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How You Can Support Fragrance Free Public Spaces

Toxic chemicals in air fresheners

How You Can Support Fragrance Free Public Spaces

Jamie McConnell
Jamie McConnell
Director of Programs
& Policy

We’ve all been there—you walk into a store and are bombarded with the smell of fragrance (Bath and Body Works anyone? Ugh.). Or the perfume your co-worker wears makes it hard to get a breath of air without the tinge of scent. There are so many scenarios where we are accosted by fragrance whether it’s a store, workplace, gym, school, or other public place.

In fact, it turns out a decent chunk of the population is feeling the pain of fragrance. According to a new study, 34.7% of the population report adverse reactions such as migraines, asthma attacks or rashes when exposed to fragrance. This shouldn’t be surprising considering just how many nasty chemicals can be in fragrance.

And what’s more, we virtually have no way of avoiding some of the chemicals that may give us a headache, or a rash, or allergic reaction, because companies, whether they are a cosmetic company, a cleaning company or manufacturer of another type of scented product, do not have to disclose what’s actually IN fragrance. (The study revealed that a whopping 64.6% of those surveyed did not know that companies do not have to disclose fragrance ingredients on a label or even a safety data sheet.)

Now, it’s easy to give the advice “just avoid fragranced products.” But when you are exposed to scents in public places it can be almost impossible to avoid. In fact, the study specifically highlighted some of those problem situations. One in five people surveyed reported adverse reactions to involuntary fragrance exposures such as being near a person wearing fragrance, entering a room with air fresheners or a room that had been recently cleaned with fragranced cleaning products.

Creating Fragrance Free Spaces

The good news is there is a movement to create fragrance free spaces. The American Lung Association has a sample workplace fragrance free policy in addition to a sample policy on fragrance free schools. The California Department of Public Health also has a fact sheet for employers on fragrance and work-related asthma.

These resources can be used to help fight this public health epidemic and advocate for fragrance free settings by you, Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), or a group of co-workers. You can even bring the sample workplace policy into your gym or other place you frequent and suggest they adopt a similar policy.

Know that you’re not alone in wanting to avoid scents. Over 50% of those surveyed support fragrance-free workplaces. And interestingly, the study also found that 20.2% of the population want to leave a business if they smell fragrance from an air freshener or another type of scented product. And 17% will avoid using a public bathroom if it is fragranced. So speak up and ask your workplace, child’s school, etc. to go fragrance free. Your voice can make a real difference in creating a healthier environment.

Leave a comment or email WVE if you succeed in advocating for scent free spaces! And feel free to use our resources to help make your case for why everyone’s health is better off without unnecessary and uncontrollable fragrance exposures.

21 Responses

  1. Sara Edelman

    Something very brief with excellent facts on how much fragrance hurts people, and the stats you offer above, to send to movie houses, malls, stores, and anywhere with bathroom air chemicals would be very helpful for us out here to submit. thank you for your great work!

  2. Dave

    Right on but my wife, most of my friends and neighbors do not seem to have a problem or don’t understand the problem. There seems to be a growth in use of scented products. My wife bought pomegranate scented liquid dish soap because she thought it was “a natural scent” and would not cause a problem! Now Gain is promoted as lasting up to a month. I think the chemistry is gaining the upper hand -no boundries.

  3. Sick (literally) Of Fake Scent

    As much as people would take umbrage to the idea that they have been conditioned (or brainwashed!), industry has succeeded in getting a large segment of the public to believe the lie that your body, clothes, house, car, whatever are not clean or “fresh” unless they reek of heavy scent. I have a hard time understanding how this can be so, because none of those products smell clean, fresh, or pretty in the least, to me…nor should they, being that they are, as you state, a brew of harsh, toxic chemicals.

    People also, for some reason, seem to really wrap up their personal taste and identity in these scents. I have tried as tactfully and politely as possible to compromise with people in telling them that they are using something that is giving me a physical reaction and making me feel ill, only to be screamed at, told I’m just trying to boss them around, and all sorts of other nasty, selfish, defensive reactions. Once a co-worker even doubled down on the already large amount of perfume she wore, until even the people without sensitivities were getting headaches from it and management had to step in.

