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Why Is Fragrance-Free, Non-Toxic Living So Important?

On this page:

The Need to Support People With Chemical Sensitivities
Health Risks for All Individuals
Links to Specific Information on Health Risks
Environmental Issues


You may have asked yourself, "What's the big deal about fragrances and chemicals?" You may have seen the increase in fragrance-free, less toxic products on the market but not understood the intention behind them. Here's the easiest way to say it - the health of all human beings and the health of our planet are both directly dependent on what we put on and in our bodies, our land, and our air. To get a better understanding of this, let's take a look at three specific reasons for going fragrance-free.

 The Need to Support People with Chemical Sensitivities & Weakened Immune Systems

If you haven’t already done so, please read the sections What Is Chemical Sensitivities? and What’s It Like To Live With Chemical Sensitivities?. These sections will give you a thorough understanding of this increasingly widespread health crisis and the everyday triggers in our environment.


After you have read these sections, you will understand how difficult it is to live with a severe sensitivity to chemicals and fragrances, whether it was caused by another illness (such as Asthma, Cancer, Lyme Disease, etc.) or by significant toxic exposures.  You will be shocked to realize just how small a person’s life becomes when they have to avoid exposure to fragrances and chemicals. But like a lot of people, you may have doubts. You may think that these people could get better if they just tried harder. You might say to yourself, “Well I can handle these smells, so they should too.” Or you might be someone with mild sensitivities. You might get brief headaches around someone wearing strong perfume, and because of how mild your experience has been, you might assume that people with CS are exaggerating the issue.


The fact is that a healthy person’s body responds much differently to environmental toxins than that of someone with Chemical Sensitivities. Many healthy people can be around dangerous chemicals with mild symptoms or none at all because their bodies are able to effectively detoxify during and after the exposure. But a person with CS does not have that ability, or if they do, the detoxification process is dramatically slower for them. Their symptoms will be much more severe and will take a lot longer to go away. They will react very strongly to even very minute amounts of fragrances and chemicals in the environment. Many become severely debilitated or even permanently disabled by this illness.


Most severely chemically sensitive people have been told by their doctors to avoid fragrances and chemicals as much as possible. It is similar to how someone with cancer who is receiving chemotherapy treatment has to avoid people with colds or other viruses because their immunity is weakened and their body will have difficulty fighting off infections. We don’t blame a person with cancer for their condition, so shouldn’t we be just as supportive and respectful to someone with Chemical Sensitivities?

Many people with CS do not get better. Many people do. Either way, shouldn't we be supportive to them during the long road to recovery? Why make it that much harder for them to get better by filling the air with chemicals and fragrances?


You may not know anyone with Chemical Sensitivities, but they’re out there, and the products you use can literally make or break their health, their well-being, and their entire lives. Every product you put on your body or clothes, can affect the people you come into contact with. This includes perfume, soap and shampoo, laundry products, even the air fresheners and cleaning products you use in your house. And because there are so many chemicals and fragrances used nowadays, you can understand the frustration when a chemically sensitive person needs to avoid these in order to feel well.


So how can you help? You can go fragrance-free yourself. Every person that chooses fragrance-free, non-toxic products is making a difference. It is one small change but the more people that do it, the healthier our world becomes. If you look at your individual actions as small and inconsequential, change never happens. But if you are willing to have respect and compassion for people who are struggling, and you are willing to make choices that cause as little harm to others as possible, your commitment will encourage other people to do the same, and eventually a huge upheaval will have taken place. That’s what needs to happen.


Fragrance-free, non-toxic living is both an opportunity and a privilege. It is a way that you can feel connected to all of humanity by taking conscious action intended to benefit others and make health and happiness equally available to everyone. It is not a sacrifice. Anything in life that allows us to increase our awareness of and compassion for others is truly a blessing not to be missed. To get started and join the movement, please see How To Go Fragrance-Free/Non-Toxic.

 Health Risks for All Individuals

If you have read through What’s It Like To Live With Chemical Sensitivities? and Can You Avoid Chemicals?, you should have a good understanding of the widespread use of chemicals and fragrances, what products they are found in, and how we are exposed. It is important to remember that even if you don’t feel sick around chemicals and fragrances, your body is still absorbing them just as much as if you had put them in your mouth.  Even if you don't notice it, your body is significantly overstressed due to the environment we live in and the choices our society has made. Your body works hard to process and detoxify from the constant influx of chemicals, and it simply does not have the capacity to remove all of these toxins.

