Added Fragrance, VOCs & What Clean Really Smells Like
Robert Kabel | |
Back to resources Share:
There is no such thing as a clean smell. What most people refer to as a ‘clean smell’ is actually the smell of whatever chemical was just used to clean. Nothing like the wafting aromas of bleach and Lysol to let everyone know the cleaning crew just finished up. Or maybe it’s the zesty notes of a citrusy orange or lemon cleaner that gives you that satisfied feeling of knowing your office is clean and your employer values your health and well-being. Sadly, those smells you savor are really telling you two things:
- The cleaning products you smell introduced an array of toxic gases into the air you are breathing
- If you smell lemon, or orange, or any other noticeable perfume like smell then those same cleaning products had added fragrances which contributed nothing to the cleaning of the space but did contribute additional toxic VOCs to your indoor air
As more people digest the information and new research being reported, let’s recognize that now is the time to change our habits and long held perceptions about cleaning products and how significant an impact choosing greener, safer and scent free cleaning products could make to our environment and our health. Simply put, the only thing you should smell when something is clean is NOTHING. That’s why no smell, is the best smell.
What if we all lost our sense of smell?
Ponder that for a moment before we dive into some research about how use of common cleaning products is detrimental to our health due to the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) they emit. As we will discover, added fragrances are a common culprit of VOCs and the fragrance contributes nothing to the cleaning task at hand. Fragrance is added because smells are associated with memories and smells we like make us buy things. Same thing for music right? It’s like the old joke where a woman is returning a blouse to the department store and the salesperson says, “Was there something wrong with the blouse?” The woman says, “No. I just realized when I got home that I don’t really like the blouse. I just liked the song that was playing when I bought it.”
Anosmia, the loss of smell, has been well documented as an effect of COVID-19 that makes it extremely difficult to taste foods, detect airborne hazards in the environment and carry out other functions dependent on the sense. And since so many of us have experienced this or read about it, consumers have begun to think more about scents than ever before. People have been discovering that scents can change their mood or promote a feeling of well-being or help them relax, and as a result, even perfume sales are up! Why, you might ask, in the midst of a pandemic, are people buying perfume? Larissa Jensen, vice president and beauty industry advisor at NPD Group, thinks the rise in fragrance sales is inextricably linked to the pandemic. People are looking for a getaway, even if it’s only mentally. "There's a science behind your sense of smell and how it's directly related to memory — you smell something, and it brings you back to a moment in time," Jensen said in a recent interview. "It could be, to a degree, consumers wanting to escape."
It seems the pandemic has made us focus more on cleaning AND more on scents, but those two things do not actually complement each other. PURTEQ believes that cleaning should never be harmful, and our mission is to bring non-toxic cleaning products to the mainstream by increasing awareness around the effectiveness of non-toxic products and the environmental and health benefits they provide. We have focused previously on the dangers of Quats and more recently on the benefits of probiotics, and now we are spotlighting Volatile Organic Compounds and the steps we need to take to protect ourselves from their adverse effects when we choose and use cleaning products.
When it comes to cleaning, we are creatures of habit. If you’re a consumer at home, you probably keep the same brands under your sink that your mom used. If you are in charge of ordering JanSan supplies for your company, you probably have a supplier you like to work with, and you’re satisfied with the products you’ve been using. Either way, you’re going to need a compelling reason to change cleaning products. Allow me to provide you with several. Let’s be honest, you already know some cleaners can be harmful, but you just don’t think about it because everyone uses those same products all the time and you tell yourself that means they must be OK. I mean think about it, we all know chlorine bleach is dangerous, after all it says it right on the label: “Danger: Corrosive. Causes irreversible eye damage and skin burns. Harmful if swallowed. Do not get in eyes, on skin or on clothing. Avoid breathing vapors and use only in a well-ventilated area.” We know it and we just try to be careful when we use it. Some are more successful in that effort than others. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO), hospitals receive over 125,000 eye injuries each year related to cleaning products in the United States alone. It’s a known risk that we’re willing to take because it does a good job and after we use it, we take a deep breath to savor that ‘just cleaned with bleach’ smell which has literally become synonymous with a freshly cleaned space. That’s why we don’t want to recognize that cleaning with bleach or other common cleaning and sanitizing products is not only dangerous in all the ways they tell you about right on the label, but also is exposing you, your workers, employees, pets and/or families to toxic VOCs. These gases are released into the air you breathe while you are cleaning and contribute to poor indoor air quality in general whenever they are used indoors. And it’s not just bleach. Many, many cleaning products release VOCs. Wherever cleaners are used that emit VOCs, harmful gases are added to the indoor air.
