A few weeks ago I did something kind of scary; I, a born and bred Miamian with cafecito and humidity in my bloodstream, went to snow-covered Vermont in the deepest part of winter. I expected to experience a forested mountainside blanketed in snow but also I encountered something else I would have never expected…breathing!!
I’ve had asthma on and off throughout my life and while it’s not life-threatening it’s definitely a constant discomfort when something triggers that lung-constricting feeling that burdens my breathing and makes me hope my inhaler is near. While I hate the feeling, I figured using my inhaler once or twice a week was just my life and thus something I’d have to contend with basically forever.
Then I spent a month in a cabin in the woods of Vermont and realized, even though I was sharing the space with 4 long haired pets, a good deal of dust and a few other major asthma triggers, my inhaler was practically untouched for the entire trip. The whole month. Just 1 use out of my normal 5-8 uses a month.
That one use was what made me realize how environmentally dependant asthma is. I lit up a scented candle and had it on the table near me; something I’d done a million times before, yet this time I felt my lungs reacting in slow motion, that chest-tightening feeling rising up in me once again. My reaction to this candle was the difference between night and day compared to all this free and easy breathing I’d been doing.
Suddenly everything was so obvious; the air quality on a forested mountainside in Vermont felt like freshly cleaned white linen compared to the air of a traffic-filled city like Miami. The house I was staying in had a total of 0 air freshening products, save for that one candle, which immediately triggered my asthma, but my own house had an assortment of air fresheners in basically every room, plus I love lighting incense as well. I realized that the bulk of my allergies and breathing issues were environmental, not just biological.
The minute I realized labored breathing and allergies weren’t just my burden in life, they were actually my body’s natural response to dirty air and products filled with harsh chemicals to create artificial scents, I couldn’t wait to get home and completely rid my house of all these toxins.
Just as I had thought, removing as many artificially scented things as was possible (you’ll find artificial fragrance in things you would never expect once you start looking) improved my asthma symptoms almost immediately. Within a few days of opening my windows and letting any built up artificial scents filter out, my breathing felt less constricted. Breathing more easily after removing certain items from your space is the most bright and clear sign that those things are harmful.
The Science Behind The Spite
No, I don’t just irrationally hate air fresheners, although I do really, really hate them. It just pisses me off that companies will use ingredients in their products that are proven to be detrimental to people (i.e. their customers!!) and actually charge us to be poisoned. Yes, I’m mad about it, but here’s the less angry sounding more science sounding reasons for my anger towards air fresheners.
- Air fresheners don’t get rid of smells; they just mask them with artificial fragrance or by interfering with your ability to smell. The latter is done by coating your nasal passages with an oil film or releasing a nerve-deadening agent.
- Known toxic chemicals that can be found in air fresheners include formaldehyde, camphor, ethanol, phenol, petroleum-based artificial fragrances (which contain their own mix of toxins) and benzyl alcohol.
- These chemicals can cause symptoms like headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, mental confusion, coughing and more. Some of the substances in air fresheners are also known carcinogens and others are hormone disruptors (the latter which cause issues with obesity, diabetes, female reproduction, male reproduction, hormone-sensitive cancers in females, prostate cancer in males, thyroid, and neurodevelopment and neuroendocrine systems as well as the healthy development of a fetus).
- Severity and triggers, as well as symptoms, vary from person to person. But when used in a confined area like a house, the intense amount of toxins in a small area can be especially problematic. Children and animals are particularly susceptible to harm from chemicals in indoor air.
- Asthma is a major problem related to air fresheners and perfumed cleaning products. In a 2007 European study, researchers found that using air fresheners as little as once a week can raise the risk of developing asthma in adults.
- In aerosol form, the dangers of these products are multiplied because of the micro-particles that are created of the chemicals.
- The Natural Resources Defense Council found that 12 of 14 brands of common household air fresheners contained phthalates (chemicals that are used to prolong the length of time that scented products maintain their fragrance).
- Regular exposure to phthalates can increase your risk of experiencing endocrine, reproductive, and developmental problems. Some of the brands that tested positive for phthalates did not include phthalates on their lists of ingredients; some of these brands were even labeled as being “all-natural” and “unscented.”
According to the EPA, air freshener contains four basic ingredients: formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, aerosol propellants, and p-dichlorobenzene.
Formaldehyde can cause a number of health effects including:
- Watery eyes
- Burning eye, nose, throat and other mucous membranes
- Difficulty breathing
- Asthma attacks
Petroleum distillates come from petrochemical manufacturing, which contributes to air, soil, and groundwater pollution. The effects on human health include:
- Respiratory problems
- Chemical pneumonia
- Pulmonary damage
Aerosol propellants can harm earth’s ozone layer. Likewise, they can damage human health including:
- Increased cancer risk
- Breathing problems
- Development of chronic health issues
Paradichlorobenzene (p-DCB) is often found in mothballs and may cause:
- Skin Lesions
- Liver damage
- Loss of appetite
- Changes to the blood
So basically, air fresheners are literally made out of poison. It just kind of blows my mind that companies are selling scented poison and charging people to pollute their own air. Is there an Anti-Air Freshener bumper sticker? Because I really want like 5.
If you’re jumping to throw out all your air fresheners but love having a beautiful smelling home, don’t hesitate! I’ve often said scent is one of my favorite senses, so I’ve taken great measures in finding ways to keep my home aromatherapeutic without actually poisoning myself and others. Check out my guide for how to make your own essential oil based room spray or try to make your own homemade potpourri. These are so safe you could actually consume them and be fine; your air freshener could never.
Let me know if you’ve felt any nastiness from air fresheners like I have or what you think about the production of these perfumed poisons. I’ve actually noticed that my sense of smell has become more fine-tuned since abandoning artificial fragrances; now I can’t stand how synthetic they smell!