Do Air Fresheners and Fragrances Cause Allergies?
Do those synthetic air fragrances we find hanging from rear views, plugged into walls, sitting in musty cabinets or sprayed around rooms cause allergies?
What about those fragrances in our soaps, shampoos and cosmetics? Do they cause or at least contribute to allergies?
Many of us use air fresheners and fragrances without a second thought. We don’t want to smell the organic smell that may persist in a room or car. Perhaps the room is musty. Or it has some mold smell. Or perhaps it has some other noxious smell.
We want to smell something a little more inviting. Something that reminds us of roses, cinnamon, lemons or perhaps even a cypress forest.
Then there are allergies. Millions of people have skin allergies, sinus allergies and allergic asthma. Millions more have food allergies. Are any of these connected to fragrances?
The two are typically considered completely independent things: Our fragrances and air fresheners and our allergies and sensitivities. Really?
Actually, in many cases, they are connected. Let’s look more closely at the science.
Types of air fresheners and fragrances
Fragrances produce a continuous scent by releasing chemical particulates into the air. These particulates can either be solid particulates or suspended liquids. As such, these chemical fragrances are a form of air pollution. They modify the air we breathe.
Here is a rough list of the various air fresheners and products that can contain chemical fragrances:
• Aerosol air fresheners
• Plug-in air fresheners
• Hanging car air fresheners
• Pop-up air fresheners
• Scented candles
• Facial wipes
• Bacteria wipes
• Skin lotions
• Soaps and cleansers
• Fragrant diapers
• Dryer sheets
What chemicals are in these fragrances?
Most labeling requirements around the world exempt companies from having to list their specific chemical ingredients contained in their air fresheners. This also goes for the Food and Drug Administration in the United States.
That’s good for manufacturers but bad for consumers. For many of these products, if the manufacturers listed all the chemicals the product contained, we probably wouldn’t buy them in the first place.
Depending upon the brand and type of air freshener or fragrance compound, fragrance products can contain a multiple of the below chemicals:
• bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate
• Bisphenol A (BPA)
• Butyle paraben
• Dicyclohexyl phthalate
• diethyl phthalate (DEP)
• Di-isononyl phthalate
• Di-n-propyl phthalate
• Diphenyl ether
• Ethyl paraben
• Galaxolide (HHCB)
• Geraniol (trans-3,7-dimethyl-2,6-octadiene-1-ol)
• Glycol ethers
• Hexy cinnemal
• Isobornyl acetate
• Lyral (hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde)
• Methyl eugenol
• Methyl ionone
• Methyl isothiazolinone
• Methyl salicylate
• Musk ketone
• Musk xylene
• Nonylphenol diethoxylate
• Nonylphenol monoethoxylate
• Oakmoss (Evernia prunastri)
• Octylphenol diethaxylate
• Octyphenol monoethaxylate
• Phenethyl alcohol
• Polyethylene glycol
• Sorbic acid
• Tonalide (AHTN)
• Volatile organic compounds (other than those listed above)
That is one hefty list, certainly. Many fragrance-containing products will contain a number of these chemicals. For example, a 2017 study from University of Minnesota School of Medicine tested 178 facial wipes. They found an average of 16 chemicals in each wipe.
A few of the chemicals in the list above do occur naturally. These include:
• Oakmoss (Evernia prunastri)
While some plants can produce these chemicals – and oakmoss is a fungus – most of these can also be synthesized. For example, isoeugenol can be synthesized to produce pseudoisoeugenol. As we’ve seen from other synthetic versions of plant compounds, the synthetic versions aren’t always as safe as the plant compounds.
Furthermore, a 2009 study from Sweden’s Sahlgrenska University natural compounds used in fragrances are auto-oxidized after delivery into the air. In this oxidized state, even natural compounds in air fresheners and fragrances can produce allergic responses in the body.
Even so, a 2014 study showed that the four natural fragrance compounds above don’t produce the same kind of allergic potential as the synthetic chemicals do. Some of the above chemicals, such as formaldehyde, benzene and artificial musk, have also been linked to cancer.
Research ties fragrances to skin allergies
Skin allergies are medically referred to as atopic dermatitis. When produced via skin contact with an allergen, this is considered contact dermatitis. Research continues to prove that air fresheners and fragrances are linked to both types of dermatitis.
As a result, many people with dermatitis are allergic to fragrances. The medical term for this is to be “sensitized” to fragrances.
