.
Other terms like “natural,” “non-toxic,” and “hypoallergenic” legally mean nothing.³ It’s possible that “natural” indicates that they use less synthetic chemicals or that that “non-toxic” means they avoid ingredients that have been linked to toxic responses…but no one regulates who is able to use these terms because there is no legal definition for them. In fact, the USDA’s site even says, “The term [hypoallergenic] means whatever a particular company wants it to mean.”
Products That Generally Contain Fragrances:
The products bolded below are particular ones to be aware of because they’re designed to be as fragrant as possible, for as long as possible. The scent of detergents, dryer sheets, and glad plugins especially can linger for literal MONTHS without lessening and can cause a reaction long after discontinuing use.
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• Perfumes, Colognes, Body Sprays
• Lotions, Shampoos, Conditioners, Haircare Products
• Laundry detergent/Fabric Softener/Dryer Sheets
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• Deodorant (especially those marketed towards men)
• Air or Room Fresheners: Glade Plugins, Fabreeze, Bathroom Sprays, Candles, Reed Diffusers
• Cleaning Products: Febreze, Swiffer Wet Jet with Febreze, Dish Soaps and Detergents, Surface Cleaners, etc.
I know most people think of incense as a “natural” product, but based on a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Molecular Allergy, incense is actually comprised of 35% fragrance chemicals, and “when incense smoke pollutants are inhaled, they cause respiratory system dysfunction.”
It’s important to note that people can be sensitive to anything (yes, ANYTHING), and those sensitivities can develop anytime—even if you’ve used something 100 times with no issues.
What products are okay to use around chemically sensitive people?
This is tricky. I even have a couple products that have fragrance in them because I couldn’t find a good fragrance-free alternative, and for whatever reason, they happen to not make me sick. The best thing you can do it look at the ingredients list and skip it if it lists “fragrance.” What’s worse is I have found products that said “Fragrance-Free” on the front of the packaging and still listed “fragrance” in the ingredients.
Fragrances can be listed many ways in an ingredients list, but the most common terms used are: “fragrance,” “perfume,” “parfum,” “essential oil blend,” “aroma,” or “masking agent.”
I can’t speak for all people with fragrance and chemical sensitivities, but if you can choose between essential oils or fragrance/parfum, go for the essential oils since they tend to make fewer people sick. That said, many people, especially those with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, still react just as badly to essential oils, so if you don’t know for sure if someone can be around essential oils, or you’ll be around a lot of people, it’s best to err on the side of caution and find fragrance-free products instead.
Fragrances are going to stick with you. Literally.
Moving towards more fragrance conscious products is fantastic, but it is possible for those with really severe fragrance and chemical sensitivities to still react to even subtle leftover scents that most people won’t notice, so don’t be surprised and offended if someone still reacts to the old, but still very fragrant, scents on your clothes or in your home. Many of the chemicals added to fragrance are intended to make things smell for as long as possible, and it can take many washes to get the scent laundry detergent or dryer sheets out of clothing (and no one has ever lived long enough to know when the scent of glade plugins will fade).
PART III: Tips for being a fragrance-conscious person (with minimal effort!)
Fragrances are in nearly every product, which can make it nearly impossible to avoid especially if you have your own allergies or specific needs to consider. It’s also generally unrealistic to ask everyone to go out and purchase new fragrance-free products to use, especially because they can sometimes cost more.
Here are a few tips that can help you make spaces more accessible to people who are sensitive to chemicals or fragrances without breaking the bank or changing your whole lifestyle. Keep in mind that everyone with fragrance and chemical sensitivities is different and reacts to different things, so if you know someone who has sensitivities it’s best to ask them specifically what you can do to help make spaces more accessible for them.
1) Skip the Obvious: Perfume, Cologne, Scented Lotions, Axe, Scented Aftershave, etc.
This one is pretty easy. Just don’t put on fragrances. Look at you being all accessibility-friendly!
I promise, as long as you shower regularly, you don’t smell bad. The whole idea that you do is a marketing strategy used by the companies who make tons of money off you trying to cover up you’re non-existent stink. If you’re still super concerned, ask a trusted confidant for their opinion.
If nothing else, please, for the love of all things holy, throw out your Axe spray (and similar products) because they’re essentially human-repellant and they make most people (including those with no other scent sensitivities) sick.
Tip: If you know you’re likely to put it on by accident out of habit, move it out of its regular location in advance. That way when you go to reach for it you’ll remember you didn’t intend to put any on anyways.
2) Switch to a Fragrance-Free Detergent
This one is easy too! They usually cost about the same as all the other detergents and are perfect for sensitive skin.
Some good options are:
- All Free Clear for Sensitive Skin Detergent
- Seventh Generation Free & Clear (they make dryer sheets too!)
- Tide Free and Gentle
3) Be Aware of “Men’s” Deodorant
Products marketed towards men generally contain far heavier fragrances than those marketed towards women. “Men’s” deodorant especially contains heavy fragrances (Axe and Old Spice are two of the worst, but they’re all pretty potent).
Here are some good fragrance-free options (that will control B.O. just as well!):
4) Avoid Long-Lasting Scents
Some of the worst offenders, in my experience, are any products where the smell would ideally linger for a long period of time, like the items I bolded on the list in the previous section. Basically, avoid plugins, like glade plugins, or Fabreeze products at home, and skip the air freshener in your car (but if your car really needs it, here are some easy DIY options using essential oils).
Part IV: Misconceptions
“I don’t smell anything, so it can’t be making you sick”
(AKA “I only put on a little bit”)
Don’t assume because you can’t smell it that it can’t make someone sick. People often tell me I should be fine with them because they only put on a little perfume, body lotion, etc. or they often make the assumption that because they’re unable to smell something that means it won’t have an effect on me.
While I’m sure it depends on the specific fragrance and chemical sensitivities of the person, I know that for me it’s not about whether you can smell the fragrance or how much you put on (but less is ALWAYS better). Bodies can still react to small amounts of allergens or to fragrances we can’t smell either because it’s not about the smell, it’s often about what the chemicals were used in the product. I have a strangely acute sense of smell (I consider it the world’s most useless superpower), and there are still times I can’t smell what I’m reacting to but I still feel the resulting symptoms.
Don’t get defensive, angry, or otherwise be a jerk to someone who is asking for what they need
One of the most uncomfortable situations is having to tell someone that something they are wearing is making me sick and that I need them to not be near me. I dread having these conversations. It’s especially awkward in workplace environments or with new friends or acquaintances. People often think this means that they smell bad or have done something wrong, and often the responses I get are less than desirable (like getting yelled at or being apologized to profusely—I’m trying to breathe, not make you feel like an asshole).
Check your ego and just respect the person’s wishes. If you want, ask them if they know what they’re reacting to and don’t wear it next time.
That’s all folks!
What, that wasn’t enough info? Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty more where this came from, and I’m hoping to post a list of suggestions for good alternative fragrance-free products in the near future too.
I don’t usually ask people to share my work, but I’d really appreciate if you’d share this article on social media so we can work together to have more accessibility for everyone.