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Could Scented Laundry Products Be Making You Sick?

By HERWriter
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Wellness related image Photo: Getty Images

Picking out laundry detergent is more than just brand selection. Many top-selling brands also offer choices of scent. But those fragrances that make your laundry smell fresh and clean may also be pumping dangerous chemicals into the air through your dryer vent.

A recent study published online in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health tested air vented from dryers using top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and scented drier sheets. Researchers found multiple hazardous chemicals in the air, including two that are consider to be cancer-causing.

The study was led by Anne Steinemann, a University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering. Researchers used washers and dryers loaned to the study by two homeowners.

They started by carefully cleaning the insides of the units to remove chemical residue from previous washes. The team ran three sets of new, prewashed organic cotton towels through the machines -- one using only water (no products), one with top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent, and one using both the scented detergent and scented dryer sheets. A canister placed inside the opening of the dryer vent captured air exhaust from the dryer 15 minutes into the cycle.

The study showed the presence of more than 25 volatile organic compounds in the air venting from the dryers. Seven of those chemicals are considered to be hazardous air pollutants. Two of the seven -- acetaldehyde and benzene -- are classified as carcinogenic or cancer-causing.

Acetaldehyde is a chemical that is most commonly used to produce other chemicals, including the manufacture of perfumes, polyester resins and dyes. It is also used to preserve fish and fruit, as a flavoring agent, and as a solvent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks acetaldehyde as a “Group B2 probably human carcinogen.”

Benzene is a chemical that evaporates quickly into the air and has a sweet odor. It is highly flammable and is found in nature as a product of volcanoes and forest fires as well as crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Benzene is widely used in the U.S. to make plastics, resins, lubricants, dyes, detergents, and pesticides. It is also a product of car exhaust. Benzene has been classified by the EPA as a “Group A human carcinogen.”

"This is an interesting source of pollution because emissions from dryer vents are essentially unregulated and unmonitored," said Steinemann. "If they're coming out of a smokestack or tail pipe, they're regulated, but if they're coming out of a dryer vent, they're not."

The study results showed that in the Seattle area, the acetaldehyde emissions from the studied brand of detergent would equal approximately 3 percent of the total emissions of that chemical from car exhausts. The top five brands of detergent combined would equal approximately 6 percent of car emissions.

Steinemann said, “These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health. The chemicals can go into the air, down the drain and into water bodies.”

Steinemann recommended using unscented laundry products rather than those with fragrance added.


Science Daily. Scented Laundry Products Emit Hazardous Chemicals Through Drier Vents. Web. August 24, 2011.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Acetaldehyde. Web. August 24, 2011.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. Facts About Benzene. August 24, 2011.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Benzene. Web. August 24, 2011.

Reviewed on August 25, 2011
by Maryann Gromisch
Edited by Jody Smith

Add a Comment10 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Thirty years ago my young son at the time was reacting to laundry detergent (it turned out). My doctor at that time told me to quit using all fragranced laundry products. I have now developed my own issue with those fragrances and get sick over exposure to GAIN and other heavily scented products. They put fragrance in everything now. Garbage bags, cat litter (which my cat had a bad reaction to), vacuum bags etc. If something is found to be carcinogenic or even under suspicion it should be removed from the market. Chemical fragrances are unnecessary for life and I no longer use them. 10% of students K-12 have asthma. Others have COPD and other respiratory issues. Stop poisoning the masses. Every time you wash and dry your clothes with fragrance chemicals they are released to the air (dryer sheets/ softeners) or into the water (detergents and liquid fabric softeners). Please stop. Children, pets and elderly are especially vulnerable.

May 27, 2019 - 3:54pm
EmpowHER Guest

I have always had an aversion to strong smelling fragrances, but very recently I was overloaded by a coworker with her laundry detergent. I am embarrassed, shocked and dismayed that my physical reaction to the fragrance and chemical combination makes me so physically ill and the only thing that helps is to completely remove myself. This is no joke, it effects people's ability to work. I am horrified that I have to ask them to change their personal routine, which is not received well, and if they don't I have to suffer all the crazy effects of being exposed to what feels like a toxic substance and go home early or stay the shift and be sick all the time from overexposure. It's not believed to be a real problem, it's invisible, most people don't even smell the irritant, but it can attack and debilitate. I wish the big companies would stop putting so much poison in the products. Go ahead and try finding fragrance free products, not unscented, fragrance free. There is a difference. So discouraged about this, it's terrible to suffer with this invisible illness.

