Freshen the Air without Harmful Chemicals

It’s About Health, Not a Preference
Think of a pleasant odor that makes you say, “Ahhh” and it’s likely to be a food or floral smell or one relating to a memory from youth. Scents can enhance our lives but while some people are bothered by certain smells, many people are flat out made sick by odors, even natural, pleasant ones.

It’s hard for some to understand, but being “sensitive” to fragrance is not about a preference. It’s a health issue that has left many feeling out of control in this modern, uber-scented lifestyle. Fragrance is added to cleaning products, personal care products, foods and beverages. As many are now realizing, their love of fragrance has also contributed to symptoms like headaches, rashes, dizziness, migraines, asthma attacks, mental confusion, coughing and others. For them, the only healthful choice is using fragrance-free products.

Synthetic air fresheners are considered sources of air pollution by health organizations like the Canadian and American Lung Associations which warn against their use.

Commercials Create a False Need
TV commercials now show housewives spraying already clean sofas and sheets with perfume, creating a false need. Clever marketing states that adding chemicals into the air is cleaning it and even reducing allergies. But is it really? Men and women are taught that their bodies stink and teens are shown how a chemical scent will turn on the opposite sex over their natural smells. The culture today has brought kids into the fragranced fold like never before. How many products are they using on their bodies and breathing in every single day? The health risks, effects on moods and learning are taken seriously enough that many schools have fragrance-free policies.

What’s in Air Fresheners and Laundry Products?
Anne Steinemann, an environmental researcher from the University of Washington just released the results of a study which found the following:
* 6 best-selling items (three air fresheners and three laundry products) contained nearly 100 volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

*None of the VOCs were listed on any product label.

*10 of the VOCs are regulated as toxic or hazardous under U.S. laws.

*3 of the ten are classified as hazardous air pollutants.

Watch The Environmental Working Group’s video “What is Fragrance” here.

Is Natural OK for Everyone?
No. While some people tolerate natural ingredients over synthetic ones, others suffer allergic reactions. The scent of pine, orange, incence and certain essential oils can trigger symptoms. Even a whiff of nuts or fish provides enough of the food to trigger an attack in allergic individuals.

*Remove the source of the smell. If it smells bad, it could be an indication of bacteria, VOC’s or mold, all of which need to be taken seriously for the health of occupants.

*Create cross-ventilation to remove odors. Open windows in different rooms to create a current of air.

*Filter the air with a carbon filter. Hepa filters remove particulate matter like that in smoke. For VOC’s, a carbon filter is necessary. Be careful of ozone, an irritant which adds to the problem.

*Absorb the odor with zeolite bags or baking soda. Tea bags have been proven to absorb formaldehyde. Discard and replace with new ones.

*Essential oils smells are potent, but they also have physiological and psychological effects. Use with caution. A drop of a theraputic-grade oil may not affect everyone the same way while it adds fragrance.

*Mix water and add a few drops of an essential oil and spray into the air.

*Vinegar neutralizes some odors. Mix 1 tsp vinegar with one tsp baking soda and 1 c. water in a spray bottle. Spray for cooking smells. Or, use it alone on carpets with pet odors. Or, leave a bowl of vinegar out overnight to remove odors in a room. Beware that some people cannot tolerate even the smell of vinegar.

Products labelled as unscented may contain synthetic fragrances that mask the smells of the ingredients. This Guide to Less Toxic Products has done the detective work and recommends fragrance-free products which don’t contain masking agents and which are less toxic.

The Bottom Line
The home is a good place to create a healthy environment. Unlike the workplace and other public buildings, we can control what comes in and by spending the most time here during the day, we’re helping our bodies recuperate and heal.

Search tools to find out what is in household and personal products as well as alternatives.

We discussed this topic in episode 7 Living in a Chemical Soup Talkcast. Listen to mp3 here.

About Lynn

Blogger, talkcaster and teacher.
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7 Responses to Freshen the Air without Harmful Chemicals

  1. Ruth A. says:

    Please comment on how difficult it is to find an apartment that is safe. I will be moving to a senior complex soon, and have asked all the questions I can concerning fragrances, cigarette smoke (it is a smoke-free building), use of air fresheners, etc. but with this being my 5th move within 5 years, I am so anxious about the “unknowns” that I am miserable!
    The anxiety in dealing with the MCS lifestyle is harder for me than the actual exposures themselves!
    There is one couple there who do grilling out, and they are a short ways from the apartment that I will
    be moving into. Do I have a right to tell them they can not grill anymore, because of my problem with the chemicals?

  2. Ruth A. says:

    Please let me know by email when this comment is addressed.

  3. Lynn says:

    Hi Ruth,

    Finding safe housing is very difficult. It sounds like you know your share about that!

    Do people have the right to grill outside and spray air fresheners in their own suites? Of course they do. Do you have the right to be healthy in your own home? Of course you do. Stalemate! So I’ll let the ‘rights’ issue go. There is no legal protection for renters for this problem at this time.

    By getting anxious before there is a problem, you’ll only worsen your symptoms. Try to relax and deal with the people and issues as they arise, after you’ve done what you can do prevent. Join a support group like MCS Canadian Sources. They give great support on such difficult things to do. And help find the words.