    I have an issue with my neighbor in my apartment building using a large plug-in device. The scent was coming through the wall, filling up my apartment. The device was moved, but now the scent comes in through vents and under the door, and the entire hallway will be saturated. On another floor, I gag even when the elevator stops there. There are at least three people I know of using heavy air fresheners and candles all day, every day. I have complained to building supervisors several times, but they don’t take it very seriously. Although they have banned smoking in the building, even within apartments, they don’t view scent on the same level. Extremely frustrating.

    All of these things make this a difficult battle to fight . I’m hoping increasing awareness and the Lung Association’s programs will help change that.

  4. arlene

    Thanks for writing this…
    I wish we could blanket the internet with the info, but for now I will just try to share with family and others who don’t understand — maybe seeing it in print will help.
    I have had many adverse reactions to scents as a side effect of a severe case of Lyme disease 10 years ago; these reactions include rashes and asthma and even dangerous drops in BP upon exposure. The holidays are often especially bad — it seems everyone wants to smell like fake gingerbread. Sometimes when I’ve ordered things online, they arrive with “free” scented samples — it isn’t free if you have to use an Epipen. I then send the vendor a note about lawsuits related to fragrance sensitivity (in some cases, it has actually been deemed “assault”). I have managed to get a few local grocery stores (including some branches of Whole Foods and Shaw’s) to either leave their cinnamon-scented items outside or get rid of them altogether (that which floats in the air will also eventually settle on produce– yuck).
    Let’s keep fighting for fragrance-free zones in public settings!

  5. I hide out in my house

    I have a severe respiratory disease, along with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), and fragrances cause breathing difficulties and/or bronchitis. Fragrances are my evil enemy!
    I’ve been fighting this losing battle for over 20 years, and it’s worse now than before. It used to mostly be room deodorizers and people wearing perfumes and colognes, and that was bad–but now, added to those, the laundry industry has made it nearly impossible to avoid fragrances. Deodorants are also a bigger problem than before.
    I had to stop attending concerts, movies, churches, etc…my dentist’s office staff sprays the surfaces of each room with Lysol after each patient, and I can smell it outside the building before opening the door. The Hallmark store is so scented now with fragranced products that you can smell it on the sidewalk two stores away. Even the guys who come to my home to service my medical respiratory equipment wear cologne! Argh!
    No one seems to care about it if it doesn’t personally affect them.

  6. John

    If you call a business to have an appliance serviced in your home and request scent free individuals…they threaten not to come. If I tell them I have MCS, they don’t care. They won’t come because they can’t “control” their employees right to wear toxic scented products. They want to avoid a lawsuit if they put you in an asthma attack, so they won’t come. No choice but to suffer through it. One guy who came to service dishwasher was saturated in heavy cologne that took 4 days to get out of my home. These scented crazed individuals are making others ill, oblivious to the health consequences to others who are unlucky to cross paths with them. Some lady came over, sat on my couch, and I had to throw out the leather cushions!! Cannot get the scented laundry products out. It’s a nightmare. We have to fight this issue hard because it’s ruining many lives. Please make it go away…

  7. Lidia

    I have MCS which brings on many allergic conditions, I now find problems with using mobile phones and the internet, I’ve got a block on to try stop the waves stopping me using the computer, though even with that I’m only able to stay on about 20 mins. I believe i have a problem with the internet because I got no help from my doctors with the MCS problem. My family at first didn’t believe I had a problem with fragrances and continued to use the stuff, I stupidly continued to babysit because I love my kids and grandkids, but in Septemeber I put down an ultimate, no fragrances in your homes or on your bodies or I don’t baby sit. One son stopped everything, and my granddaughters Mam is going that way, I don’t stay at her house anymore but my granddaughter still comes here, she at 10 understands the problem so stays fragrant free. My other son the one I babysit for mostly begrudgingly got rid of ‘all the stuff they thought bothered me’ unfortunately it was not enough so had to ask again result, I don’t stay anymore and we are just sort of speaking – though I still see my grandkids a little. I more and more try to avoid places that have fragrances near or in them, that means public transport as well, a woman actually took a scent spray out the other day on the bus and started spraying it on herself – I completely lost my rag and dressed her down – hopefully she won’t fdo that again. I live in England MCS is not recognised here as an illness so there are no fragrant free places including doctors, hospitals, schools, shops, parks – The message is however getting out through MCS aware and other organisations but also now increasingly we are hearing about it on radio programmes re individual cases. I myself talk to a lot of people when I am well, I’m a human rights activist, and I am amazed at how many people tell me ‘I was told I had asthma, or hay fever, by my doctor but the symptom, I mean are more what you are describing, I agree very much with the comment above I have had to change my home and life drastically I mean the trouble with people coming to the home to visit or do work. For a while I would say it had ruined my life but due to some good friends and organisations like yours I am able to enjoy my life again despite all the problems, but I do wish we could get some fragrance, pesticide free places here in England. Lidia