April 5, 2017 - 6:46pm
EmpowHER Guest

I completely agree with the comments about those horrible smells from washing powder. They made me physically sick and my wife has stopped using them. My grandaughter reeks of the stuff when she visits us and is often sick but her mother wont accept that it could be caused by that nauseating washing powder smell.

February 22, 2016 - 6:19am
EmpowHER Guest

the person from the industry is not sitting here with a carbon mask on and fans all over the place since neighbors laundry vent is 14 feet away and she LOVES strong scents.

I am sick from them, I don't know why I am and wish I was not but I am.
If anyone wants to sign my petition here it is

I am very new at doing online stuff but I have come to the conclusion that what my grandmother said “Do it and it’s done” is true so I put together a petition and hope word gets around in chemical sensitivity community, COPD and Asthma folks to look at my petition and sign if they agree so that three of the major manufacturers of cleaning, laundry and scented candle/plug in type products can hear from a lot of people instead of just me like an old crank, which I admit I am. Please forward this to anyone affected by fragrances for any health reason.

Sorry my “start up” of my campaign is a little wordy and discombobulated but these companies keep telling me there products are not bothering anybody so they need to hear from bothered people who can’t leave their windows open on neighbors laundry day etc!

Church and Dwight, Proctor and Gamble and SCJohnson: re-examine scented product formulas to see what is making some people sick by Rebecca Neary

and here is the link http://www.change.org/petitions/church-and-dwight-proctor-and-gamble-and-scjohnson-re-examine-scented-product-formulas-to-see-what-is-making-some-people-sick-3

It would be great if people were very specific about how fragrances affect them when saying why they sign. these companies claim no one complains except me.

November 3, 2012 - 9:02pm

I only used unscented laundry detergent, fabric softner, etc as I can't stand the overpowering perfume scent of all the products. It's reached a point where I have cover my nose just walking down the aisle to get what I need. The scents are so strong it is nauseating. I didn't need a study to tell me those scents stunk............I already knew.....LOL

For safe and effective washing and softening go scent free. It's that simple and easy. I like Downey's scent free softner best. I use Arm & Hammer scent free (green cap) detergent. My clothes are nice and clean AND don't stink!!!

September 1, 2011 - 4:58pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Lynda F)

The most delicious fragrance is that of washing that has been blowing in the fresh air, no added fragrances. I have recently complained to my wife about the irritating smell of detergent that makes my eyes itch and makes me sneeze. Besides the fact that the chemical stink is just unpleasant & totally unnecessary. That was a very long tirade from the industry, they must recognize they have a problem!

October 10, 2011 - 4:44pm

Your readers deserve to have some informed perspective on the allegations contained in the piece on fragranced laundry products.

The American Cleaning Institute, Consumer Specialty Products Association, International Fragrance Association-North America, and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, Inc. reiterate the safety and effectiveness of scented laundry products that are attacked by University of Washington professor Anne Steinemann in her latest paper and press release. The paper makes unsubstantiated claims about emissions from dryer vents after using certain laundry products.

Consumers should not be swayed by the sensationalist headlines that may come across the Internet related to this so-called research. Fragranced fabric care products are safe when used as directed. The safe and responsible manufacture and use of cleaning products is an absolute top priority within our industry.

Our groups are disappointed that the paper’s authors exploited their findings of volatile organic compounds emanating from dryer vents based on a dataset of such limited size and plagued by the confounding effects of their study design. Their own data could equally support the conclusion that most of the trace compounds could come from sources other than laundry products.

