SECOND-HAND SCENT: Do we realise what damage fragrances may be doing to our health.
SECOND-HAND SCENT: Do we realise what damage fragrances may be doing to our health. pavelis

Second-hand scents are making one-third of us sick

SECOND-HAND scents are making us sick, even ones that are labelled green and organic.

They pervade our everyday lives whether we use them on ourselves or breathe in their odours while we go about our daily activities.

But do we realise what damage they may be doing to our health?

"One-third of Australians experience adverse health effects when exposed to everyday fragranced consumer products," University of Melbourne's Professor Anne Steinemann, said.

"It affects all ages, regions, and both genders; everyone is affected."

In aged care facilities she sees the consumer products are having a particularly adverse impact on older Australians.

"I see these products are being overwhelmingly used in aged care facilities.

"Seniors don't know they are being exposed to these chemicals which are potentially hazardous and may be linked with adverse health effects," Prof Steinemann said.

"For a lot of seniors I have worked with, they keep getting exposed to these products without their consent, and they keep getting sick.

"And a lot of these facilities think using more of these products is better."

She uses the example of air fresheners which are commonly used and which she says don't improve air quality, but rather impair air quality.

Prof Steinemann also notes that air fresheners do not clean the air.

The professor of civil engineering recently released the results of her Health and Societal Effects from Exposure to Fragranced Consumer Products study.

She found that most Australians are not even aware that a fragrance in a product is typically a chemical mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals.

The sickly scents are found in products such as:

  • Air fresheners.
  • Deodorisers.
  • Personal care products including soaps, hand sanitisers and lotions.
  • Cleaning supplies including the sprays and disinfectants in dish washing soap.
  • Laundry products.
  • Household products such as candles, baby products and fragrances.

"All products caused health problems. There wasn't one product that had more adverse health effects than the others," Prof Steinemann said.

The sort health issues that arise from these scents are:

  • Migraines.
  • Asthma attacks.
  • Dizziness and seizures.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Respiratory problems.
  • Rashes and dermatitis.
  • Watery eyes.
  • Sneezing and nasal congestion.
  • Nausea.
  • Cardiovascular problems such as a faster heart beat.
  • Muscle and joint cramps.

"The health effects can be immediate and severe, and they can be subtle and insidious so that people may not know they are being affected," she added.

Unlike cosmetic products such as deodorant, shampoo and lotions which are required to list the word fragrance on the label, other consumer products are not required to list the word fragrance.

Additionally, no product needs to disclose the actual ingredients in a fragrance, which is a complex mixture of chemicals.

"So you may not know if a product has a fragrance.

"We really need to look at legislation to require a product to disclose whether it has a fragrance," Prof Steinemann added.

The alternative is not natural, green or organic products which often carry air pollutants similar to other fragrant products.


  • Open a window and use natural ventilation.
  • Use fragrance-free cleaning products.
  • Clean with vinegar, bicarbonate soda and water with friction.

The best smell is no smell the professor recommends.

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