Oooo, That Smell

The National Academy of Sciences reports that 95% of the chemicals used in fragrances today are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, including known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.


Fourteen years ago, my boyfriend at the time was a taxi driver. One evening, he told me a story of how he picked up a fare that was…extremely odorous. Very ripe. Malefically pungent. As my boyfriend struggled against multiple scents of unknown origin, a song came on the radio. A Lynyrd Skynyrd song, with the lyrics…

Oooo, that smell! Can’t you smell that smell?!

For the next few hilarious minutes in that taxi, my boyfriend practically asphyxiated with the effort to not breath and not laugh, at the same time.

White Vinegar.

Since hearing that story, I often find that refrain Oooo that smell going around in my mind. But instead of being triggered by someone’s unfortunate lack of personal hygiene, it can come from the exact opposite.

Sometimes I will be out on a hike, enjoying the smell of the pines, when I am alerted to the presence of someone else on the trail. They may still be around the bend, but I can smell them. Or rather, I can smell their detergent.

Dr. Bronner’s castile soap

Other times, I will walk into a home or store and its as if I have walked into a wall of fragrance. But I’m not talking about the smell of baking cookies or roses from a florists shop. I mean synthetic, chemical fragrance that shoots straight up my nose, into my brain and threatens to blow off the top of my head. This kind of experience often feels like an assault, and it is all I can do to maintain decorum. If I am forced to remain in a space where I can’t escape such a smell, I will go through a gamut of emotions, from rage to despair. Sometimes, the only option is to crawl into a dark corner inside my head reserved for the socially outcast.

I used to think I was just “sensitive” or “had a strong sense of smell”. I’ve definitely received more than my fair share of eye rolling and dismissive acquiesence when I’ve had to ask a family member or housemate if they could pleeeeeeeease use a different detergent or take out the Glade Plug-in. As a matter of fact, it was only a few years ago that a friend said to me, “Ummm, you’re not being a pain in the ass. YOU HAVE A CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY.

Check out this awesome slideshow for more concise info than I can cram in this post.

The thing is, if you frequently use products with chemical fragrance, you may not notice how strong they smell. As a matter of fact, it was only after going fragrance free when I became a hippy in my 20’s that I began to notice how crazy synthetic scent was. This is because we become desensitized to strong smells. In other words, our poor little olfactory receptors become burned out and shut down. Just like a person will often tune out and turn off when they are being yelled at, when our sense of smell is assaulted, eventually our brain ignores the signal and our sense of smell goes offline.

Baking Soda

So yeah. Basically what I’m trying to tell you is that you may not even realize how much you stink. I love you and everything but Put the Method Cleaner Down.

But just to make sure we’re clear, this is not just about a personal preference for natural scents. Chemical fragrances are insidious things…

Many air fresheners contain nerve-deadening chemicals that coat your nasal passages and temporarily block your sense of smell,” reports National Geographic’s The Green Guide. Some of the most offensive ingredients—volatile organic compounds (VOCs), benzene and formaldehyde—can cause headaches and nausea and aggravate asthma, and have been linked to neurological damage and cancer.

Perhaps even more worrisome, though, are dispersants known as phthalates that cause hormonal and reproductive issues, birth defects and developmental disorders. A 2007 review by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 12 out of 14 widely available air fresheners contained phthalates. Some of the air fresheners that tested positive for phthalates were labeled as “all-natural” or “unscented.” Scientific American

Are you curious about your home products and whether or not you have culprits in your cabinet? This slide show of The Hall of Shame lists the most toxic cleaners and detergents as of 2012.

However, the product doesn’t have to be in the hall of shame to be a perpetrator of THE STANK. Here are some of the worst offenders when it comes to detergents. (I can’t even walk down the detergent aisle in Safeway. Anybody feel me on that?)

Are you interested in going fragrance free or curious about restoring your own sense of smell? Here are some tips:

1. Click on the links under the vinegar, baking soda and Bronner’s photos for fragrance-free cleaning recipes and directions…including oven cleaners and scrubbers for the toilet bowl. We make all our own cleaning products, and they work wonders, plus we save so much money!

2. When we have to buy products, here are some of our favorites:

Bon Ami

Seventh Generation*

*While these two products are easier to find and have fragrance free options, they unfortunately do not pass the test for Chemical Sensitivities.

3. Look for hair products and lotions that are fragrance free. We’re fortunate to live in an urban area where we can readily get these products, but if you are stuck with your local Walmart, then you may need to dig around the shelves. Here are some companies that have wider distribution:

Burt’s Bees (Burt’s Bees is not as reputable as they used to be, but again…wide distribution with fragrance free options = good place to start)

Desert Essence

Jason cosmetics

As well, you can ask your hair dresser for fragrance free products and they may sell several in-store.

4. A good rule of thumb is…if you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it on your skin. Our skin absorbs everything and puts it in our blood stream, so smearing it with toxins is obviously not the best idea. Keep it simple…use coconut oil for lotion, baking soda and apple cider vinegar for face scrub, etc.

5. But what about air freshener??? Um, maybe open a window? If it’s too cold out, first try to eliminate the source (clean the catbox, wipe off mold, vacuum etc) and then try simmering some potpourri or try one of these other suggestions.

6. What about my perfume? This is going to be a personal process for you, but a good place to start is at the natural body counter of your local health food store or Whole Foods. You may be surprised at how lovely a simple essential oil will smell on your skin. Here is a list of the aromatherapy properties of common oils and here is a list of recipes for making your own natural perfume. (Important: Consult a book or seller before applying essential oil directly to skin, as some need to be diluted with a carrier oil – like jojoba – first.)

