Fragrance Chemicals

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The Problem

To many people, the word "fragrance" means something that smells nice, such as perfume. We don't often stop to think that scents are chemicals. Fragrance chemicals are organic compounds that volatilize, or vaporize into the air, which is why we can smell them. They are added to products to give them a scent or to mask the odor of other ingredients. The volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) emitted by fragrance products can contribute to poor indoor air quality (IAQ) and are associated with a variety of adverse health effects.

Exposure to fragrance chemicals can cause headaches; eye, nose, and throat irritation; nausea; forgetfulness; loss of coordination; and other respiratory and/or neurotoxic symptoms. Many fragrance ingredients are respiratory irritants and sensitizers, which can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate sinus conditions.

Fragrance chemicals are the number one cause of allergic reactions to cosmetics — not only to the primary users, but also to those who breathe in the chemicals as secondhand users. Phthalates in fragrances are known to disrupt hormones and are linked in animal studies to malformations of the penis, as well as adverse effects on the developing testes.

Fragrances in Health Care

In health care facilities, fragrance can come from a number of sources:

  • scented cleaning products
  • fragrance-emitting devices and sprays
  • workers, patients, and visitors who are wearing perfume, cologne, or aftershave
  • scented cosmetics, skin lotions, or hair products
  • clothes that have been laundered with scented detergents, fabric softeners, or dryer sheets.

Indoor air quality can be greatly improved in health care facilities by adopting a hospital-wide fragrance-free policy that includes a fragrance-free policy for employees, maintenance products, and non-employee hospital occupants.

Hospitals can also choose personal care products and cleaners that are free of chemical fragrances. For information about choosing safer personal care products, see (advanced search option enables you to search for products without fragrance).

For more information about safer cleaning products, see the Women's Voices for the Earth Safe Cleaning Products Initiative