by guest blogger Cassidy Randall, director of outreach for Women’s Voices for the Earth
Have you ever wondered what’s in those myriad air fresheners that make your home smell like a tropical vacation or a woodsy cabin surrounded by wildflowers? It’s certainly not roses… Here are five reasons we think you should avoid air fresheners altogether.
1. Secret Ingredients
Don’t pick up your favorite air freshener and try to check the label for the ingredients. You won’t find any.
That’s because most companies keep fragrance ingredients a secret, dubbing them “confidential business information.” This scent secrecy is practiced across industries—cleaning products, personal care products, cosmetics, to name a few—but this problem becomes even more egregious when it comes to air fresheners, in which fragrance can make up 70 to 80 percent of the overall composition of the product. That means we have no information on the vast majority of chemicals we’re spraying in our homes.
I bet you’re thinking, Wait, seriously? Isn’t there some law that requires companies to tell us what’s in their products? The answer is no. In addition to the fragrance secrecy that’s practiced across industries, there’s no law that requires cleaning-product companies (which make air fresheners) to list any of the ingredients in their products—which means that companies can legally keep toxic chemicals a secret from you. We know, we think it’s ridiculous too—and we’re working on fixing that!
2. Fragrance Chemicals
In 2010, for the first time, the International Fragrance Association released a master list of more than 3,100 chemicals that are used by most manufacturers. Chemicals on that list include carcinogens like p-dichlorobenzene and styrene oxide; endocrine disruptors like galaxolide and tonalide; reproductive toxicants like phthalates; problematic disinfectants like triclosan and ammonium quaternary compounds; and numerous allergens.
A fragrance can be made up of more than 100 chemicals—and could include any of those harmful chemicals.
At Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), we were curious which of these chemicals might be hiding out in some brand-name air fresheners. So, in 2011, we independently tested some Glade products. Test results revealed synthetic musks and allergens. Test results also revealed the presence of phthalates, which the company had committed to phase out two years before. SC Johnson, the makers of Glade, claimed this was a contamination issue, but we have no confirmation that this issue has been resolved. We also tested Febreze and AirWick, which both came back positive for high levels of allergens.
Here’s the thing: The lab was only specifically testing for musks, phthalates, and allergens because we asked them to. Unfortunately, we don’t have the money to walk into a lab and say, “Tell us everything that’s in this fragrance.” (Sure, companies deconstruct other companies’ scents all the time, but we don’t have that kind of budget.) In essence, that means that any of the thousands of ingredients we know are commonly used in fragrance could also make up a Febreze, AirWick, or Glade scent.
3. Reproductive Toxins
Studies are increasingly showing that chemicals in fragrance are harming our health, particularly the health of women and children.
- One study of pregnant women showed a link between the use of air fresheners and aerosol sprays and an increase in headaches and depression in the mothers, as well as ear infections and diarrhea in their babies.
- Certain hormone-disrupting chemicals found in fragrance can have significant lifelong effects on reproductive health and development; this is true for galaxolide and tonalide (detected in human blood, breast milk, and even in newborns) and phthalates (linked to reproductive harm in baby boys).
- Women are two to three times more likely than men to suffer from fragrance allergies. We also become sensitized earlier than men, at ages 20 to 29, versus ages 50 to 59 in men.
- Girls have higher sensitization rates to fragrance allergens than boys and studies show increasing diagnoses of allergic contact dermatitis and excema in children.
- Research indicates that the more we use fragranced products, the higher the levels of fragrance chemicals in our bodies.
4. Unnecessary Exposure
Any step we can take to reduce our exposure to unknown toxic chemicals is a good step—and air fresheners represent an unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals. For example, we use air freshener because something in the room smells bad. If we can identify the smell and eliminate or prevent it, we don’t even need air freshener. Check out WVE’s tips for reducing odors around the home.
There are also lots of nontoxic ways to add a particular scent to your home without using synthetic chemicals. Setting out a bouquet of fresh or dried flowers can add a floral scent, and simmering herbs or spices on the stove can allow you to tailor the scent you want. You can use seasonal alternatives like pinecones, pine needles, or cinnamon, if you like.
5. Safety Issues
This one’s directed to those of us that want to enjoy fragrance without worrying about our health.
WVE is working to convince Glade to disclose the ingredients in the brand’s fragrances because we believe that we have a right to know what’s in the products we’re bringing into our homes, spraying in the air that we breathe, landing on the surfaces that we touch, and settling into the dust at our feet.
Women make almost 85 percent of consumer decisions, which is a huge amount of economic power to make change. Because we’re the ones keeping companies in business, they have a responsibility to listen to our concerns and act on them.
Join our Glade: Stop Keeping Toxic Secrets campaign to help us expose fragrance secrets, once and for all!
Cassidy Randall is the director of outreach and engagement for Women’s Voices for the Earth. She has an M.S. from the University of Montana in Environmental Studies, and a B.A. in American Literature from UCLA. She is the author of Fighting for the Dream: Voices from a New Generation of Maya Women. In her free time, Cassidy likes skiing snowy slopes, paddling fast rivers, and hiking through Montana’s wilderness.