School Scent Free Programs

Fragrance Chemicals are not Harmless

“84% of these ingredients have never been tested for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally.” (Ashford and Miller, Chemical Exposures: Low levels and High Stakes.”)1

The Fragrance industry is a self-regulated industry. “If it were unhealthy the government wouldn’t let it be sold” is a dreamer’s argument. Governments are attempting to evaluate chemicals for human and environmental impacts but it is a huge task. See the Government of Canada’s Chemical Management Plan

“84% of these ingredients have never been tested for human toxicity, or have been tested only minimally.” (Ashford and Miller, Chemical Exposures: Low levels and High Stakes.”)1

Some chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, and nervous system problems are still in use even after the US FDA and Health Canada requested (not legislated) that they be discontinued. For example, “A few chemicals found in fragrances designated as hazardous waste disposal chemicals are: methylene chloride, methyl ethyl keytone, methyl isobutyl ketone, ethanol, benzyl chloride, and toluene. Toluene not only triggers asthma attacks, it is known to produce asthma in previously healthy people.” (Citizens for a Toxic Free Marin).

A US EPA study found 100% of perfumes in the study contained toluene, a known mutagen and sensitizer. (1991) Toluene is still used in fragrances today. The US EPA found the air in department stores contained more chemicals than that of car body shops. The most abundant chemical in both was toluene, a known toxic chemical, and teratogen, which can damage the developing fetus. Repeated exposure to toluene can damage bone marrow, damage the liver and kidneys, slow reflexes, and at the very least cause headaches and trouble concentrating. (Bridges, 2002)

Another commonly used chemical is diethyl phthalate (DEP), which is used to make scents last longer. It can cause allergic skin reactions (contact dermatitis) and is classified as a skin sensitizer and a reproductive toxin. DEP is commonly found in tissues of women of childbearing age. An analysis of a popular perfume found DEP made up over 10% of the product. (FDA Petition #99P-1340, 1999) The US Consumer Product Safety commission declared phthalates should be a banned hazardous substance. (–standards/statutes/the-consumer-product-safety-improvement-act/phthalates/chronic-hazard-advisory-panel-chap-on-phthalates/)

Fragrance Facts

Fragrances are 97% synthetic chemicals, with as many as 400 chemicals in a single fragrance.

By scents we mean fragrances, aromas, or perfumes that add a smell to something else.

Scents can be found in personal-care products such as perfumes, aftershaves, colognes, shampoos, soaps, lotions, and deodorants. They are also found in household items, such as air fresheners, deodorizers, candles, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and cleaning products.

Fragrances are 97% synthetic chemicals, with as many as 400 chemicals in a single fragrance. That a shampoo smells like strawberries is not the issue. The issue is that the chemicals make our neurosensors believe they are detecting the smell of strawberries.

  • Combinations from among the 6000 available chemicals create the smell of everything from new-car-smell to copies of expensive French perfumes.
  • Fragrances were once used for special events only. Now man-made fragrance chemicals are used in everything from cleaning materials and toys to garbage bags and kitty litter. One study found people wore or used an average of 21 synthetically scented products daily. (Rogers, Tired or Toxic)
  • The term “fragrance chemicals” includes both man-made and natural materials, and these natural volatiles contribute to pollution levels and can affect health just as the man-made ones do. Chemicals used to add scents to products can cause serious health problems, especially for people with lung diseases such as asthma or COPD and environmental sensitivity. Scents enter our bodies through our skin and our lungs. While some people are only mildly affected others have severe health effects. These chemicals can collect in body tissue. Go to

Concerns around fragrance use include:

  1. Causing, triggering, or worsening health conditions.
  2. Longer-term impact from bioaccumulation of fragrance chemicals in body tissue.
  3. Air and water pollution.


“Unscented,” “fragrance free,” “hypoallergenic,” “natural,” “Green,” “Floral,” “outdoor fresh,” and “Environmentally Friendly” are words that have no legal definition. In other words, they mean nothing and serve only to give the consumer a false sense of security. “Fragrance Free” is usually more reliable.

Fragrance Chemicals as Indoor Air Pollutants

Volatile Organic Compounds from fragrances can add significantly to the level of indoor air pollution. That they contribute to measurable TVOC (Total Volatile Organic Compound) levels is formally recognized by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers), the US EPA, CMHC, Health Canada, and most standard-setting agencies and organizations dealing with Indoor Air Quality.

Fragrances can affect the brain and nervous system

“Confusion, the inability to follow conversation, impaired word-finding, and other language impairments have been associated with exposure to indoor air volatiles such as fragrance chemicals.”

Olfactory pathways provide the most direct connection to the brain and also provide a path for toxic substances to reach the brain. These may have immediate effects or longer-term effects. Several research studies indicate fragrances can affect emotion, feelings, and even have drug-like effects such as decreased alertness (Bridges, 2002). A series of studies by Dr. Tyler Lorig (of Washington Lee University, Kentucky) using commercial perfume products to supply odors, concluded that the studies “provide clear evidence that undetected odors alter neurophysiology and behaviour.” (Bridges, 2002)

“Confusion, the inability to follow conversation, impaired word-finding, and other language impairments have been associated with exposure to indoor air volatiles such as fragrance chemicals.” also may result in children being misdiagnosed as learning-impaired or can interfere with a teacher’s job function.”

