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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

and Using Fragrance-Free Products

Chemical Sensitivities – when people have adverse physical reactions to low levels of everyday chemicals – are actually quite common in America today.  It is estimated that 20 – 30% of the population has a reaction to one or more synthetic chemicals.  These people often look perfectly healthy, so this makes it harder to understand or believe, but chemical sensitivities are quite real.  Common symptoms include headaches, nausea, sinus inflammation, throat swelling & respiratory distress, swelling & pain in joints, blurred vision, dizziness, irritability, memory loss, brain fog and more.  Chemical sensitivities as well as environmentally-related illnesses like cancer and auto-immune disorders have been increasing greatly along with the rise in chemicals used since WWII.  Most of these chemicals are petroleum-based, and although it may be hard to believe that the government would allow it, are quite toxic to humans. These include chemicals found in fragrances, cleaning products, laundry detergents, pesticides and more.  Very few studies are ever done on these chemicals before they are used in these various household products.


Did you know that many of the ingredients in perfumes and fragrances are the same as some of the ingredients found in gasoline?  Scents used to be made from flowers and plants, but today’s fragrances are largely made up of petrochemicals.  These fragrances are found not just in perfumes, but also in scented products like laundry detergents, dryer sheets, air “fresheners,” pot-pourris, after-shaves, cosmetics, shampoos, lotions and other personal care products.

Products that you use on your skin like creams or lotions or shampoos are absorbed directly into your bloodstream (that’s why prescription patches for nicotine or hormones or other medications work).  In addition, the chemicals you breathe, including the chemicals from fragrances, go from your lungs into your bloodstream and also are carried all over your body.  If you wouldn’t eat it (and would you ingest gasoline or pesticides?) you shouldn’t be breathing it or putting it on your skin.

Many people assume that these products are safe for everyone just because they are so widespread, but we cannot assume that this is the case by looking at past experiences.  Cigarettes, for example, were assumed to be safe for years.  So was leaded gasoline and paint.  In fact, when it was first proposed that smokers not be allowed to smoke in public places, many people fought this based on “smoker’s” or individual rights.  Many years later, however, most people now accept the fact that they do not have the right to harm other people’s health by smoking nearby in public places.  It took years for this to be accepted, and it probably will take many years for people to accept the fact that synthetic fragrance use in public places is also a health hazard and should be banned.

Another reason to cut down on the chemical load you are exposed to even if you are not currently sensitive to chemicals is the fact that anyone can become sensitive from chemical overload.  This overload can and does happen with repeated, “low-level” exposures – not just high-level exposures.  In addition to the possibility of becoming chemically sensitive yourself, many immune-system related diseases like cancer and auto-immune illnesses are related to the chemical build up in our bodies, so cutting back on chemicals in your household will also reduce your risk of developing these diseases.  Furthermore, even the American Medical Association recognizes that scented products can aggravate asthma and respiratory problems, so cutting our fragrance chemicals in your home can help family members, visitors, co-workers or schoolmates with these problems.

When you wear scented products, including clothes washed in scented detergents, you breathe those chemicals in all day long.  So do the people you come in contact with.  In fact, they specifically make laundry detergent scents to last and stick to the clothes.  That’s why it’s not just a personal choice to use or wear these products, just like it’s not just a personal choice to smoke near others and expose them to secondhand smoke.  Your scented products impact the air space of others and can make other people sick, even if you don’t smell them.  In fact, just because you don’t smell the product after a while doesn’t mean it’s worn off – your nose just becomes used to the smell and you no longer notice it.

The solution is to look for products that are fragrance-free – many chemically sensitive and asthmatic people will appreciate it, and actually, so will your body.  Many people who never thought they were sensitive to chemicals are surprised to see their health improve when they reduce their own exposure to everyday household chemicals.  Often headaches, fatigue and memory improve as well as other symptoms that you may not associate with exposure to chemicals that you use every day.

To reduce the toxic exposure, try to:

Avoid all scented products (“fragrance” as an ingredient) – including personal care products, laundry detergents, perfumes, aftershaves, air fresheners, pot-pourri, etc.  Avoid fabric softeners, dryer sheets, bleach, and conventional cleaning products.  Even if these are unscented, many of these products use very toxic chemicals.  You might also want to avoid pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers as well.  Pesticides are neuro-toxins (meaning they affect the central nervous system).  They kill bugs, and they are toxic to humans and pets as well.  In fact, children and pets, because of their small size, and because they are often playing on the grass or on the floor in your home, are exposed to much higher amounts of pesticides compared to their body weights and are often adversely affected by this exposure.


Why Scents Don’t Make Sense

Adapted from Chemical Awareness, 2001, Grace Ziem, M.D.

Many people think that personal products with pleasant smells are made from flowers.  This was true many years ago, but today the vast majority of these products are made from petroleum or petro-chemicals.  This creates potential health problems for everyone who uses these products.  It also creates sometimes serious health problems for those who are chemically sensitive and react to synthetic fragrances.

Some Facts About Fragrances Today

The National Academy of Sciences, a research branch of the United States Government, has said that scented products are toxic to the brain.

The American Medical Association (AMA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the American Lung Association (ALA) all recognize that scented products can aggravate asthma and respiratory problems.

