Photo: Are fragrances leaving you breathless?

Performing the sniff test on soap for sale at Salt Spring Island's Farmers Market (Credit: Nina Legac)

Scent and I don't get along as well as we used to. But there was a time, not long ago when I shopped for products based solely on smell. I shopped with my nose. The more coconut, mango and vanilla aromas in a shampoo or lotion, the better.

My fragrance addiction wasn't limited to my morning primping routine either. I had an army of air fresheners going 24/7. Turns out masking the fumes from my cigarette-smoking neighbour had me bathing in chemicals like formaldehyde (a carcinogen), naphthalene (a suspected carcinogen) and xylene (a neurotoxin). How was I to know those toxins were undercover, camouflaged as 'ocean breeze' and 'forest fresh'?

I was being led around by my nose. Now I know better. Fragrance is a combination of hundreds of chemicals, most derived from petroleum or by chemical synthesis. And it won't matter how good you are at reading labels, because the precise ingredients that go into "fragrance" are kept a secret.

You might feel better knowing that Health Canada systematically tested fragrance ingredients for safety in your personal care products. But they don't.

On the other hand, Environmental Defence and the Environmental Working Group tested perfumes, colognes and body sprays in their new report Not so sexy: the health risks of secret chemicals in fragrance. They found most brands had on average 10 sensitizing chemicals. It's these sensitizers that can trigger allergies and asthma, and cause headaches, wheezing and contact dermatitis — better known as a rash.

Lucky for me, I now live and work in scent-free spaces. I no longer shop with my nose. You, too, can walk away from synthetic fragrances by taking a few simple steps:

  • Avoid personal care products with "fragrance" or "parfum" on the label. They're widely used and often appear as the last ingredient.
  • Find "fragrance-free" or "perfume-free" products and don't be fooled by those labeled as "unscented" because they often contain fragrance.
  • Scent-free offices are a new way to do business. Have your office to adopt a scent-free policy. Check out the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
  • Grab a product you own with "fragrance," "perfume" or "musk" then ask the company to use non-toxic ingredients and fully disclose all ingredients.

Have you already taken steps to avoid harmful ingredients in your personal care products? Shocked by what you found when you took our survey? I'd love to hear more about your tips to avoid fragrance.

Lindsay Coulter, Queen of Green

May 26, 2010

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Apr 17, 2014
9:09 AM

It’s awful to walk by people’s houses and be able to smell their laundry detergent from across the street! Strong smells hurt/tickle my nose. I don’t understand why everything must be scented. Your clothing, then perfume, shampoo, deodorant, lotion. It seems inhuman to completely mask your natural pheromones and smell. It’s pretty weird if you think about it. I would much prefer a mans smell over ax any day.

Mar 21, 2011
7:20 PM

Laundry products have become ten times stronger in scent!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Dec 13, 2010
8:59 AM

Hello Julie, You had a question long ago about soap nuts. I wanted to let you know I used it for my weekly column in the Metro News. Here’s your answer:—cut-your-laundry-costs-with-soap-nuts

Lindsay Coulter, David Suzuki’s Queen of Green

Jun 15, 2010
2:53 PM

I have a huge sensitivity to perfume and fragrances. I’ve cut it completely out of my household, but unfortunately, most people don’t follow the ‘scent-free’ rules of some of the public buildings, or transportation. I went to a comedy show at the NAC in Ottawa and had to leave due to the amount of perfume people were wearing- the air was so thick with it, I went into a horrible coughing fit and couldn’t breathe, and broke out in rashes.

We do not need fragrances — there are natural alternatives. At home if I want to freshen the house with scent I put a pot of water on the stove w/ orange peel and a cinnamon stick and let that boil until it steams and then turn it off. For my cats litter, it’s all natural clay, and I put baking soda in it to help with any smell (i clean it frequently, so there is no smell).

And if one can not give up fragrance, please just mist and walk through, and not soak in it. Some people get used to the fragrance they wear and do not realize that over time, they have to keep spraying more and more in order to smell it. That certainly is not good for your health!

Jun 11, 2010
2:53 PM

Hey Lindsay!

What’s the deal with soap nuts? I love that I can avoid plastic packaging by using them, but what are they actually made of? Are they natural and biodegradable? Or are they just condensed detergent?

Thanks! You Rock :D


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