The Sweet Smell of Danger

All scents, perfumes and fragrances contain aroma chemicals. This is what makes them smell nice. Some are natural, some are manufactured as nature-identical and some are created in the lab. However, for many people, the concentrations in which they are used cause fragrance allergies which range in effect from mildly blocked sinuses to a full on anaphylactic reaction. 

By law, all cosmetics have to declare them on the label so that people who are allergic to fragrance chemicals can choose to avoid them. There is one huge exception though – there is, shockingly, no law requiring a declaration of ingredients on air fresheners, especially air fresheners in public toilets where people often have no choice about exposing themselves to these allergens. 

Look on the bottom of any perfumed cosmetic and right at the end you’ll see their names: limonene, linalool, citral, geraniol, eugenol and more. These are often naturally occurring in volatile, essential oils found in the scent of flowers like geranium or in the peel of citrus fruits like lemons. They are not in themselves intrinsically harmful and even often used as food flavourings. However, when they are extracted as single compounds and then used a concentrations higher than found in nature, in enclosed spaces, then the problems start. Limonene, for example, like many other chemicals isn’t passively inert. When it’s in the air it reacts with the ozone. Two molecules of limonene reacting in ozone will produce one molecule of formaldehyde. This is where it starts to get worrying. Put an air freshener into a small unventilated space like a public loo, or a house with no windows open, and the levels of formaldehyde start to build up. 
Formaldehyde is a chemical that was originally used as a preservative to preserve a range of things from jar specimens of dead animal parts in museums to preventing the growth of bacteria in baby bubble bath and other cosmetics. It’s also a by-product of cigarette smoking, gas stoves and often found in furniture and soft furnishing treatments. However, it’s been linked with cancer since the 1980s and joined the list of known human carcinogens in 2011.  

So why are the levels in a home that uses air fresheners? The team on Trust Me, I’m a Doctor tested some homes with Professor Alastair Lewis from York University’s Centre for Atmospheric Science. They monitored six houses and found high levels of fragrance chemicals with limonene consistently being the highest one recorded. And in the homes where limonene was the highest, so were the levels of formaldehyde too. 
There is published research to show there are other issues with air fresheners. They are linked with harm to unborn babies, the onset of asthma in children, respiratory distress in the elderly and even heart attacks in vulnerable individuals. 

Air pollution is often just considered an outdoor problem. But consider this – as you’re sitting in traffic with the windows closed to keep out harmful diesel fumes, the air freshener tree, smiley or dispenser in your car is silently pumping up the concentration of formaldehyde. 
When new schools are built, hermetically sealed to keep out the air pollution from traffic, the school board then contract with PHS or another cleaning company to create air pollution in the one place that no one can ever avoid going – the loo! 
The last time I was forced to use a public toilet was after I’d gone through security at Gatwick Airport. The flight was delayed, I couldn’t go back through security, there was literally no choice. The levels of fragrance from two PHS pumps spewing chemicals into a tiny toilet caused an instant reaction in me and also caused two other women (who didn’t have a fragrance allergy) to choke and cover their faces too. Two tiny little girls stood at the wash basins too. 

I am campaigning for an easy solution. Just make it compulsory that all disabled access loos are also made fragrance-free. 

When will our indoor air be regulated too?

For the BBC article “Is there a danger from scented products?” click here. 

For the UK Government’s air pollution strategy click here.


  1. john smith

    For many hundreds of years, potentially unhygienic public spaces were scented by strewing pine sawdust on the floor; when regularly swept up, this also removed spit, urine, dog-ends, spilt beer and blood.

    Nowadays, the only public place where you are likely to see sawdust on the floor is in some butcher’s shops. Butchers know a lot about hygiene.

    How the world became so convinced that indoor air is not fit to breathe until it is saturated with chemical pollutants is a mystery to file alongside the perplexing modern perception that concentrated bleach is not poisonous to humans.

  2. I’ve always wondered why some believe they must perfume everything, everywhere. What’s wrong with just “clean”, the result of regular soap and water. Society at large has become so germophobic that indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air. Thanks for sharing your perspective and information. I wish you all the best in your efforts to change the loos!

    • Thank you. Sadly it mainly falls on deaf ears. I’m wondering if I’d get anywhere crowdfunding to get more information out to people and make people aware of this issue.

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