No Scents Makes Good Sense

Virtually every respiratory health organization lists fragrance as a trigger for asthma.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, fragrances cause 30% of all allergic reactions. It only takes one person entering a building wearing a scented product to affect the air quality. This is because scented products can drift throughout an entire area wherever air takes them.

An EPA study concluded that scented products contain some materials that are low-level toxins, meaning they cause reactions even at low levels. Benzaldehyde and Toluene are both examples. Benzaldehyde is a sensitizer, possible mutagen and targets the nerves and liver. Toluene is an irritant and has neurological effects. In the Fall of 1999 a product was marketed to control dust mites. Hundreds of complaints of health effects were received by US authorities. The product was recalled within 3 months and the US EPA determined that the fragrance was the cause of the symptoms, although nothing was done to pinpoint what in particular in the fragrance was problematic to asthmatics. (Bridges, 2002) Workers in the perfume industry are among those with the highest rates of asthma. (Ross, Keynes, McDonald, 1998) An epidemiological study of children living near perfume factories found a higher rate of asthma than the normal population. (Revich, 1995) A study by the US Food and Drug Administration determined that 72% of asthmatics experience respiratory symptoms when exposed to fragrances. (Healthy School Handbook)

It is not necessary to smell the fragrance to experience physiological effects. In Millqvest and Lowhagan’s placebo-controlled research, perfume was inhaled through the mouth, with the nose plugged, and asthma was reliably produced.

Virtually every respiratory health organization lists fragrance as a trigger for asthma. The Sentinel Report found 13% of Nova Scotian school children were diagnosed asthmatics. For the asthmatics alone, we need scent-free programs.

Skin is not a barrier

Evidence for contact dermatitis, eczema, and photosensitivity caused and triggered by fragrances is well documented, even by the fragrance industry. Perfume allergy is one of the most frequent types of contact allergy, especially in children with eczema. Dermatologists recommend fragranced products not be used on children, yet many soaps, toiletries and other children’s products are heavily fragranced – many contain known skin allergens, sometimes at levels that exceed industry recommendations for safety. (Rastogi, Johanson,et al, 1999)

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A Scent-Free Management Plan for Schools

Keep in mind

  1. Not all people will experience obvious symptoms
  2. Symptoms that are not obvious, but are still measurable, can still be present.
  3. Not all fragrance ingredients may be harmful. In some cases it is a non-aromatic binder or surfactant that causes the reaction.

However, until there is proof of no harm, the Precautionary Principle needs to be employed to protect the right of all to breathe good indoor air. All fragrance products need to be addressed under a scent-free program.

What to Do

  1. Review existing policies/programs.
  2. Note sources of fragrance materials in your school.
  3. What approach would work in your school?
  • Primary responsibility for health and safety rests with the administration, but a coordinated committee of staff, administration, students, and parents can improve delivery.
  • Successful programs tend to be education-based, but with a disciplinary plan similar to the tobacco policy.
  1. Collect solid information and provide:
  • Information packages for staff, students, and parents.
  • Talks from informed presenters at appropriate forums to staff, PTA, SAC, and students.
  • Curriculum integration.
  • Encourage open discussion in class, at PTA, SAC, and JOHSC meetings about the health effects from scented products and the advantages of a scent free program to the learning environment.
  • Include scent free information and websites in the student handbooks.
  • Signs in the school, especially at entrances.
  • Newsletters at key times: September, January, and a reminder in June to buy scent free school supplies over the summer.
  • Regular notice of the policy in home and school communications and on the school website.
  • Include “This is a smoke-free, scent-free school” at the top of all school newsletters. Some schools are calling their programs “Scent-Smart” instead of “Scent -Free”.
  • Let the wider community know why your school is choosing to address the scent issue.
  • At the time of hiring, and when appropriate, remind substitute teachers this is a scent free school.

Draft Statement:
“In response to health concerns, this school has developed a Scented Products Management Plan. Scented products such as hair sprays, perfume, and scented deodorants, and scented school supplies may trigger reactions such as respiratory distress and headaches. Staff, students, and visitors are asked to support our Scent-Smart Program by not wearing or using scented products on school property.”

  1. How will conflicts be resolved? Will existing policies help or hinder?
  2. Communicate clear expectations about:
  • What constitutes a breach of the program.
  • What disciplinary actions are possible (ie: warnings, sending home to change and shower, or suspension.)
  1. Encourage a culture where scent-free is the norm. Ongoing communication is essential to this.
  2. Providing alternative product information is very important to program success.
  • EHANS Guide to Less Toxic Products
  1. Ongoing committee follow-up: How is the program working? What needs changing or shoring up?

Remember, parental support and visitor support are essential. Many products are applied at home, and many household products (such as laundry products, room deodorizers) are carried to school on clothing.

Parents who come to the school for meetings and activities and will need to be scent free too.

Sources of information

 The Lung Association

 The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety

 CASLE (Canadians for A Safe Learning Environment)

 The Job Accommodation Network

The primary report on EI to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC)

Direct link to the CHRC policy

Legal perspective of the CHRC policy

US Environmental Protection Agency

Examples of Policies and Guidelines

Nova Scotia Department of Health internal policy for a scent-free workplace

Dalhousie University Environmental Health and Safety Committee

British Columbia Teacher’s Federation, Section 7

Halton Board of Education, Ontario

New Brunswick Board of Education, School District 8

MCS Canada

United States Job Accommodation Network

York University Department of Occupational Health and Safety


Book review by Agnes Malouf

(Ashford and Miller, Chemical Exposures: Low levels and High Stakes.”)