How you doing? Feel overwhelmed? Be gentle with yourself…you don’t have to dump out your toiletries over night. Start with changing your detergent next time you run out and have to buy more. Investigate the natural product section at the store and pick something you feel excited about.

And next time I come over to spend the night, would you consider washing the sheets in unscented detergent? Pleeeeeeease?

For more information:

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: Fragrance

Medical News Today: Chemical Sensitivities and Perfume

EPA: An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality

Protect Your Family from the Hidden Hazards in Air Fresheners

A Guide to Green Cleaning Products

67 Homemade All-Natural Cleaning Recipes

Homemade Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent

Scientific American: Toxic Chemicals Found in Common Scented Laundry Products, Air Fresheners

Organic Consumers Association: How Toxic Are Your Household Cleaning Supplies?

Safe Laundry Detergent Guide

Dirty Laundry: Tackling the Truth on Tide

David Suzuki Foundation: Go Fragrance-Free


9 thoughts on “Oooo, That Smell

  1. I haven’t worn perfume regularly for a good few years because I find the scent gives me a monstrous headache – the spicy, “warm” scents are especially offensive, to the point where I’m feeling nauseous if I’m around them too often. That said, I realize after reading your post that I still use a good quantity of products that are chemically scented. Thanks for this informative post!


  2. oh man, do i hear you on all this! and “ooh that smell”…that song! it cracks me up, that is if i can make it through the whole thing 🙂 my grandma uses those glade plug-ins and i HATE them! every time i go there i unplug it. and these “scents” aren’t just in homes, they are in stores as well. been a Goodwill lately? that smell isn’t just musty clothes, they blow that shit all over the store. just yesterday i glared at the fan that was blowing it and ducked and ran away from it to avoid getting that stink on me!

    btw- your home smells incredible! that incense you use is the BEST!

  3. Yeah, i like this post. I’m sensitive to some smells but not all. Steve wears a pretty hefty deoderant and I wear perfume but i DID NOT KNOW til now that it can be carcinogenic!!!!!! argh! After Mia was born we eliminated all of our eco-unfriendly and scented detergents and cleaners. Her excema and allergy to all things soapy was the catalyst. Dude, we went 5 months without washing Oscar’s hair in anything but water….he was SO STOKED. But eventually, after a pretty rough and tumble night at cub scouts, it had to be done, he was protesting “but it looks after itself! it looks after itself! But whyyyyyyyyyyy!” The kids have an organic shampoo but rarely rarely use it now. Laziness for them, and experimental for me!

  4. My last etsy purchase was heavily scented and I actually emailed the seller and told her that I had to wash it twice and that a lot of folks had this problem and she was super nice about it. I think a lot of folks just don’t know about using unscented stuff ‘cos they’re so desensitized to the scent.

  5. really, you’d think people would be grasping this concept but no, so i am thankful that you are helping to grow this awareness.

    can you imagine the number of cured headaches people would have if they realized their fancy perfumes were toxic?

    it seems like it would be inuitive.
    i’m pretty much all baking soda/vinegar for my home and tress needs, with a lil bit of essenital oils cuz they’re awsum. (intentional misspelling.)

  6. THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS. I researched and wrote the world’s largest resource guide for people with chemical sensitivities, currently being translated into German. The Safe Canary Nest I cannot even handle essential oils or vinegar, hemp fabric and most foods now, my liver is that unable to cleanse my body of inTOXICants. Chlorine burns. I have seizures all the time. I get anaphylaxis and severe G-I problems. I live in one room with expensive air purifiers and a natural rubber bed with a few metal and organic cotton things. I can go nowhere without O2 with a ceramic mask and tygon tubes. No one can visit me unless they bathe in Dr Bronners unscented and wear the clothes that I have which never leave the building.

    One thing people need to know that is that UNSCENTED usually means there IS chemical fragrance and it was covered with OTHER chemicals. (The bastards!) 30% of Americans have chemical sensitiveness, often confused for fibromylgia or chronic fatigue. If you have mild MCS stay away from propane, exhaust, mold, chemicals of all kinds, etc. Often the cause is living in the country by pesticide sprays from farmers or government schemes to eliminate mosquitoes. The other one is Sick Building Syndrome. Carpet is extremely poisonous, as are pressboard and partical board,with much formaldehyde, and VOC paints and adhesiveness, causing many artists to develop chemical sensitivites.

    MCS is currently considered a liver disease. Due to swimming in a toxic soup and being born with your parent’s toxic load (this is one reason why mothers glow after giving birth – the toxins went into the child, especially the first born), the toxic load becomes too high and the liver cannot keep up. Detoxing make the toxic stuff want to leave but it bottlenecks and makes someone much sicker. (Herxmeier effect.) Food intolerances happen as the liver cannot make digestive enzymes, brain fog and short term memory loss occur as the ammonia levels rise, seizure happen when the liver cannot release stored sugars, etc.

    The only treatment is TOTAL avoidance. So for anyone with mild chemical sensitivities, protect yourself NOW or you’ll pay later. Get out of that prefab or moldy house, quit that job, whatever it takes. In the long run it’ll save you money and your health.

    Thanks again for writing this!!!

  7. So true- I’m always amazed at how much some people smell- I never used to notice it- but after going chemical free- it’s the worst! I can even smell where some people have walked in my house- like a dog. I feel like it’s so unfair that we- the people with the normal sense of smell- are labeled as overly sensitive- when in actuality- all it would take is for those other people to stop using so much chemical, and they would be ‘chemically sensitive’ too.

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