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Most people have experienced or know someone who has experienced difficulty breathing, nausea or headaches from such things as cigarette smoke, diesel exhaust, pesticides, cleaning agents or hanging out in the laundry detergent isle for too long.

Even so, when it comes to those who report moderate to severe adverse health effects from chemicals used in everyday products such as perfumes or fragranced laundry and personal care products, friends and family often find themselves perplexed.

However, millions report living with various Environmental Illnesses (EI) such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), Toxic Injury, Chemical Injury and/or Toxic Encephalopathy. In addition, many people have reported worsening of their Allergies, Asthma and COPD, as well as others particularly at risk such as those battling illness, cancer, people with Autism, PTSD, expectant mothers and babies.

Some of the symptoms reported with such conditions as MCS range from mild to debilitating coughing, difficulty breathing, closing of the airways, sneezing, nausea, headaches, dizziness, weakness, numbness, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, pain, joint swelling, migraines, vertigo, fainting, behavioral and mood changes, depression, hormone dysfunctions, memory loss, cognitive dysfunctions, paralysis, seizures, swelling of the brain and more.

Surprisingly, issues with fragrances are not as rare and unusual as people may think. Research done in 2004, 2005 and 2009 by Stanley M.Caress and Anne C. Steinemann “… found that nearly 38% of Americans report adverse effects when exposed to some kind of fragranced product. For instance, approximately 20% of Americans report breathing difficulties, headaches, or other health problems when exposed to air fresheners and deodorizers, and more than 10% report adverse effects when exposed to laundry products vented outdoors. Percentages are nearly twice as high for asthmatics” (Steinemann). With approximately 310 million people in America in 2010, that is almost 117 million Americans realize they have adverse effects to normal, everyday products.

What’s more, it is suspected that many more may possibly live with these reactions, but do not make the connection between the fragrances and their symptoms. Therefore, it is hard to determine exactly how many more people are affected.

After all, in a 2010 study, of 25 common fragranced consumer products contained 133 different VOC’s (volatile organic compounds). Of those 133 VOC’s 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one law (2010 Study, Steinemann).

Just taking laundry products alone as an example, the University of Washington found that all but one of the chemicals found in these products are “regulated as toxic/hazardous chemical” under 1-7 laws. They are also listed as either a recognized or suspected carcinogen, as well as a neuro, immuno, kidney, liver, blood, developmental, respiratory, gastrointestinal, reproductive, endocrine, skin and/or sense organ toxicant (Steinemann, Laundry).

As a result, none of us can be entirely sure what kind of havoc these chemicals and others in our environment can wreak on our bodies, health, blood, organs, hormones, immune system and nervous systems.

When making modifications for people living with EI, keep in mind that everyone is different. Some reactions are more severe than others; some limitations from work, stores, public places and events are more constricting than others; and some can tolerate a certain product, but not another. For example, Charlie may notice he gets moderate headaches and nausea for several hours when he is around cigarette smoke, diesel fumes or heavy perfumes, while Sara may report debilitating migraines, pain and fatigue for several days or more from the above, as well as fragranced items such as laundry, soaps, shampoo and deodorants.

As we can imagine, people living with these conditions can experience minor to extreme limited access into public places, issues at work or inability to attend functions with friends and family. Regrettably, these barriers can lead to loneliness, isolation and feeling abandoned when loved ones choose not forgo the fragrances that cause these problems.

Therefore, if our loved one is telling us they are getting debilitating migraines, dizziness or fatigue from our laundry detergent, maybe we can consider simply switching it out so that they may remain a part of our lives.

See our Fragrance Tidbits Sheet for more information and statistics.

Let’s Choose Friendships Over Fragrances!

What Can We Do?

First Things First: Because not everyone living with Environmental Illness is the same, please ask your friend or family member for a list of things that they cannot tolerate, along with a list of products that can replace them if necessary.

We Can Go Fragrance-Free:

People can choose a fragrance-free lifestyle for their own health, as well as the ones they love by replacing such things as laundry detergents, soaps, shampoos, lotions and deodorants, as well as removing air fresheners from the home and not using chemical cleaners and lingering sprays, etc.

