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Fragrances. Why They Really Stink.

By Lawrence Smith
November 12, 2018


What does clean smell like?

Well, today it could smell like lemon or pine or apple blossom or … almost anything. But what should clean smell like?

Perhaps some of you remember the days when towels were hung outside on a clothesline to dry in the fresh air. That’s what clean should smell like. Towels fresh off the clothesline. Of course, they didn’t really have a “fragrance” at all.  They just smelled, well, clean.

But today, “clean” generally has a fragrance, and it’s often a strong one. And that is not a good thing.


Why? Take a look at a University of Melbourne study that found the following:

  • Over one-third of Americans report health problems like asthma attacks and migraines when exposed to fragranced products, including cleaning supplies.
  • More than 20% of respondents will walk out of a business if they smell fragranced products. That’s called lost profits.
  • When it comes to the air in hotels and airplanes, over half of those surveyed don’t want to be breathing a fragrance.
  • Over 15% lost workdays or a job because of exposure to fragrances, and over 50% would prefer fragrance-free workplaces.


With our younger generations being schooled in the dangers of toxic chemicals, and more and more people dealing with chemical sensitivities, I can guarantee those percentages will go up. Even at current numbers, Melbourne researcher Anne Steinemann calls this “a huge problem.” Even “an epidemic.”


The problem is that one word — “fragrance” — a catchall term that hides a veritable chemical cocktail of dozens if not hundreds of potentially toxic ingredients. There are over 3,000 to choose from, most of which have never been tested for safety.  Even an individual chemical that has been deemed “safe” can turn deadly in combination with other chemicals. For example, terpenes, natural components of pine and citrus oil cleaners, can react with trace amounts of ozone to form formaldehyde, an asthmagen and known human carcinogen.




Just what are these toxic ingredients? And how do they harm us? Unfortunately, you won’t find that information on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), as manufacturers can get by with simply listing the word “fragrance.”  And, of course, words like “natural,” “safe,” even “fragrance-free” have no legal or regulatory meaning at all.  But here’s a quick primer on just four categories of potential ingredients:

  • Petroleum derivatives, or petrochemicals, make up 95% of the chemicals used in fragrances. They have been linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. Long-term exposure (think janitorial staff) may affect blood and kidneys.
  • Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are a subcategory of petrochemicals and are emitted as gases that can contaminate the air for up to 20 minutes after use. They can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headache, and damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system. Some are “suspected or known” to cause cancer in humans.
  • Phthalates are classified as hormone disruptors, i.e. they interfere with the production, release and delivery of hormones. The resulting chaos can cause infertility, low sperm counts and birth defects. Phthalates have also been linked to allergies, asthma, breast and liver cancer, diabetes and obesity, and to childhood neurodevelopmental disorders (see below).
  • Quaternary Ammonium compounds, or “QUATS,” are widely used ingredients in antibacterial cleaners. As such, they help to breed antibiotic resistant bacteria, which are now considered “a global threat” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). QUATS are also skin irritants, and, if used long term, may cause otherwise healthy people to develop asthma.


So who is at risk? The simple (and honest) answer to that question would be – all of us. But there are those among us who are especially vulnerable. Those with weakened or compromised immune systems – e.g., the elderly and those with autoimmune diseases, asthma, allergies or chemical sensitivities – are particularly susceptible to the kinds of toxins found in abundance in fragrances. As are children. According to Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, exposure in utero and during the first few years of life to even low levels of phthalates – just one class of toxins found in fragrances — can lead to autism, ADHD and neurological disorders.

The solution, of course, is to reduce the amount of fragrances in our cleaning and disinfecting products. Or can we possibly eliminate them altogether?  Absolutely. For example, On Site Generation, or OSG – a technology called a “game changer for sustainability” by U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce CEO, Michelle Thatcher — produces cleaners, sanitizers and disinfectants that have no petrochemicals, no VOCs, no phthalates, and no QUATS. In fact, no toxic ingredients at all. And no fragrance. Clean never smelled so good.


Lawrence Smith is the Director of GenEon Technologies and a consultant to the ECA industry. He may be reached at or at 978.985.1116.