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Health Risks of Chemically Scented Products for Pets and People Revised May 2022

Just one of the articles from Pet Care Pro Quarterly, IBPSA’s digital magazine for pet care services professionals.

“Scented laundry products release carcinogens, study finds”

That was the headline from CBS News in 2011. According to the news report, a study suggests scented laundry items contain carcinogens that waft through vents, potentially raising cancer risk. The study, published in the August 2011 issue of Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, indicates the presence of more than 25 “volatile” air pollutants, including carcinogens acetaldehyde and benzene, resulting from the use of scented laundry detergent and scented dryer sheets. According to the American Cancer Society, “benzene is known to cause cancer, based on evidence from studies in both people and lab animals. The link between benzene and cancer has largely focused on leukemia and other cancers of blood cells.” Acetaldehyde has been shown to cause nasal and throat cancer in animal studies. In the <shrug> “everything causes cancer” camp? The Environmental Protection Agency also notes that “the primary acute effect of inhalation exposure to acetaldehyde is irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract in humans.”

In a December 2017 article authored by Dr. Karen Becker ― the not so subtly titled, “Favorite Household Products You Should Pitch in the Trash Today”― the famous vet reports that “(a) whopping 75 percent of U.S. households these days use a variety of products to scent the air in their homes, including air freshener sprays, upholstery sprays, plug-ins, gels, candles and incense.” These scented products, she says, “produce dangerous indoor pollutants that dramatically affect our pets. Over the past decade, scientific research has shown that many household air fresheners contain chemicals that may be harmful.” As Dr. Becker notes, “most of the effects of these products aren’t immediately obvious and may not even manifest as respiratory issues. Some people say, ‘If I was having a problem, my pets or I would have watery eyes. We’d be coughing or wheezing.’ But that’s not always the case.”

In the 2013 documentary, “Unacceptable Levels”, the filmmakers explore the level of chemicals found in our bodies, and the possible long-term health effects due to products we’re exposed to daily, such as air fresheners and candles and laundry products. The 2015 documentary, “Stink”, addresses the potential health repercussions of products with synthetic “fragrance” in them and tackles lack of regulation of, and concerning practices by, the chemical industry to infuse everyday items – even children’s pajamas – with a chemical scent. Released that same year, “The Human Experiment”, a documentary produced by Sean Penn, also explores the health impacts of chemical fragrance, along with other untested chemicals, found in everyday products. “The Sensitives”, a documentary released in 2017, explores the life-altering impact on those whose health is profoundly affected by these everyday chemicals.

Also last year, award-winning Australian novelist, Kate Grenville, released the non-fiction book, “The Case Against Fragrance”.  Grenville describes her motivation for writing the book thanks to her life being “increasingly blighted by the scents that are all around us these days. They’re in perfumes and colognes, they’re in shampoos and cleaning products and they’re in air fresheners and room fragrances. All those things give me headaches that can make ordinary pleasures like going shopping, sitting in a cafe or seeing a movie no fun at all. I wanted to find out why.”

What is a scented product?

One can enjoy the scent of a freshly sliced orange, just cut grass, a baking cookie, or a drop of peppermint essential oil. But those scents are not the problem here. This is about chemical or synthetic scent. Pick up a bottle of pet shampoo – or your shampoo – and turn it over. Look at the ingredients. Does it list “fragrance” or “parfum”? What about your laundry detergent? Your hand lotion? Your window cleaner? Your cat litter? As Kate Grenville notes in describing her book, while once upon a time fragrances and perfumes were simply made from flowers, that is no longer the case:

“Some of those chemicals are the same as naturally-occurring ones, but they’re used in very un-natural concentrations. Others are modern inventions – molecules that chemists have devised and patented, producing substances that humans have never been exposed to before. Some of them can be linked not just to headaches, asthma and allergies, but to cancer and hormone disruption.”

In “Essential Oils: The Essential Knowledge for Pet Care Providers”, from the Q4 2017 issue of Pet Care Pro Quarterly, the distinction between therapeutic grade essential oils and “fragrance” is addressed:

“It’s also very important to recognize that the fragrance you smell from essential oils is not the same as the ‘fragrance’ you see listed on the back of many personal and cleaning products. A certified therapeutic grade lavender oil is not the same as, say, lavender-scented room freshener. ‘Fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ as listed on products such as shampoos, soaps, lotions, detergents, dryer sheets, and all manner of cleaning supplies are synthetic, often petrochemical based. That single word – ‘fragrance’ – can represent thousands of different chemicals that have been combined to create a synthetic replica of a natural smell. The FDA’s ‘fragrance loophole’ in the United States exempts companies from listing all of the chemicals that go into their ‘fragrance’. The exemption was originally created in 1966 to help big perfume companies protect their proprietary formulas from the competition but, now, is used to conceal thousands of chemicals in everyday products.“

To get an idea of the pervasiveness of scented products, take a look at every personal, pet, and cleaning product you use. Read the list of ingredients. See “fragrance” or “parfum”? Now, consider that you’re wearing the clothes you washed in scented laundry detergent, and perhaps also bounced in the dyer with a scented laundry sheet, washed and conditioned your hair with scented shampoo and conditioner, rolled on some scented deodorant, soothed your chapped hands with some scented lotion, and maybe even spritzed yourself with some perfume to cover any potential “dog smell” acquired during the course of your work day. And, because many of these scented products contain chemicals designed to help the smell last an extended period of time, that scent stew you created follows you wherever you go. Indeed, the never-ending scent is even considered a selling point: “Welcome to the world of Unstopables, where you can find the fragrances you crave with a fresh too feisty to quit.” Remember Pigpen of “Peanuts” fame? Now, just imagine that his trademark cloud of dust is the potent scented mix you created from every product you’ve just used. Following you around. All day long.

