Clean sheets dried in the sun bring all the freshness of the northwest wind billowing into one’s pillowcase.

Unfortunately, that’s not what most people breathe in as they slide between freshly washed sheets. Laundry done with most detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets is laden with “fragrance” – a catch-all term for some combination of roughly 3,000 chemicals that manufacturers use. Most of these are synthetic semi-volatile or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that vaporize readily and persist in the air.

“Fragrance” or “parfum” is also in most of what we slather on our bodies: soaps, shampoos, deodorants, lotions, sanitizers, sunscreens, bath products and baby wipes. The number and intensity of fragrances used has mushroomed in recent decades, making chronic exposure to them a significant concern.

Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, authors of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” describe us as “marinated in chemicals” – an ironic embodiment of that dated Palmolive dish detergent commercial in which Madge the manicurist tells her surprised client “you’re soaking in it!”

Manufacturers assure us these ingredients are harmless, but a look at the Safety Data Sheet (SDS) for many fragrance chemicals does not make one rest easy. Take benzaldehyde, which adds a scent of almonds to cleaning and personal care products. The SDS cautions that “inhalation of high concentrations may cause central nervous system effects characterized by nausea, headache, dizziness, unconsciousness and coma. May cause respiratory tract irritation. May cause narcotic effects in high concentration.”

We may not be breathing in high concentrations, but we’re certainly getting chronic, long-term exposure – the health effects of which are only beginning to be understood. A 2011 study by University of Washington professor Anne Steinemann found 25 VOCs emitted from a dryer vent after a top-selling detergent and dryer sheet were used. Seven of those are listed as hazardous air pollutants, and two – acetaldehyde and benzene – are known carcinogens.


Round-the-clock immersion in chemical fragrances aggravates asthma, allergies and multiple chemical sensitivities – all of which are on the rise. VOCs gain ready access to the brain and bloodstream through nasal passages, producing respiratory and neurological responses ranging from coughing, wheezing and migraines to seizures and learning disabilities.

Children are particularly vulnerable to this exposure. Many of the chemicals accumulate in fatty tissues, adding to the “body burden” of toxics that each of us now carries.

Some chemicals used in “fragrance” are phthalates (pronounced THAL-ates), which can interfere with hormone function. Prenatal exposure is linked to birth defects in male reproductive organs, and childhood exposure is linked both to behavioral and cognitive deficits and to asthma and allergies.

A March 2014 biomonitoring survey involving 25 Maine residents found every participant was exposed to 5 of the 7 phthalates tested, and eight participants were in the top 5 percent of phthalate exposure nationally. In a National Biomonitoring Program that tested more than 5,000 individuals, researchers with the U.S. Center for Disease Control found widespread phthalate exposure, with children exposed more than adults and adult women more than adult men (for phthalates commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products).

Citizens recently petitioned the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to elevate four of seven phthalates already on the state’s “chemicals of high concern” list to “priority chemical” status, making these ingredients subject to disclosure requirements and possible use restrictions. The DEP is taking pubic comment on this proposed rule until Sept. 29.

Regulatory action is needed because caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) breaks down when trade secrets keep government and consumers from knowing what chemical cocktails are packed into products. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require complete labeling of fragrance chemicals, safety testing of fragrance ingredients or reporting of adverse reactions.


According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), the fragrance industry has published safety assessments for only 34 percent of the unlabeled ingredients it uses (and most such studies test acute skin exposure, not long-term, systemic effects). The FDA has banned or restricted only 11 chemicals for “cosmetic” use to date – in sharp contrast to the 1,100 chemicals banned or restricted by the European Union.

Choosing “unscented” and “fragrance-free” products may reduce exposure to untested chemicals, but these labels have no legal or regulatory meaning, so manufacturers can still add “masking” fragrances. That must be how I ended up recently with a “fragrance-free” shampoo that smelled like hickory-smoked jerky! Even plant-based ingredients and essential oils can be irritating and potentially damaging.

Don’t assume that a product is safe or healthy simply because it’s marketed as a “natural” or “biodegradable” product.

In the words of the Environmental Working Group, we “can’t shop our way out of this problem.” Government needs to require that manufacturers disclose all of their ingredients all of the time. If the ingredients in “fragrance” are truly as safe as the manufacturers claim, they should have nothing to hide.


 Reduce exposure to untested ingredients through careful label-reading and research. Use the EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning ( and the Skin Deep database at to look up products and ingredients.

 Avoid buying fragranced products you can live without – like air “fresheners,” scented candles, perfumes/colognes and fabric softener (which is designed to remain in clothing). Avoid the need for dryer sheets by air-drying synthetics or using wool dryer balls.

 Contact the Maine Department of Environmental Protection ([email protected]) by Sept. 29 to weigh in on the proposed rule to designate four phthalates “priority chemicals.”

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