The residual amounts of chemicals that remain may not cause any symptoms at first, but research suggests that it can catch up to you. First, there is the possibility of developing Chemical Sensitivities yourself, due to the constant exposure to chemicals and toxins. Second, numerous studies have shown a positive correlation between the increasing use of toxic chemicals in our society and the increased prevalence of cancer and other terminal diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases, cognitive issues and learning disabilities/developmental delay (including autism), mental health and behavioral problems, and many other illnesses.
(See link #4 below for more information.) In addition, the chemicals you absorb on a daily basis may cause damage to your body and contribute to less than optimal health and energy levels, even if this does not lead to a disease state. Many of the chemicals and fragrances in our everyday products are neurotoxins (damage the nervous system and brain), endocrine disruptors (disrupt the normal functioning of hormones), carcinogens (contribute to the development of cancerous cells), hepatotoxins (damage the liver), mutagens (alter the DNA in cells), allergens (cause allergic reactions), reproductive chemicals (affect fertility), and teratogens/embryotoxins (interfere with the normal development of an embryo or fetus).

When people switch to fragrance-free, less toxic products, most of them notice an improvement in their overall health and energy level, even if they didn't have any major health problems to begin with.

Protecting your family's health is very important as well. Every parent wants to make sure their children are happy and healthy; however, many are not aware that children are more susceptible to environmental toxins. The reason is two-fold. 1) Children are still developing; therefore, their immune and other bodily systems are not yet working at full capacity. (This is partly why children so frequently get colds, the flu, etc.) 2) In addition, children have a higher respiratory rate than adults; thus, they are breathing in the chemicals around them more quickly and at higher doses than an adult in the same environment. Switching to fragrance-free, less toxic products is a simple and very important way to help maintain your family's health.

We do not have an effective system in place for testing the safety of products and their ingredients. Most chemicals are not tested thoroughly enough before market distribution and almost none are tested for developmental toxicity. A product can be put on the market with very little certainty of its safety, yet because it is on the shelf, we often assume it must be safe. This is far from the truth. There are approximately 15,000 synthetic chemicals registered for commercial use with the EPA and less than half have been tested for toxicity at all. There is also no testing regarding the interactions of one chemical with another, which is a huge problem considering the number of chemicals and chemical combinations we are exposed to every day. (Taken from The Children's Environmental Health Fact Sheet published by The Initiative on Children's Environmental Health.)


We also do not have an effective system regarding disclosure of ingredients. It is logical to want to know what we put on and in our bodies in order to take care of ourselves. But many products are not required to list the ingredients on their labels. Common examples of this are laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, perfume, and cologne. In addition, when the word "fragrance" is listed in the ingredients of a product, it is a generic term that can represent literally hundreds of chemicals and chemical combinations. Other generic terms (i.e. "surfactants" or "cleaning agents") can be used in the list of ingredients instead of listing each actual component. When a company is not disclosing its ingredients, pay attention. If the product were completely harmless, there would be no reason to avoid disclosing the ingredients. For more information regarding the lack of independent testing and full disclosure of ingredients, check out this excellent video interview with Dr. Anne Steinemann, an independent researcher and professor of civil and environmental engineering.

There is plenty of information available for you to be able to draw your own conclusions. Spend some time on the internet and you can read various news articles, studies, and scholarly documents attesting to the dangers of chemicals used in perfumes, laundry products, air freshener, cleaning products, soaps, shampoos, etc. You can get specifics about which chemicals are used and what parts of the body they can harm. You can also find ingredient lists for products that don't list these on their label. Also check out our How To Go Fragrance-Free/Non-Toxic section for specific information about a variety of products and recommendations for safer choices.

The easiest way to determine for yourself whether products containing chemicals and fragrances are SAFE is to STOP USING THEM. Stop for several weeks or months, NOTICE HOW YOU FEEL, and then try these products once again. Do you notice a difference? When using toxic products, the body can become too overloaded to be able to let you know that something is wrong! But give your body a break, and you will be surprised at how clear the communication is. Most people who do this experiment are shocked at the symptoms they experience when they reintroduce their perfume/cologne, air freshener/Febreeze, dryer sheets/fabric softener, scented laundry detergent, candles, and other fragranced products. Trust your body - you are finally letting it talk, so be sure to listen.

Also remember that people who are chemically sensitive generally became that way because of one high-dose exposure or chronic, repeated, low-dose exposures to a chemical or combination of chemicals. If fragrances and other chemicals were truly safe, then how would this happen? The role of people with CS in society is like the role of the canaries used in coal mining - if the canary died, the workers left the mine. If a whole section of the population is becoming sick from something, doesn't it make sense for everyone to pay attention?