    Our organization, the Endometriosis Association, has had a fragrance-free policy in our offices for 36 years. All visitors are told of the policy before coming to the office (explaining that the toxins in fragrances make staff and volunteers sick, migraines, asthma, etc.). We have at times had to send people home, or even not hire a person in one case, but most of the time, we can actually breathe! This fight reminds me of the fight to get cigarette smoke out of public spaces — smokers would say, it’s my lungs, and we’d have to remind them that it’s OUR air. Since fragrances are specifically meant to fill the air, it seems the fight should be more straightforward.

  9. I got a new job in a health care facility, working nights and left a job where I loved my co-workers, but the management would not put a fragrance free policy in effect. The new job had a fragrance policy, but didn’t enforce it. When I asked the nurse supervisor to speak to the staff on a certain floor about it, she denied the fragrance policy existed… I went to HR and put in a request for a reasonable accommodation-and was fired. Flagrant disregard for the ADA rules and regulations, and also OSHA has an iron in this fire too. My lungs go into spasm and if I don’t remove myself from harm’s way soon enough- anaphylaxis occurs. This doesn’t include other symptoms such as hives, angioedema, hearing and vision loss…dizziness and instant migraines. Some of the molecules of these chemicals bind with the proteins in your blood during the oxygen/CO2 exchange and actually cause brain damage and other neurological issues. The problem isn’t how something smells, it’s the poison that the smell is being carried by. Some people have such a sense of entitlement with their perfume habit that they are downright cruel. They are the ones who are actually addicted to the high they get from brain cells dying while they saturate themselves with this crap. If someone came to my home to do work with fragrances on I would deny them entrance, and deny payment of a service call. You can bet your last dollar that a good number of phone calls and letters would follow until someone in upper management made a change. If you have a doctor statement regarding your condition, it is a disability. Disabilities must be accommodated in the work place (over 15 employees) unless it places undue burden of cost, if they don’t even try….then hire a lawyer. Going to the grocery is a challenge, even with a full face respirator…soon to be one with an oxygen tank attached.. Going out to eat is a thing of the past, parties, any public function…off limits.

  10. Keith

    Just thought I would mention fragrance free health care, or rather, the lack of it. Difficult to find physicians, dentists, etc with fragrance free staff or with fragrance free office policy for staff as well as clients. I live in Assisted Living, many of us will, as we grow older, or as accident or disability takes away our ability to live independently. Harsh chemical cleaners and disinfectants, air fresheners, staff and other resident’s personal care products. There is growing interest in using fragrance in Assisted Living and Nursing homes, as fragrances are being marketed as having an association with pleasant memories. What lies beneath the artificial fragrances are toxic chemicals more likely to produce brain fog and contribute to dementia

  11. AHW

    Thanks for this information! MCS affects three of us in my family. It seems to begin slowly, then grows through the years until we have to avoid nearly all scented products. I’ve had some luck with Better Life cleaning products, which are either unscented or lightly scented with natural fruits/herbs. I also use lots of white vinegar and baking soda. We recently traveled to Canada, where we attended the Stratford Shakespeare and Niagara-on-the-Lake Shaw Festivals. Both organizations post their scent bans on their websites and on their programs. With a few exceptions, I found I could breathe easily. I’m having a hard time finding American theatres and other venues who will institute a similar ban. The other night, I attended a brilliant play, but I had a hard time breathing because so many people wore heavy scent and the theatre provided heavily scented soap in their restrooms. It’s unbearable, and it’s so difficult to convince people it’s not just one’s imagination.

