Toxic chemicals found in common scented laundry products, air fresheners

A University of Washington study of top-selling laundry products and air fresheners found the products emitted dozens of different chemicals. All six products tested gave off at least one chemical regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, but none of those chemicals was listed on the product labels.

"I first got interested in this topic because people were telling me that the air fresheners in public restrooms and the scent from laundry products vented outdoors were making them sick," said Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and of public affairs. "And I wanted to know, 'What's in these products that is causing these effects?'"

She analyzed the products to discover the chemicals' identity.

"I was surprised by both the number and the potential toxicity of the chemicals that were found," Steinemann said. Chemicals included acetone, the active ingredient in paint thinner and nail-polish remover; limonene, a molecule with a citrus scent; and acetaldehyde, chloromethane and 1,4-dioxane.

"Nearly 100 volatile organic compounds were emitted from these six products, and none were listed on any product label. Plus, five of the six products emitted one or more carcinogenic 'hazardous air pollutants,' which are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to have no safe exposure level," Steinemann said.

Her study was published online today by the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review. Steinemann chose not to disclose the brand names of the six products she tested. In a larger study of 25 cleaners, personal care products, air fresheners and laundry products, now submitted for publication, she found that many other brands contained similar chemicals.

Because manufacturers of consumer products are not required to disclose the ingredients, Steinemann analyzed the products to discover their contents. She studied three common air fresheners (a solid deodorizer disk, a liquid spray and a plug-in oil) and three laundry products (a dryer sheet, fabric softener and a detergent), selecting a top seller in each category. She bought household items at a grocery store and asked companies for samples of industrial products.

In the laboratory, each product was placed in an isolated space at room temperature and the surrounding air was analyzed for volatile organic compounds, small molecules that evaporate from the product's surface into the air.

Results showed 58 different volatile organic compounds above a concentration of 300 micrograms per cubic meter, many of which were present in more than one of the six products. For instance, a plug-in air freshener contained more than 20 different volatile organic compounds. Of these, seven are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws. The product label lists no ingredients, and information on the Material Safety Data Sheet, required for workplace handling of chemicals, lists the contents as "mixture of perfume oils."

This study does not address links between exposure to chemicals and health effects. However, two national surveys published by Steinemann and a colleague in 2004 and 2005 found that about 20 percent of the population reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and about 10 percent complained of adverse effects from laundry products vented to the outdoors. Among asthmatics such complaints were roughly twice as common.

Manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients used in laundry products and air fresheners. Personal-care products and cleaners often contain similar fragrance chemicals, Steinemann said. And although cosmetics are required by the Food and Drug Administration to list ingredients, no law requires products of any kind to list chemicals used in fragrances.

"Fragrance chemicals are of particular interest because of the potential for involuntary exposure, or second-hand scents," Steinemann said.

"Be careful if you buy products with fragrance, because you really don't know what's in them," she added. "I'd like to see better labeling. In the meantime, I'd recommend that instead of air fresheners people use ventilation, and with laundry products, choose fragrance-free versions."

The European Union recently enacted legislation requiring products to list 26 fragrance chemicals when they are present above a certain concentration in cosmetic products and detergents. No similar laws exist in the United States.

"I hope this study will raise public awareness, and reduce exposures to potentially hazardous chemicals," said Steinemann.

Source: University of Washington

Explore further

Hydrogen fuel is getting buzz, but here's why it hasn't gone mainstream

Citation: Toxic chemicals found in common scented laundry products, air fresheners (2008, July 23) retrieved 18 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jul 23, 2008
Every time I see a Febreeze commercial where people are basically making love to whatever they just sprayed with Febreeze I cringe.

I get especially annoyed by the commercials that have children rolling around in that toxic soup. It's gross.

(These are not factual assertions, they are assumptions I have made based on evidence available to me. I may be wrong and Febreeze may be a perfectly safe product to make love to.)

Jul 23, 2008
She should have published product details, they need to be pulled from shelves and the companies sued! This is a freaking poisoning, how come the companies who make those products didn't run the same tests on them? It has to cost them some serious cash or else nothing will change.

Jul 23, 2008
Febreeze used to kill household pets till they changed the forumla

Jul 23, 2008
The Febreeze killing household pets is an urban legend. (see

However, I object to the industry promoting the liberal use of household chemicals that are certainly dangerous if not outright deadly.

Jul 23, 2008
It's all about the level of concentration. Look up the MSDS on common artificial flavors and colors; they are some of the most toxic substances on the planet. Artificial watermellon flavoring will destroy you in it's pure form.

I really hope we wise up and stop covering ourselves and our homes in chemicals.

I'm still waiting for someone to find out that antibacterial hand wash causes kidney and liver damage (slathering solvents on your skin regularly is a bad idea).

If it smells/tastes good and doesn't rot, it's probably poison.

Jul 23, 2008
It does not matter if you tell people these products are toxic. The average Joe or Jane only makes safety judgements on what they can physically "see" being harmful. For example compare a gun to a gallon of benzene in water supplies. Most people would say the the gun is more dangerous.
There is a reason that lifetime cancer rates are 50%. Could it be that the daily breathing, eating, bathing and drinking carcinogens is a factor? I find a lot of people compartmentalize it by saying "well everything gives you cancer". I wonder what Darwinian advantage denial serves? I think it acts like self pruning in a neural network. It keeps the organism adaptable to changes in their surroundings.

Jul 23, 2008
It's all about the level of concentration.

I would attenuate this somewhat.
There is no safe level for carcinogens and some most toxins.
At levels below certain concentrations it is difficult to prove a causal relation. This is a classic death by a thousand paper cuts. One paper cut is safe. Then when a person dies from the 1000th paper cut we try to attribute the cause to one specific toxin.
The cellular biology is clear. Some toxins kill/damage cells. Some cells can be replaced, but why kill/mutate healthy cells if there is no gain in return?

Jul 23, 2008
I agree with those that commented prior - and will add that I used to work in the city and would often have to hold my breath for 5 or 6 floors while traveling in an elevator.

This was difficult but brought on by the occasional woman that would bath in some kind of fumigant designed to repell anybody with an olfactory organ.

Good old fashioned B.O would have been more pleasant than this stuff.

And to know that I am not alone in having to run the gauntlet of perfume health hazards is good news. Our government has finally banned cigarette smoking in public places that is a large part of the problem solved now all we have to do is get rid of these people that think artificial odors out of a bottle are somehow better than the stink they naturally produce.

I had better make clear that I do not enjoy the smell of B.O, everything is relative.

Perhaps if people learned to bathe they would not be inclined to lather themselves in some product designed to hide there stink.

Jul 24, 2008
In a culture driven by perfection-striving, the need to win at all costs and over-sexualization of every expressed trait, this trend will be hard to fight. We long to believe that we can be perfectly clean, perfectly coifed and perfectly attractive on every sensory level. But worse is the cultural-topper that many believe also that they can be perfectly safe as well.

Look around you at how many more people are becoming "germ-o-phobic." The studies that should be done are socio-cultural more than chemical. We are becoming a culture that will buy into anything that promises any of the above perfections.

Take this test: open your own pantry/closet/medicine cabinet and see what false perfections you're chasing(and I include myself). We may be surprised.

Watch some teen-targeted TV. Young men are jumping at every chance to join their female counterparts in the slather-with-scents wars.

I think these folks selling each of us our own private chemical contrail have us right where they want us.

Next up: take a look at how the drug companies have us chasing the perfections inside -- even down to our own private moods. Oh! But those little pills aren't chemicals, are they!!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more