Or We Can Try Making Modifications:

    ■ Simple Omission of Products: There are several things we can do that do not require much effort, such as “going without” certain add-on personal products. For example, when visiting with a loved one, we can take care not to apply any perfume, cologne, fragranced hair spray, gels, facial and body lotions, shaving cream, after shave, sunscreen or deodorant. If a person is uncomfortable about going without deodorant, they can try baking soda or corn starch, a few “unscented” products in the stores or crystal mineral liquids from a health food store. Again, ask your friend or family member if there are any other products they cannot tolerate.

   ■ Replace Certain Items: Often it may be just a few things such as described above. Other times it may also include certain laundry detergents or deodorants. Sometimes it may include most or all fragranced products. If the person makes a visit to our homes, we may also need to consider the air fresheners, candles and cleaning products we use. Even if the situation is pretty inclusive, replacing laundry products and personal care items are a small price to pay to keep a friend or family member in our lives, as well as make positive choices for ourselves.

   ■ Keep a Fragrance-Free Kit: If for some reason friends and family do not want to change the problematic personal care products, they may be able to keep a “kit” of shampoo’s, soaps, etc. to use before visiting with their loved one. They may need to use these products just the day of the visit or several showers before, depending on the products they use, how difficult they are to get out and how severe their love’s condition is.

   ■ Shower and Dress: In some cases, a loved one may be able to offer their company the use of their shower with all the products to use, as well as a set of sweats or “scrubs” for them to wear. Of course, the visitors would have to need to be able to access the shower without contact with their loved one, ventilation for the fragrances left behind on the way to the shower and/or another room for visiting.

Beware of Lingering Fragrances: Here are a few examples of possible complications with severe conditions: 1) Many laundry products can be very difficult or virtually impossible to get out of clothing. They can also stay on the skin until it is showered off with fragrance-free soap or baking soda and water. Therefore, clothing may not be simply rinsed out prior to a visit. As a result, if loved one cannot tolerate a laundry product, this would be something that would have to be replaced. 2) Perfumes and air fresheners can remain in clothing, hair and on skin, so even if a person does not apply a perfume that day, the scent may still linger. 3) Fragrance from some hair products such as shampoos, gels or hair coloring conditioners can stay in the hair even after several washes.

In all, making changes may be anything from a simple switch of a couple of products to making additional sacrifices. Either way, in most cases there is a solution that is well worth the value of the relationship and importance of that person in our lives. Again, please ask your friend or family what their particular needs are and works for them.

The Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign is here to give support and understanding to those reporting these adverse health reactions, as well as make efforts to help loved ones learn how to better address and cope with these obstacles in order to restore relationships and end isolation from friends and family. However, we are not doctors nor scientists. We are not here to argue the definitions, causes or treatments for environmental conditions nor do we make claims as to cause and effect. None of our information is meant to be used as a diagnosis or health claim. Please seek the advice of a medical professional for advice and before starting or stopping any treatments.

Where to Find Products:

Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign Store – Find lots of wonderful fragrance-free, free and clear, perfume and dye free laundry detergents, shampoos, soaps, lotions, deodorants, cleaning products and more. You may also find some of the products in your local health food stores; some select stores may carry perfume and dye free laundry products.

List of Favorite Products from Our Readers

Posters Now Available

Choose Friendships Over Fragrances Video


(2010 Study, Steineman) Steinemann, Anne C., MacGregor, Ian C., Gordon, Sydney M., Gallagher, Lisa G., Davis, Amy L., Ribeiro, Daniel S., Wallace, Lance A. (2010). Fragranced consumer products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted. University of Washington, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Evans School of Public Affairs, WA. Environmental Impact Assessment Review. Elsevier. xxx (2010) xxx-xxx. EIR-056-86; No of Pages 6.

(Steinemann). Steinemann, Anne C. Exposure Assessment – FAQ. Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Public Affairs. Washington University.

(Steinemann, Laundry) Steinemann, Ann C. Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Affair, University of Washington. Toxic Chemicals in Fragranced Laundry Products and Health Effects. 2011.


Air Fresheners by Anne C. Steinemann, PhD

Asthma and chemical hypersensitivity: prevalence, etiology, and age on onset- Study by Anne C. Steinemann

Creating a Fragrance-Free Zone – A Friendlier Atmosphere for Those Living with Environmental Illness

Fragrance Tidbits Information Sheet

Laundry Products by Anne C. Steinemann

Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population – Study by Anne C. Steinemann

Radio Interview with Environmental Engineer and Researcher

Why Go Fragrance Free? Millions Report Adverse Reactions to Perfumes and Fragrances