A 2017 study from Denmark’s National Allergy Research Center and the University of Copenhagen studied 6,004 dermatitis patients. They tested the patients against 26 different fragrances. The scientists found 940 of the patients (about 16 percent) were allergic to just these 26 fragrances.
Imagine the number if the rest of the chemicals found in fragrances (see list above) were all tested.
Specific fragrance chemicals that many were allergic to included Lyral (hydroxyisohexyl 3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde).
A 2017 study from Germany’s University Medical Centre Göttingen tested 5,264 allergic contact dermatitis patients and found that 11.4 percent were allergic to fragrances.
A 2017 study from the University of Amsterdam tested 526 children with atopic dermatitis and 395 healthy children. They found that a majority of the children were allergic (sensitized) to fragrances.
As mentioned above, a 2017 study tested 178 facial wipes and found an average of 16 chemicals in each wipe. They also found that many of those chemicals in the wipes have been identified in other studies as allergens.
An example of this type of research is a 2007 study from Sweden’s Göteborg University. In this study, the fragrance compound geraniol (trans-3,7-dimethyl-2,6-octadiene-1-ol) was tested specifically for its allergenic activity. Researchers found that air exposure to this compound produced contact allergenic oxidation products. This means when the chemical was breathed in or came in contact with the skin, it had the potential to produce an allergic response within the body.
These studies and others indicate that a significant amount of people will get skin allergies as a result of exposure to fragrances or fragrances.
Air fresheners and allergic asthma
Asthma associated with irritant exposures is called allergic asthma. The asthmatic symptoms are being produced by environmental exposures to toxins.
A 2013 study from University of Alberta’s medical school studied people with serious asthma, people with moderate asthma, people with mild asthma and people without asthma. In this four-way crossover study, each subject was exposed twice each to an aerosol air freshener and a placebo air freshener on separate occasions.
After their exposure they were tested for 29 symptoms up to three hours after each exposure. The researchers found that the aerosol air fresheners produced a significant increase in asthma symptoms. The greatest symptoms were seen in nasal symptoms.
Another study, of 1,058 people with asthma, showed that 38 percent of people with asthma have irritation to fragrances and air fresheners. And 31 percent of people with asthma have chemical hypersensitivity. Furthermore, nearly 14 percent of the asthmatics found their asthma has been caused by chemical exposure.
A 2006 study from Spain’s Municipal Institute of Medical Research tested 43 domestic cleaning people and found that working with sprays and air fresheners produced upper respiratory tract symptoms and reduced breathing capacity. They found that 30 percent of the test group had contracted work-related asthma.
A 2004 study of 1,054 people found that 17 percent had breathing difficulty or other health problems when they were exposed to air fresheners.
Other health conditions
A 2009 study from the University of West Georgia analyzed data assembled from telephone interviews of 2,115 people throughout the United States. They found that over 30 percent of the population reported that fragrances and air fresheners caused some form of irritation.
They also found that 19 percent reported health conditions as a result of air freshener exposure. And nearly 11 percent reported irritation from vented dryer sheets.
The researchers concluded:
“This study reveals that a considerable percentage of the U.S. population reports adverse health effects or irritation from fragranced products, with higher percentages among those with asthma and chemical sensitivity.”
Other studies have confirmed a plethora of symptoms can result from exposure to fragrance chemicals. A study from James Madison University found air fresheners and fragrances can produce multiple chemical sensitivities, which produce the following symptoms:
• Difficulty concentrating
• Muscle aches
• Memory difficulties
• Long-term fatigue
The researchers concluded:
“Multiple chemical sensitivity is an important health care issue because it often includes serious dysfunction, is poorly understood by providers and poses extensive financial and treatment obstacles for those who experience it.”
The essential alternatives
The bottom line is to avoid or reduce exposure to commercial products that contain any number of chemical fragrances. There are now healthy alternatives to most cosmetics, soaps and cleansers.
And when it comes to covering up an odor in the house, it’s probably better to remove the source of the odor than cover it up. Especially if the odor is caused by mold or a build up of bacteria somewhere. In these cases, covering up the odor will only allow the culture to grow – potentially producing more issues later.
Or if you like the smell of lemons or roses, you can always put some rose petals or lemon peels in an open jar and put it in the sun. As they dry, they will emit a wonderful aroma.
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Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn our health around. As I drove home that night, I realized this knowledge should be available to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.”