Do you use air fresheners, scented candles, or plug-ins at home or work? For those who are immediately impacted by scent – headaches, respiratory issues – your fragrance fiesta is their second-hand smoke. And for pets? Scented products create “dangerous indoor pollutants that dramatically affect our pets,” Dr. Becker advises. She continues:

“Studies show that children can have as much as 30 times greater exposure to indoor pollutants than adults due to their smaller size and greater activity level. Now, consider these facts:

  • Most pets are even smaller than kids
  • They tend to spend a lot of time near the floor where all indoor air pollutants eventually wind up
  • They groom themselves and each other, which means they’re ingesting the pollutant particles that have accumulated on their fur and in the environment
  • Many pets spend up to 100 percent of their time indoors, and are living with very high levels of airborne toxins

These factors combine to put pets at the highest risk of anyone in the household for health conditions related to indoor air pollution.”

In “No Scents Is Good Sense” on, author Sara Jackson reports:

“Most scented commercial household products contain chemicals that can have a detrimental effect on the physical health of your human family, and especially your animal companions, who are much more sensitive than we are. Some of these chemicals have the potential to cause cancer and brain damage in humans, so it’s reasonable to assume they’re also harmful to dogs and cats…A study conducted by the Environmental Working Group tested 43 common chemicals found in household products, including scented ones, and discovered that dogs have higher levels of these substances in their bodies than humans do. How is this possible, when many of these products don’t seem to come into direct contact with your animal? Veterinarian Dr. Gloria Dodd says there are two main ways animals come into contact with fragrance chemicals – by inhaling the fumes or rubbing against your clothes or skin…Take fabric softeners, for instance. The chemicals that leave your clothes feeling so soft and fresh-smelling are released into the air and also stay in your clothes for a long time. So your companion may either inhale the fumes or absorb them through his skin when he snuggles up for a belly rub or a scratch behind the ears.”

Studies. Reports. Documentaries. Books. All on the subject of the adverse health effects of scented products, but if they’re so bad why are they everywhere? Why are synthetic scents even allowed in products we purchase?

Why education matters and controlling what you can

Putting aside the glaring example of cigarettes still being readily available for purchase, even if they’re behind the cash register, consider the example of lead-based paint. In her article for Legal Planet, “The Flint Lead Crisis: Three Interesting Notes About Lead Regulation and Exposure”, attorney and author Virginia Zaunbrecher notes the following:

“Childhood lead poisoning was linked to lead paints in 1904. France, Belgium and Austria banned white-lead paint in 1909. The National Lead Company admitted lead was a poison in 1921. The League of Nations banned white-lead interior paint in 1922 (you know an environmental regulation is old if it was issued by the League of Nations), but the U.S. declined to implement the ban. Instead, the U.S. waited nearly half a century (1971) to pass the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act (42 U.S.C. 4822), although some local jurisdictions started banning it as early as the 1950s. The ban on lead paint was fully implemented in the U.S. 1978, 74 years after childhood lead poisoning was linked to lead paints.”

If you read Zaunbrecher’s article online, you’ll see an accompanying scanned image of a vintage ad detailing all of the ways “Lead helps to guard your health” run by the National Lead Company. Just like the lead industry then, the chemical industry today has an obvious financial incentive to keep us convinced that the only way for our homes, our businesses, ourselves, and our pets to not “smell bad” is with scented products widely available on store shelves everywhere.

As with all things, getting educated and staying educated is key. If you didn’t know about the adverse effects of chemically scented products, now you do. What you do with this knowledge to protect your health, your staff’s health, and the health of the pets in your care is up to you. Can you operate a pet care business without the use of synthetically scented products and not have people running for the hills when they open the door and get a whiff of the place? Yes. As the public becomes more educated about the health risks, being a “fragrance-free” facility can be smart marketing angle to appeal to health-conscious pet “parents”, and it has the potential to create a more favorable workplace. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been following a fragrance-free policy since 2009, covering its more than 15,000 employees nationwide. The American Lung Association offers a free sample “Fragrance-Free Workplace Policy”.

Because synthetic scents are pervasive it might feel overwhelming and out of your control, but simply controlling what you can is the place to start. There are safe alternatives to those favorite products Dr. Becker advises should be “pitched in the trash” and, as you reduce your scent pollution, you can even end up saving money by reducing the number of products you use, not to mention avoiding time and thinking power lost to a “perfume headache” or other health issues.

Information is readily available – and growing – on how to eliminate potentially toxic scented products. The Enviromental Working Group, is an online resource for living “chemical free” to improve the health of people and pets.

Here are some simple steps to get you started:

  • Immediately eliminate synthetically scented plug-ins, air fresheners, room sprays, and candles.
  • Stop using dryer sheets and fabric softener and switch to “free and clear” dye and perfume-free laundry products. Note: When towels feel “slippery” and don’t absorb, it’s thanks to the chemical residue left behind by dryer sheets and fabric softeners.
  • Use fragrance-free shampoo (and conditioner) for you and the pets.
  • Switch to fragrance-free cleaning products. Note: If you have cleaning concerns beyond just “window spray”, safe, non-toxic, sanitizing options for killing germs and bacteria are available, such as Wysiwash and UV technology.
  • Use natural cat litter. Note: Fragranced cat litter is often the reason for a cat’s refusal to use a litterbox – the scent is simply too overwhelming.