The best way to protect yourself is to choose fragrance-free, less toxic products whenever possible in your own individual life, and to encourage your loved ones to do the same. You can find safer alternatives at health food stores and at most conventional grocery and department stores. Whenever you buy anything, including personal care products, cleaning products, food, etc., take the time to look at the ingredients. If there are words you don’t know, look them up. If there are things you’ve heard of but don’t know what they are, take the time to find out. You will be doing your body a favor.

There obviously are a lot of changes that need to happen on the governmental and regulatory level as well. With so many unsafe products on the market, it’s a wonder how they were ever approved for distribution. Activism at this level is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. However, as a consumer, the most effective thing you can do is simply stop buying these products and refuse to support companies that are causing more harm in the world than good.

 If you have any uncertainty about the health effects of fragrances and other chemicals, just do a little research and keep an open mind. Here are a few important sources of information:

1)   The Toxic Danger of Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets - If you have read through the rest of this website, you know that laundry products are often a chemically sensitive person’s worst nightmare. If only these products were eliminated from the market, and nothing else, the health of chemically sensitive people would be dramatically improved, including their ability to socialize, work, and lead a semi-normal life. But these products are likely affecting your own health as well. Most typical laundry detergents, dryer sheets, and liquid fabric softeners contain extremely harsh chemicals, including several that are neurotoxics, narcotics, and carcinogens, as well as three different chemicals that the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as "Hazardous Waste." (Also see article by the EPA here.) That is why these products often contain such large amounts of fragrance - to cover up the overpowering chemical smell of the rest of the ingredients.

2)  Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance - This article was recently published by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In their study, seventeen popular fragrance products were shown to contain over a dozen chemicals not listed on the ingredients. The full report goes into more detail about these chemicals and their potential health risks as well as the need to fully disclose ingredients in perfume and other products. Also check out Green Beauty Guide for more information, including this article about the lack of safety testing for fragrances.

3) Cancer & Toxic Chemicals - An article by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) about the environmental and lifestyle factors that contribute to the development of cancer. There are hundreds of chemicals already recognized as carcinogens, and the article provides links to a lot of research and technical information that back up this statement. Also check out the annual reports of the President's Cancer Panel, which provide bipartisan recognition of the environmental factors involved in cancer.

4) In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development - This scientific report addresses how children's exposure to various chemicals and toxins can affect healthy brain development and possibly lead to learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, and behavioral problems. Also check out The Feingold Association which addresses the correlation between synthetic food additives and various learning and behavior problems.

5) The Perils of Plastics - An April 2010 article in Time Magazine written by Bryan Walsh. The headline reads “Chemicals in plastics and other products seem harmless, but mounting evidence links them to health problems – and Washington lacks the power to protect us.” (This link takes you to Time's home page - enter "The Perils of Plastics" into the search field.)

Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals - A May 2012 article by New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in which he discusses the effects of various endocrine disrupting chemicals. Also check out TEDX - The Endocrine Disruption Exchange which has lots of information on this topic.

7) The Cleaner Indoor Air Campaign - This page provides over forty links to articles, research, and other information about chemicals, fragrances, Chemical Sensitivities, and related topics.

8) The Fragranced Products Information Network - This website provides a lot of very thorough and scientific information about the history of fragranced products and their potential health effects.

 Environmental Issues

Fragrance-free, non-toxic living is also vitally important for the health of our environment. There is no shortage of information about the current environmental crisis and it is well known that we are polluting our environment, depleting our resources, and damaging our climate. There is a lot of talk about oil-drilling, tree-cutting, car exhaust, and smog, and not enough discussion of the fragrances and chemicals we use every time we take a shower or clean our house. Granted, there are many different products and practices that are affecting our environment. It is a huge issue with many little pieces. But giving some attention to the little things might empower us to feel a little less helpless about it all.

If you want to be an environmental advocate, the first thing you should do is think about what you’re putting into the air. Every person has their own mini-environment, which includes the land and buildings they own as well as the few feet of space surrounding their body. Cleaning up that space is your responsibility and your privilege. It is your opportunity to feel connected to the whole as you take conscious action intended to benefit the greater good. If everyone were to consciously choose fragrance-free, non-toxic alternatives for their personal care and household use, our total environmental load would be significantly reduced. There are a lot of other sources of environmental pollution, but why not start with those that you have control over? A simple choice makes a huge difference.

Aside from the environmental pollution these products cause, there is another issue at stake. Many of personal care and cleaning products contain ingredients sourced from petroleum and other fossil fuels, thereby rapidly increasing our overuse of these products, the time-line for their future scarcity, and the cost of oil and gas. Please take a look at our section Can You Avoid Chemicals to learn which products contain petroleum sourced ingredients.

If you want more information about the specific environmental effects of fragrances and other chemicals, I encourage you to look at the websites for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environmental Working Group.

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