“It smells like vinegar in here,” my son said after I had been cleaning mirrors.
I assured him that the smell would soon dissipate.
He said, “I like it. It smells clean.”
And herein lies the difference. He has grown up with vinegar and Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds and Tea Tree and Peppermint Castile Soap. All of these say, “Clean!” to him. When I started down the green road, I had to grow accustomed to the new smell of clean.
To me, growing up, the smell of clean was sharp, pungent, and nose scouring. It didn’t smell like any naturally occurring substance I knew of. When I smelled it, I felt reassured that everything was dirt and germ-free. However, after reading about the problems of fragrance in this article and this article and this article and this article, to list a few, I finally admitted that these nostalgic-to-me smells had to go.
Ironically, it is the lack of scent in many homemade cleaning recipes, and especially the lack of a lingering scent, that can be a real roadblock to a newbie’s adoption of safer cleaners. Consumers like the smell of Pledge and Tide and Febreze. And they’re supposed to. The manufacturers spend loads of time and money to sell consumers on their products’ smell. Can’t you picture the commercial with the stylishly dressed and made up woman sniffing her house’s air with satisfaction? It must smell clean. And don’t we all want our house to smell clean like hers?
So what makes those nearly addictive smells? It is certainly not lemon essential oil, or any other essential oil. If it were, that fact would be well broadcast across their labels and advertising. And the products would also be a good deal more expensive. The fragrance is made up of synthetic substances, including phthalates, sensitizers, and allergens. Phthalates (pronounced without the initial “p”) are widely acknowledged as endocrine (hormone) disrupters and a cause of birth defects in boys. Sensitizers are chemicals that cause a substantial proportion of repeatedly exposed people or animals to develop an allergic reaction in normal tissue.
The fragrances in cleaners, as well as other airborne components, are also a known source of indoor air pollution. In fact, my mind is still staggering under the stat I just came across that not only do 1 in 12 Americans have asthma, but 35.4% of them reported having missed work in 2017, the year previous to the study, due to workplace fragrances.
A further troubling fact is that until very recently, there has been no required disclosure for any ingredient in cleaning products, and even now, it’s only in select states like California and New York. There still isn’t any comprehensive required safety review of ingredients in general, though certain extreme and immediate hazards must be listed.
The fragrance can be the most toxic part about conventional cleaning products because it is unavoidable. Other aspects of cleaners can be dangerous, but only if you touch or ingest them. Three-year-olds notwithstanding, the adults who do most of the cleaning aren’t likely to gulp them down.
But what about breathing? It’s rather unavoidable. Every breathing being in the room during and after the cleaning will be taking these substances into the most absorbent organ in our bodies: our lungs. Fragrances added to these products are designed to be airborne, and they’re very good at it. The worst of it is, these fragrances don’t have to be there – they add nothing to the effectiveness of these products. They are added to the product for a variety of reasons: to mask unpleasant chemical smells, to create product loyalty, to leave lingering “clean” connotations, and to imply that the solutions are closely derived from nature.
It is for this reason that the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an independent consumer advocacy group, gives “Fragrance” in cleaning products a poor rating of C to D. (Here is their full Guide to Healthy Cleaning.)
If a product has a smell, then it has a fragrance. And to pop any remaining bubbles, “unscented” products can contain masking fragrances, too.
According to the EWG, “Fragrance”:
- Represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.
They go on to say:
- “Fragrance” is usually a chemical cocktail, often containing individual chemicals associated with allergic reactions and hormone disruption. Some fragrance chemicals have not been assessed for safety. Until all fragrance ingredients are disclosed on the label, consumers cannot know what is in a particular fragrance.
There is one exception to my ranting: listed “fragrance” that is approved by independent third party organic certifiers. Not all fragrances are created equal, and there are some good naturally occurring fragrances. A fragrance house may not want to share the specifics of its blend with a purchaser, but it will share the details with an independent certifier. With the certifier’s OK, customers and consumers have the trust and confidence they need. As always, read the labels, and follow the asterisks.
Adjusting to new norms
With green cleaning there is a different smell of clean. The upside is that you get to decide what that smell is. If you want, you can have no smell; that could be your smell of clean. In that case, add no essential oils to your cleaning solutions. The smell of vinegar or Sal Suds will dissipate when they dry. If you want your clean smell to be oranges, add essential orange oil. If you prefer lemon, add essential lemon oil. If you prefer patchouli with a twist of cinnamon and lime, you can do that, too. That’s the great thing here: you are in control. You make the products; you can add anything you want to them. Have fun! Match your mood, the weather, your guests, your dinner.
Also realize that essential oils have beneficial properties of their own. For example, lavender oil is very calming; peppermint oil is invigorating and a deterrent to animals and insects; tea tree oil is antibacterial.
I look for organic certification with my essential oils, but otherwise am not particularly brand loyal. Be sure you are buying pure essential oils, and not scented carrier oils. The bottles are small and pricey, but a little goes a long way, so don’t be deterred by the price. One bottle can last for a couple years. Five drops goes into a quart solution, 20 into a mop bucket.
Need some tips to help wean you and your loved ones off the smell of artificial fragrances?
- Use a combination of Dr. Bronner’s Tea Tree and Eucalyptus Pure-Castile Soap in your All-Purpose Spray. It has a pungent woodsiness that is very convincingly clean.
- Use a blend of essential oils of your choice.
- Scent your home with simmering potpourris (#13).
- Open the windows to flush out the air.
- Cook something! Soup, bread, cookies, coffee!
And eventually, get yourself used to a clean home smelling like, well, nothing in particular!