Could Common Household Scented Products Make You Ill?

NEW YORK (CBS 2) — Walk down any cleaning aisle in your grocery store and just try to find a product that’s not scented. From dryer sheets to shampoos, most household items contain fragrance. However, a new study finds what makes these items smell good may actually make them hazardous to your health, Kristine Johnson reports.

“I got interested in this topic because I had so many calls and emails from hundreds of people telling me they were getting sick from common fragrance household products,” said Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington.

Steinemann led the study which analyzed more than two dozen commonly used scented items and said her findings were surprising and distressing.

“All of them emitted chemicals that are classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws,” she said.

Steinemann said more than a third of the products, even some labeled organic, emitted at least one chemical like formaldehyde.

“These are chemicals that can damage the lungs, the brain, the central nervous system,” she said.

And, Steinemann said, you’d never know it by looking at the label because fragrances are considered proprietary, so they’re under no obligation to list their ingredients.

“The paradox is if these chemicals were coming out of a smoke stack we would know about it and it would be regulated. If it’s coming out of an air freshener you wouldn’t know about it and it’s not regulated,” she said.

Toxicologist Dr. Tod Bania with St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital said the levels of potentially hazardous chemicals found in these products are considered low.

“That doesn’t mean that every time you are exposed to them you’re going to get cancer,” he said.

However, if used frequently over a prolonged periods of time, there is cause for concern.

“Especially if you have any pulmonary diseases, if you have asthma,” he cautioned.

Faith Wurtzel said scented products make her feel so sick. She’s always questioned what they’re made off.

“The industry is not being honest about what’s really in these products,” she said.

The industry, represented by The Fragrance Materials Association, said –says these scented products are safe. In a statement they said the “study presents no new data or breakthrough analysis.” They likened it to “crystal ball gazing” that “cannot be compared to the sound, independent four-step safety testing carried out by the fragrance industry.”

Still, Wurtzel said, she now avoids these products and is using other options in her home.

“If you really want to stay away from these things, it’s important to know what’s in these compounds, and if it’s not listed on there it’s kind of hard to avoid it,” said Dr. Bania.

The Household Product Labeling Act was currently under review by the Senate. It would require manufacturers to list all ingredients on the labels, including those used for scents.

More from Kristine Johnson
  • Frank

    The U.S. Centers of Disease Control has an Indoor Environmental Quality Policy that bans fragrances, fragrance-emitting devices, certain pesticides and other toxins from their offices.

  • Amy Reuter, IFRA North America

    It should be noted that the study discussed above did not review safety of scented products. Instead, it measured the presence of materials in the air and it should go without saying that scents and fragrances are actually made to be detected in the air. Moreover, some of the materials detected in this study are of natural origin and some are not used in making fragrances at all.

    That said, the Fragrance Materials Association statement used in the above story was written in response to a different study and is from 2008. Since then, and in response to consumers’ desire for more information about the products they use, the fragrance industry has published an extensive list of fragrance ingredients. The list is available at

    The fact is that fragrances are safe. They are immensely popular with consumers and are used in all sorts of everyday products ranging from cosmetics and perfumes, to cleaning products, air fresheners and other household items. On average fragrance only makes up about 2% of a household product.

    Ensuring the safe enjoyment of fragrances is a top priority for the International Fragrance Association, North America (formerly FMA) and the fragrance industry. For more information on initiatives to ensure the safety of fragrances, please visit

    For more information, please visit

    • nancy

      Thank you for your real life stories I am very allergic to the chemilcals scents and fragrances air wicks glade etc canot go into the laundry room wash everything by hand with baking soda and very hot water Stay clear of the stores restaurants How ironic to be sitting in a restaurant and instead of smelling the wonderful aromas of my dinner I smell the cleaning solution the waiter is using to clean the table next to me . Could go on and on Am looking for a support group Please feel free to email me Thank you very much.

  • Linda Dellp

    I know people all over the world that are suffering from fragrance, soaps, detergents, and baby products. So sad that the Fragrance Materials Assoc. is not aware of the suffering.

    I have written my leaders for 12 years. I have watched the Senate hearings and read the REACH Project when the EU Government wanted to start to regulate their products. The Bush Administration wrote to other countries trying to persuade them not to regulate.

    Why should companies make profits while so many are suffering. Maybe they should each have to set up a fund to help the sick since they have not had to reveal their formula or ingredients. I can’t begin to tell you the times I have vomited for 12 hours after some fragrance that has taken over the room.

    Lobbyists have spent millions trying to kill the legislation for safer products/chemical reform. Fragrance causes chest pain, head pain, asthma, vomiting, etc. The President’s Cancer Panel has determined that many chemicals in our products cause Cancer.

    It is time to fix the damage from 1976 when the TSCA( Toxic Substance Control Act) was supposed to take affect but since that time only a few chemicals have been banned. Not all chemicals cause illness but lets get the ones out that do harm and cause a life time of suffering and financial hardship.

    After all this my husband had quadruple bypass surgery and I am sure all the stress involved and him working to take care of me long hours and low pay did not help.

    So much to be fixed in our Country. Linda

  • M. Aronson

    Dr. Oz recently said that many of these household products also contain phthalates, which are known to be endocrine system disruptors.

  • Elizabeth Michael

    I am allergic to mold and histamine…..95% of the products out there I have to stay away from….perfume, cologne, soaps, cleaning detergents, air fresheners, dish soap, laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioners and flowers , ,,,,,, I try to find and use products without fragrance in them ,,,,,,, I use baking soda instead of ajax or comet cleanser as I am also sensitive to bleach, I use streight ammonia to do windows, I use products without the fragrance….You know what really gets me the most? Department stores and their putting perfume counters right at the front door…I used to hold my breathe going into these stores…

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