The U.S. Fragrance Association advises that scented products only be used in amounts undetectable at an arm’s length.

When you are “smelling the scent”, you are breathing in the chemicals.  So if someone is close to you and can smell the fragrance from your scented laundry detergent or perfume, they (and you!) are breathing in the chemicals.

Petrochemical compounds, including scented products, can also enter the body through the skin.

At least 1 person in 5 becomes ill when exposed to scented products worn by others.

Illness reactions caused by scented products can include migraine headaches, sinus congestion, itchy watery eyes, sore throat, hoarseness, and throat & lung swelling and asthma reactions.

Scented hair sprays, colognes, deodorants, and other products can cling to the hair and clothing for many hours, causing illness reactions hours later.

Scented laundry detergents are designed to be long lasting, and hence release chemicals all day long.  In fact these scents can and do remain even after several washings for weeks or even months.

Fabric softener is designed to cling to clothes, but it flakes off during the day, and irritates the airways of people with allergies, congested nose, sinus problems, cough, hoarseness or asthma.

Many scented products contain chemicals that are designed to affect your mood, meaning that they are designed to change the chemical balance in the brain.  Scented products can also cause brain changes such as reduced ability to concentrate, maintain your attention, think clearly and to remember.

“Air fresheners” do not freshen air (fresh air has no odor), since releasing a chemical into the air to cover up an odor does not “freshen” that air.  “Air freshener” is actually a false a misleading term.

Research shows that the vast majority of people with asthma have allergic reactions and a decline in lung function with synthetic scent exposure (American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, Immunology).

What can you do about all this?

Avoid using scented products when you are in a public situation where you may encounter or be near individuals who are more sensitive to them.  If you are in a crowd wearing scented products, you probably will be causing illness reactions in some people without knowing it.  Use scented products only when you are in a small group of individuals that you know well when no one has a problem with the scented products. 

You might want to consider eliminating all use of scented products for the sake of your and your family’s long-term health, even if you don’t have any chemically sensitive or asthmatic family members.  In fact, many people who never thought they were sensitive to chemicals are surprised to see their health improve when they reduce their own exposure to everyday household chemicals.  Often headaches, fatigue and memory improve as well as other symptoms that you may not associate with exposure to chemicals that you use every day.

Change your laundry detergent to a natural, scent-free brand, or even to a conventional scent-free variety like Tide-Free, so you won’t be carrying that scent around everywhere you go.

Air Freshener Emissions Cause Toxic Health Effects
Adapted from Cindy Duehring, 1998

The very words “air freshener” imply that it improves the quality of indoor air and makes it healthier to breathe.  However, the typical air fresheners marketed for that purpose instead have the opposite effect by releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air and adding to the chemical mix of indoor air pollution.

Chemically sensitive people and people with respiratory sensitivities have long complained of severe adverse health effects from exposure to air fresheners.  Now for the first time a study has examined the biological health effects of air fresheners.  The researchers used mice to asses sensory and pulmonary (lung) irritation as well as neurologic function changes.  They used a one-hour exposure to various levels of air freshener emissions – including concentrations to which many humans are actually exposed.  These exposures caused increases in sensory and pulmonary irritation, airflow velocity decreases consistent with airway constriction or asthma-like reactions, and behavioral abnormalities consistent with neurological impairment.  Some of the mice even died when exposed to the air freshener fumes.  These adverse effects were not found with the control mice exposed to only pure zero-grade medical air.

After the air freshener fumes were introduced, the respiratory rate changed immediately and dropped as much as 50% within 10 minutes.  The respiratory rate depression stayed fairly constant during the 60 minutes of exposure, and returned rapidly toward baseline levels when the exposure ceased and pure zero-grade air was reintroduced.

In addition to adding the air freshener to pure air, the researchers tested adding the air freshener to a room with fumes from a small amount of fresh latex paint.  In this case, the air “freshener” clearly did not improve air quality or reduce respiratory symptoms, and instead increased the signs of neurotoxicity.

The results of this study demonstrated the following:

The commercial air freshener used emitted chemicals that caused toxic effects in mice.

The effects were demonstrable under conditions that approximated the product’s commercial use, and the air freshener did not minimize the impact of other indoor air pollutants – instead it contributed to air pollution and toxicity.

In the Material Safety Data Sheet provided by the manufacturer, they recommend the use of an approved vapor respirator “if the vapor concentration is high due to heat.  Breathing high concentrations of vapor in excess of the permitted exposure level may cause headache, nervousness, dizziness, tremors, fatigue, and nausea.”  There is no mention of the permitted exposure level, and no indication of how one can avoid exceeding it.  We would have to conclude after reading this study that chemical “air fresheners”, including solid sticks, oil-based & other plug-ins and sprays like Febreeze should not be used to cover up other smells, as they are just adding to the chemicals in the air and causing adverse health reactions in many people.

NOTE:  There is also some evidence that fragrances, including those from air fresheners and laundry detergents have an "addictive" quality.  This may be why some people love the scents that are emitted from them.  This does not change the toxicity of the chemicals used to make these scents, however.

Try just cleaning, using fresh air and natural pot-pourri instead.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

and Using Fragrance-Free Products

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