Fragranced Products and Children’s Health:  Is There a Connection?

By Trish Stansfield, M.Ed.

It has long been known that environmental pollutants can have adverse health effects.  Exposure to toxins such as mercury and lead can negatively impact children’s neurological development.  Brain development takes place during the gestational period and continues throughout childhood.  Anything that disrupts this delicate process can have devastating, long-term, and, sometimes, irreversible effects (Schettler, 2001). 

Many harmful contaminants, in the form of toxic chemicals are all around us in the environment, but exactly where can they be found?  You may be surprised to learn that some of these toxins can be hidden inside many of the fragranced products we use every day.  Growing research suggests that environmental toxins in the form of scented products and products listed with fragrance in their ingredients can interfere with normal neurological development, and, therefore, may contribute to learning disabilities.  When we use hair spray, perfumes, air fresheners, and other fragranced products, we are potentially releasing these toxins into the air we breathe.  According to the EPA, (cited in Wolff, 2006) neurological health issues including convulsions, migraines, confusion, memory loss, impaired concentration, and toxic brain dysfunction have been linked to fragrance exposure.  Additional symptoms unrelated to the neurological system can include respiratory problems, abdominal pain, and cardiovascular dysfunction.  All of these effects can harm, not only children, but adults as well (Wolff, 2006).

According to Stanley M. Caress, Ph.D and Anne C. Steinemann, Ph.D., in the March 2009 issue of Journal of Environmental Health, toxins found in some fragranced products may include chemicals such as mercury, limonene, ethanol, acetone, and benzyl acetate.  Some fragranced products that may contain harmful chemicals include, but are not limited to, detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, personal care products, scented candles, soaps, shampoos, and various cleaning products.  Just one fragrance may contain over one hundred chemicals (Hickey, 2010).

Several studies have been conducted on the harmful effects of chemicals found in fragranced products.  Research completed at the University of Washington revealed staggering results showing that over 20 products that are used by consumers on a regular basis emit 17 chemicals each.  The research also showed that, out of the many chemicals detected, one fourth of them were considered hazardous (Hickey, 2010).  Surveys conducted between the years 2002 and 2006 reveal that a large percentage of the American population have adverse reactions to fragranced products (Caress & Steinemann, 2009).

Right now, you may be wondering why these products are available to the general public if they are not considered safe.  The reason for this is because, currently, there is no government regulation requiring manufacturers to list ingredients in fragranced products.  If any testing is done on these products at all, manufacturers do not have to share their data with the FDA (Franz & Prall, 2000).  Henceforth, consumers are not privy to this information.  Law makers did introduce a bill to Congress entitled The Household Product Labeling Act of 2009 which would require manufacturers to provide a list of all ingredients in their products, but the bill has never been enacted. 

Until such time as lawmakers require manufacturers to label their products with all of the ingredients they contain, what can we do to keep ourselves and our children safe?  The following is a list of suggested guidelines to follow when considering the use of scented products:

  • Beware of scented candles or slow-burning candles with additives
  • Candles with wire wicks can release lead into the air
  • Consider using candles made with pure beeswax – they emit less pollution
  • Scented dryer sheets may contain chemicals such as chloroform and benzyl acetate – both are known carcinogens
  • Instead of air fresheners, use herbs and spices, an open box of baking soda, or wooden sticks dipped in natural oils
  • Use fragranced products sparingly in a well- ventilated area and away from children
  • Don’t rely on fragrance-free products – they may still contain a fragrance that is used to cover up any detectable scent
  • Schools, daycares, and other places frequented by children should strongly encourage a “scent-free” environment


Carress, S. M., & Steinemann, A. C.  (2009). Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population.  Journal of Environmental Health , 71 (7). 

Downey, C. (2005). Sweet smelling danger?  [online].  Available:

Eisenberg, S. (2010). Scented products: Intoxicating and toxic.  In This Green Life ,  Natural Resources Defense Council. [online].  Available:

Franz, D., & Prall, H.  (2000).  Smelling good but feeling bad.  E: The Environmental Magazine, 11 (1). 40

Hickey, H.  University of Washington. (2010).Scented consumer products shown to emit many unlisted chemicals  [Press release]. Retrieved from

Household chemicals – use with care. (2009, August).   Consumer Reports on Health. 21 (8).  7

Kendall, J. (2002). The health crisis of twenty most common chemicals found in thirty-one fragrance products.  In   Health and Environment Resource Center   [online].  Available:

Schettler, T.  (2001).  Toxic threats to neurologic development of children.  Environmental Health Perspectives Supplements ,  109 (6).  813

Wolff, P.  (2006).  Campaign for fragrance- free health care in the U. S.  Massachusetts Nurse, 77 (3). 10-11.