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Spring and Chemicals Are in the Air

The fragrances of household cleaning products could be polluting your home

Generic Household Products

James Worrell/Getty Images

Cleaning products can make your home smell nice and fresh, but the chemicals that make those scents could be irritating to your health.

Household and cleaning products are in an arms race to bring the wonderful smells of the outdoors into your home. Your floors can smell like pine, your laundry like a summer rainstorm. Even trash bags can smell like a field of lavender or a spring breeze.

But those smells could be coming at a cost to your health, especially for the young, elderly, chronically ill or those already suffering from asthma and other respiratory issues.

According to a new study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), 98 percent of 1,136 adults polled said they are exposed to fragranced products once a week from their own use. Nearly 35 percent said they suffer from some sort of health effect from those products, ranging from headaches to asthma attacks to skin rashes.

The University of Melbourne’s Anne Steinemann, who wrote the NCBI study, told the Washington Post that most people don’t realize they are being affected by fragranced products until it’s too late.

“All fragranced products I tested,” she said, “emitted chemicals classified as hazardous air pollutants.”

The problem has gotten so bad, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has created an indoor air quality guide with a section that breaks down what to do when you are working with certain household products indoors.

The guide says air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Other research shows that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors — so for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.

Cleaning and household products aren’t the sole reason for the problem, but they are part of the problem, and may become a bigger part.

Labels can add to the confusion. Although “unscented” and “fragrance free” sound the same, they mean two different things. According to the EPA, “unscented” means the product may contain chemicals that neutralize or mask odors of other ingredients. “Fragrance free” means the product contains no masking materials or scents. The agency's website includes a page showing which products meet its Safer Choice standard, so if certain smells bother you, you can tell which products the EPA designates as “fragrance free.”

Labels also can be incomplete. The Post notes that, except in California and New York, cleaning products are not required to carry ingredient lists — though some manufacturers, such as SC Johnson and Clorox, are starting to list ingredients on product labels voluntarily.

But be careful if the word “fragrance” or “perfume” appears on a list of ingredients. That’s letting you know that chemicals are added to create that “lemon-fresh” smell.

So does all of this mean you need to sacrifice your health for a clean house? Not at all, but if you really want your house to smell like a spring breeze — without the headache that can go with it — just open a window.