Perfumes and scents: chemicals too!

Most of us use perfumes, scents, deodorants... but for those with allergies, asthma or multiple chemical sensitivity, the chemicals in these products can cause problems such as irritation or an allergic reaction. 

Scents are usually made from a mixture of natural and man-made chemicals. A typical fragrance can contain between 100 to 350 ingredients. The problem with scented products is not so much the smell itself as the chemicals that produce the smell. Scented products can contain several toxic chemicals that constantly turn into vapor in the air and attach themselves to hair, clothing, and surroundings. Research investigating what chemicals are released by laundry products, air fresheners, cleaners, lotions and other fragranced consumer products, has found that some of these chemicals are hazardous.  At least two - acetaldehyde and benzene - have been identified as carcinogenic.  Another commonly used chemical is diethyl phthalate, which is used to make scents last longer. It can cause allergic skin reactions (contact dermatitis) and is classified as a skin sensitizer and a reproductive toxin, and has an exposure standard in Australia. What complicates things is that manufacturers are not required to disclose the ingredients used in fragrances, or in laundry products.

Fragrances can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion or absorption through the skin. One of the first signs of irritation from - or an allergic reaction to - a fragrance can be a skin rash after using a perfume, cream or lotion. This is a clear warning sign that something is not right.

Scents can affect not only the person wearing the fragrance, but anyone who comes into contact with them. Depending on how sensitive they are, the sensitive person might experience symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headache, itchy skin, hives, itchy eyes and nose, runny nose, wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, sore throat, asthma or asthma-like symptoms, and strange tastes in the mouth.

This can be a very real and serious issue in a workplace: remember, the employer has a duty of care to provide and maintain for employees, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. One of the best ways to prevent such a reaction is to avoid exposure to fragrances. Obviously, this can be very difficult to achieve in a workplace, but introducing a workplace 'scent-free' policy should be considered when fragrance chemicals are suspected to be affecting someone's health.

The Canadian Lung Association and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) have suggestions for scent-free policies as an option for workplaces and public places.

In November 2015, Women's Voices for the Earth, a small US consumer advocacy group, presented its analysis of 3,000 fragrance ingredients (Unpacking the Fragrance Industry [pdf]). It reported that over 1,000 of these  ingredients also appear on official listings of worrisome chemicals. The United Nations, for instance, has more than one-third of the fragrance chemicals flagged with the word "warning" and explicitly labels 190 of them a "danger." The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization, lists seven of the ingredients as possible human carcinogens. Fifteen of the chemicals, Women's Voices noted, are banned from cosmetics in the European Union.  Read more: Is "Fragrance" Making Us Sick? Mother Jones;

What does the law say?

Neither the OHS Act nor the regulations specifically address this matter.  While there are regulations on hazardous substances, perfumes and scents are not classified as hazardous. Under Section 21 of the OHS Act, the employer has a duty to "provide and maintain for employees so far as reasonably practicable .... a working environment that is safe and without risk to health."  So, if there are employees who are suffering symptoms as a result of exposure to perfumes and scents, at the very least the issue must be considered by the employer.

There may be some practicable things that could be done at the workplace to minimise the effect of perfumes and scents on employees.

Some things that could be done in your workplace – to discuss at the OHS Committee

  • Encourage all employees to use scent-free products.
  • Purchase scent-free products for use in the workplace.
  • Identify the exact source of the problem, and reduce emissions from building materials, cleaning products and other sources of fragrances if possible.
  • Keep detergents and soaps in sealed containers or a cupboard with a door that completely closes. The room they are stored ideally should be ventilated directly to the outside, although this may not be practical. It is best just to use scent-free products.
  • Post a "Scent-free building" sign at your work as a reminder (the Canadian Lung Association has one available to download from its page Scents)

More information

(this is based from material from The Health and Safety Report from CCOHS)

Last amended February 2016

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