A commonly cited statistic states most of us spend approximately 90% of our time indoors, in the contained environment of the home and workplace. In the move toward greater environmental sustainability, buildings have become more energy efficient and more tightly sealed. While this provides a better environmental impact, it also means that the air in these buildings may not become renewed through passage of fresh air. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a significant contributor to poor indoor air quality in these sealed environments. The EPA describes VOCs as follows:
“Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.” Examples include paints, cleaning supplies, and pesticides. When discussing indoor environments, all organic chemical compounds that can volatize under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure are VOCs. Since World War II we have embraced man-made chemicals for use in every aspect of our lives. The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets applications for evaluation of an average of 50 new, man-made chemicals per day. VOCs is a very large family of chemicals which includes all the organic compounds containing carbon, and which readily evaporate into the air. Although most are liquids at room temperature, they will easily enter air, and they greatly contribute to air pollution. Man-made fragrance chemicals are part of the category of VOCs.
Scientific studies point to the health effects caused by cleaning and sanitizing products. According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, VOCs emitted from cleaning products not only affect those using the products professionally, but also those of us just doing domestic cleaning in our own homes. Since consumers commonly use more than one product, the study points out that complex mixtures of VOCs are created when we use products with complex formulations, like a product that is both a cleaner and a sanitizer, or by using products with multiple ingredients for things like dusting and polishing. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, people with existing respiratory conditions, young children, and the elderly may be more vulnerable to the effects of VOC exposure. Using common cleaning chemicals during pregnancy can cause a child to be born with respiratory health issues. Common symptoms of VOC exposure are eye and skin irritation, allergic reactions, headaches, sore throat, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and fatigue. The long-term health effects of VOC exposure include chronic respiratory problems, loss of coordination, damage to the kidneys, liver, central nervous system, and cancer.
Recent studies in workers found that cleaning work in buildings with high cleaning standards and demands for disinfection were associated with higher risk of asthma symptoms. A study of the development of new asthma related to occupational exposures found increased asthma risk in workers with an acute inhalation event that caused symptoms while mixing cleaning products. Longer employment in jobs using cleaning agents was associated in a dose-related manner to risk of work-related asthma and respiratory symptoms. Several groups of cleaning or sanitizing products were associated with increased risks of respiratory effects, including bleach, cleaners/abrasives, toilet cleaners, detergents, and ammonia; and glutaraldehyde/ortho-phtaldehyde, chloramines, and ethylene oxide. In a study of female hospital workers, exposure to specific cleaning materials was associated with increases in current asthma. According to the EPA, “There is substantial evidence that individuals who do cleaning as their work have an increased risk of adverse respiratory health effects and asthma.”
As we learn about the adverse health effects of VOCs it’s important to note that added fragrances contribute significantly to the VOCs released from cleaning products and these VOCs also contribute to human-induced climate change. A report in the journal Science by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said scented products emit the same amount of chemical vapors as petroleum from vehicles, even though 15 times more petroleum is burned as fuel. “This is about all those bottles and containers in your kitchen cabinet below the sink and in the bathroom. It’s things like cleaners, personal products, paints and glues,” said Joost de Gouw, an author on the study at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “When you think about how much of those products you use in your daily life, it doesn’t compare to how much fuel you put in the car. But for every kilogram of fuel that is burned, only about one gram ends up in the air. For these household and personal products, some compounds evaporate almost completely.” Formaldehyde is often seen in cleaners and detergents in the form of fragrances. If not labelled as formaldehyde, these compounds will be found in the form of terpenes. A recent study also proved formaldehyde to be a carcinogenic compound and continuous exposure to these compounds can cause permanent damage to the lungs.