  12. Clara

    Working in Healthcare industry, I’ve been suffering from Fragrances related illness for 10 years and counting.

    As an asthma, allergy, migraine sufferer, fragrances has been torturing me every day, at my work from other employees, patients, during my days off at the shopping places and restaurant, post office, my doctors offices, etc.I can’t stand cigarette smoke either. Fortunately, the smoking is banned in public. Fragrances must be banned too.

    I had achieved a Fragrances Free Workplace policy in my office, but nobody enforce it. I had a settlement with an employer who refused to follow ADA. They probably still think they just had a problematic employee.

    Even my kind parents and younger sister living in other country cannot understand this situation. I don’t blame them because of limited resources for them.The world had became such a cruel place since my initial symptoms. People wearing fragrances or laundry with scented sheet around me are bully. Communication is useless 99% time. They think this is their own businesses.

    American Medical Association, has voted between money and evidence. this is truly life long hardship. Spreading the ban policy, every public place include school, health care offices, workplace, all public places.

  13. Karen L

    I too am a chemical allergy sufferer. With all the exposure at work in the past three years to perfume-happy coworkers and the cleaning products used by the janitorial crew (they start cleaning before everyone has left for the day), I am now working from home and unable to go into the office at all. I’ve become so sensitive that the slightest encounter with a perfume wearer at the grocery store (or anywhere else) will set off my asthma and leave blisters and bumps all over my face and neck.

    It took years for people to push for second-hand smoke bans in workplaces and public areas. If we really want to fight second-hand chemical fumes, we need to push for legislation that will protect us. Kindly asking others for their support and compliance by refraining from wearing perfume won’t get us anywhere. I continually asked for help from our HR Dept.for three years and not only did my coworkers not care how their love of perfume was affecting my health, they became hateful and angry toward ,me. I was absolutely shocked to observe what appeared to be addictive behavior. They truly seem addicted to the chemicals they douse themselves in every day.

    Is there any hope of getting legislative support on this?

  14. One day, all public spaces may be scent-free. It is bad news for the perfume manufacturers, but good for people such as Lesley Heidinger, a 46-year-old call-centre worker from Edmonton in Canada. Heidinger has multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a little-known condition characterised by heightened sensitivity to a wide range of chemicals, many of which are commonly found in soap, detergent, sanitiser gels and perfumes. She can tolerate natural scents, including most essential oils, but synthetic fragrances are bothersome. If Heidinger inhales a colleague’s scent, her sinuses will become irritated, she will wheeze and cough and it will bring on a migraine that can last for days. Other reported symptoms of MCS include muscle pain, exhaustion and disorientation.

  15. Fragrance or chemical sensitivities can cause a large number of health issues, including coughing, difficulty breathing, migraines, nausea, confusion, anxiety, skin irritation, and more and becoming a fragrance-free environment is more complex than it may seem, It is difficult to enforce, particularly for workplaces with customers. There are chemicals in building construction materials, paint, and even smells coming from outside. You may go through all of the effort only to not solve anything. Because of this, employers typically will not be required to implement such a policy, even when trying to accommodate an employee who has fragrance or chemical sensitivities.

  16. kska

    Not only in the workplace, but on public transportation, including cruise ships, etc. And also, neighbors who use high powered scented laundry soap or dryer sheets that gas the air that the neighbors then have to breathe. Simply toxic!

  17. Hi,
    in my opinion
    ,Many of the chemicals used in fragrances are known respiratory and skin irritants. Some of the chemicals used in fragrances have been linked with long-term health problems, such as cancer, birth defects and nervous system disorders, when used in larger amounts. your article is very informative for allergic patients.

  18. your article is very authentic about fragrances. Perfumes and other strong scents have repeatedly been reported to trigger symptoms in people with asthma and people with environmental sensitivities.
    Recent Canadian Human Rights legislation requires people with diagnosed environmental sensitivities to be accommodated in the workplace. Thanks Jamie

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