The information provided in the paper is far short of being detailed enough to replicate the study – a standard measure of any truly scientific study – let alone judge the applicability of the findings to how consumers use the products investigated in the study. The information is lacking a number of factors that could impact the fate of the ingredients in the products studied:

• The brands and models of the washers and dryers used in the study.
• The operational settings of the washers and dryers during the study e.g., load size setting, agitator setting, wash/rinse and dryer temperature setting, number of wash/rinse cycles and their duration.
• The types of dryers - gas vs. electric (note: if a gas dryer were used, exhaust from the combustion of the gas would be in the dryer vent emissions).
• The highest concentrations of 4 of the 7 hazardous air pollutants detected were found when no laundry products were included.
• The number of controls used in the study is limited. They should include non-fragranced products as well as using detergent or dryer sheets alone.

Regarding the special attention that was given to the findings on benzene, the authors have stretched beyond the limits of imagination and speculation. Benzene is naturally present in various foods and constantly present in both indoor and outdoor air. It is not used in fragranced products. The author’s conclusions are completely unsupported by their own data. No benzene was found in dryer emission samples at one household, with and without products. Meanwhile, they found benzene in the emissions from another dryer when product was not used, as well as when both laundry and dryer products were used. Although, no benzene emissions were detected when using just laundry detergent, the data shows that benzene levels were actually lowered when clothes were washed with detergents and dried using a dryer sheet for the second dryer. Thus, it is false to conclude that the benzene they measured was due to the products.

Regarding trace elements of acetaldehyde that was found: acetaldehyde is emitted from a wide range of natural sources, including apples and people's breath. In fact, the human body generates significant levels of acetaldehyde anytime an alcoholic product is ingested, because acetaldehyde is created during the metabolism of alcohol. The levels in the body as a result of alcohol breakdown would be expected to be higher than those that could occur from atmospheric exposure to dryer vent exhaust. In fact, acetaldehyde concentrations from using no products were similar or even higher than the results they obtained when products were used.

Political activism should never trump good science and common sense. Consumers can continue to use laundry and fabric care products like they do every day: safely and effectively.

For more information, you can visit the website of the American Cleaning Institute at www.cleaninginstitute.org.

August 30, 2011 - 5:13am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to bsansoni)

This is such BS. People who have chemical sensitivity are TORTURED by scented laundry products. On people, from the vents, the residue it leaves on everything like seats and everything people touch. MILLIONS are affected by this and cannot even open doors or wiondows or go outside when neighbors do there "safe" scented laundry. I also konw it for an ABSOLUTE Fact, as i have gotten many people who were having many issues with heart trouble and breatyhing problems switch to unscented laundry and stop being so ill. Many got better completely. Its not the brand of dryers, LMFAO, its the toxic scnted laundry carp these companies put in their products. I know becaue scented laundry has pretty much ruined my life and almost leaves me being a bubble person. And go ahead, keep using it. keep poisoning your family and neighbors. I think of my niece who laughed at this and made fun of me who suddenly got severe asthma and guess what was triggering it? YEP! scented laundry and dryer sheets!

January 27, 2020 - 11:43am
(reply to bsansoni)

For myself, it is not a question of safety that concerns me. It is the fact that the scents offend my sense of smell to the point of making me feel nauseous. For many people it is just that the scents are TOO perfumed, TOO strong, and leave us gagging. It's not just scented laundry products either, but also soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, perfumes and colognes, deoderants. The smell is overpowering and when people use scented laundry products and add in different scents from their deorderants, hair products and perfumes they wear..........................it's a regular gagfest. I don't believe I have a chemical sensitivity, I just know I can't stomach all the scents anymore. I no longer buy cleaning products for the same reason. I use vinegar and tea tree oil at home for cleaning and disinfecting, including using vinegar in my laundry as a water softer, whitener, and fabric softener.

And I honestly couldn't care less about so called safe levels of chemicals.....we have been so bombarded with so many different toxins that we have become sensitive to them. The less exposure I have to them, the better I feel. It is really just that simple. We the People really DO know our bodies, contrary to what scientists try to convince us of. All these scented products stink and make me feel ill to my stomach.

I think as we age we become more sensitive to the perfumes and the scents just nauseate us. At least that is how it is for me.

November 3, 2012 - 10:54pm

I live near the UW and heard about this study a while ago. Since then, I have completely stopped using softeners and now use dryer balls instead. My towels don't come out as soft and fluffy as they used to but at least we've decreased our exposure to toxins.

August 27, 2011 - 10:23pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.