So how do we protect ourselves from this new insidious danger that has ruined the satisfaction we associate with the smell of bleach and Lysol? Obviously, it makes sense for us to avoid the worst offenders but it’s not so easy to determine which products emit VOCs into the air. The American Lung Association (ALA) recommends reading the labels on all cleaning supplies before you buy them and selecting products marked as low- or no- VOCs, as well as those without fragrances, irritants, and flammable ingredients. Sometimes the harmful VOC producing agents are misleadingly listed under vague terms on the product label, such as, “fragrance” or “perfume”. The ALA recommends avoiding air fresheners altogether because they are associated with elevated levels of VOCs such as formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes, in indoor air. These VOCs irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as cause headaches and nausea. The types and amounts of VOCs emitted depend primarily on the fragrance composition of the air freshener, not on the type of air freshener. It can be difficult or impossible to find out the ingredients in air fresheners because manufacturers are not required to disclose the complete list of ingredients. If you want to mitigate undesirable odors in an indoor environment it’s better to remove the source of the odor by using a probiotic air cleaner to eliminate the organic matter that is the source of the odor. Pay no attention to advertising claims, air fresheners simply do not clean anything or remove odors. They only cover up odors. Information about VOCs is coming to the forefront, and you may be noticing a lot more products with “Scent Free” or “Dye and Fragrance Free” on the label for this very reason. As consumers and businesses become more informed the demand for non-toxic and fragrance-free products will continue to rise.
There you have it. VOCs affect our air inside and outside. Outside, VOCs are mostly released during manufacture or use of everyday products and materials. Indoors, they are mainly released into the air from the use of products and materials containing VOCs. At the federal level, the EPA regulates VOCs in 40 CFR 59, the National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standards for Consumer and Commercial Products. At the state level, more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have established statewide policies that are stricter than EPA regulations. According to the Household and Commercial Products Association (HCPA), one or more states are almost always re-evaluating their regulations, so it’s a good bet more regulations are coming. Personally, I don’t think the government should have to tell us what cleaning products we can or cannot use. I believe in logical problem solving. It’s a fact that we need to clean things. It’s also a fact that there are many cleaners to choose from. So, if all things are equal and you can choose a product that does a GREAT job at cleaning and is affordable and environmentally and health friendly, then why choose a product that contains harmful chemicals and VOCs? This is really the heart of the matter. The companies that want you to keep buying the same products your mom used spend a lot of money to convince decision makers that environmentally friendly, non-toxic products simply do not work as well as products with no harmful chemicals. They paint ‘greener’ products as some hippie dippy fantasy to be relegated to the fringe as some passing fad like patchouli oil perfume and smudging sage, but that is not the case. Businesses are demanding non-toxic products. Schools are demanding them, so are nursing homes and day cares and hotels, and those institutions are all tasking their teams to have an open mind and sample safer products. Buyers and suppliers are going to keep trying non-toxic products until they find safe cleaners they are happy with and that fit their budget. There are plenty out there and buying habits will evolve and change as the reality becomes undeniable and more and more people discover non-toxic and VOC-free products that work just as well if not better than what they were used to. Employees are hard to find, so it makes sense to find products that don’t make your workers sick.
A housekeeper does not need to have an asthma attack to disinfect a hotel room. A preschooler should not get a skin rash from pulling a wipe out of a canister with her bare hands. No child should have a birth defect because their mom was exposed to VOCs when she was pregnant. There is simply no downside to choosing safer cleaners.