    For me, I don’t expect people to change so any accommodation and understanding I receive is a bonus. I think of dealing with neighbours as a negotiation. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If they’re reasonable, you can probably make requests like, “Can you grill further away from my open window? It’s coming right in.”

    Or, “Can you use this laundry detergent instead? I’ll buy you a free box to start!”

    Or, “Would you be willing to remove the air freshener in your suit in exchange for my collecting your mail when you’re gone on holidays or something you can do?”

    If they’re unreasonable, and they won’t change their behaviour, what can you do? They aren’t breaking the law. I might consider moving and that’s why signing a shorter term lease is helpful.

    I do what I can to prevent and manage but when there are exposures, it’s time to cope. Sleep, prevent other fumes from entering with tape/foil, do nothing but rest are some coping strategies.

    On The Canary Report, there is a letter written by someone with MCS. A couple asking for accommodations from neighbours. A template you can use.

    If I go to talk with mine with a request, I always bring a bottle of wine, a plate of cookies or a box of chocolates along. It helps. It’s been a few years and now, and I don’t feel as strange talking to them about it. One even said, “Call any time you’re having a problem.”

    Also, go talk to the caretaker and make sure he/she knows about your situation and that he/she can ask you about cleaning products, pest management, etc. Educate. And take along a present if you’re asking for something!

    Seriously, without open communication and an invitation to ask questions, you’re just telling and how well do people respond when they’re told? Not very. By letting them know that they can always call and ask if something is safe for you, you save yourself problems. Start opening up a line of communication. Think longer term. If you are unable, maybe a diplomatic friend can speak on your behalf. Or a brochure with a letter.

    Others will I’m sure have other opinions from mine.
    Keep breathing. Try to prepare by finding a brochure you can hand out to inform others. Make those calls and keep talking to people you’ll be living close to as well as to those who can most affect you by their choices.

    Best of luck in your new place. Hope you can stay and enjoy it for a long while.

  4. Ruth A. says:

    Thank you so much, Lynn! These suggestions are really well focused and should help a lot. I will make a copy of this reply to share with my other sensitive friends.
    Incidentally, I just finished listening to the interview that you did with an Asian gentleman on the topic of Mold in homes, what to do about it, symptoms, etc.
    He was so very articulate and plain spoken in his explanations and solutions for this problem. I have MCS today because I lived in a moldy house in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. My husband tried to remediate the mold in the walls and ceiling of our home, without protective gear, used bleach to wipe down the mold with, and I’m sure scattered the spores all over the entire house. Shortly after that he developed Sacoma Cancer and died within a year.
    I still have MCS and some neurological symptoms that are increasing. That is why this apartment that I
    am going to rent is such a source of anxiety to me.
    I am tired of moving…I can not afford a house of my own, as I can’t work now. Some days it doesn’t make sense to get up at all. I believe I was feeling better a year ago….so it is progressive, I assume.
    Thank you again for your very excellent program and blog!

    • Lynn says:

      Posting on behalf of Julie from

      Ruth, I think Lynn answered your question/concerns beautifully. I’m not sure what to add to that. I will say that there is a theory that MCS is caused by a hyperaroused amygdala – the area of the brain involved in our unconscious ‘fight or flight’ response to perceived threats.

      Part of this theory is that an environmental toxic exposure causes damage to the amygdala, and then we get stuck in an unconscious cycle of fear and anxiety. Other body systems are then downregulated (e.g., detoxification system, immune system) in order to focus on the perceived emergency. High anxiety seems to go hand-in-hand with MCS so I personally believe in this theory.

      What can help is to use meditation, breathing techniques, and neurolinguistic programming to calm the amygdala and change our stress response.I am currently doing the Ashok Gupta Brain Retraining Program to address this hyperaroused amygdala state. Here is his website if you are interested:

      It takes dedication and focus but I am already seeing changes in my stress response and consider it well worth it for that alone. Whether it helps with my MCS is still to be seen. Anyway, I wish you all the best in your new place!!

      Julie G.

  5. mary rives says:


    The letter template you refer to was written by my husband, Keith Carlson and me! It helped a little but not enough for our neighborhood to be safe. May others have better luck than we did with this! We found we just need to leave this area and the north east. Soon we will be traveling in an rv, doing lots of boondocking and healing in nature! It will be quite the adventure and we will write about it, for sure. Our blog has one entry this far:


  6. Sandy says:

    Getting accomodations is an ongoing process. Even the simplest little things are difficult. For example: In the kitchenette where I work people wash their dishes. Of course, they always leave a mound of soap suds in the sink. The chemical eventually drifts over to my desk and I have difficulty breathing. As soon as I start having trouble I know someone has left suds in the sink. I make several trips a day to rinse out the sink. So, I put up a sign directly under the one that says to please clean up after yourself. My sign simply said “If you wash your dishes, kindly rinse all soap suds from the sink. Thank you.”. It worked great for a few weeks, but now people have gotten lazy and leave the mountain of suds there for me to deal with. Same thing with perfumes. HR sends out an email to ask people not to wear perfume (it is not a company policy, however). They comply for a while, but eventually go back to soaking themselves in it.

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