Does Fragrance in Laundry Products Cause Cancer?

Does Fragrance in Laundry Products Cause Cancer? about undefined

Many people like their clean laundry to smell good – but have you ever considered the health cost of those fresh “spring garden” and “island breeze” scents?

Scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets contain carcinogens, which can raise cancer risk. And the risk isn’t just for those who wear the scented clothes or wash them in their own homes. Scented laundry products create a source of pollution through emissions from dryer vents. This unregulated pollution sends the toxic scents out into surrounding homes, apartments, and neighborhoods.

Which means even if you’re laundering with fragrance-free products, your good health could fall victim to the laundry habits of those who live nearby.

Air pollution is closer to home than most think

In a study published by the International Journal ofAir Quality, Atmosphere, & Health, researchers tested the washer and dryer cycles in two residential homes. They considered three scenarios: one full wash cycle with no detergent, one with a scented liquid laundry detergent, and a third with both scented detergent and scented dryer sheets.

Researchers found more than 25 volatile air pollutants, which included acetaldehyde and benzene, both carcinogens-- all floating around in laundry room air and in the air outside the dryer vents.

According to the American Cancer Society, acetaldehyde has been shown in animal studies to cause both throat and nasal cancer. And benzene is known to cause blood cancers, including leukemia.

Ironically, anything coming out of your smokestack or tail pipe is regulated. But if it comes out of a dryer vent, no such luck.

How safe is your soap? 

It’s been reported that at least one American out of five experiences adverse health effects from air fresheners and about ten percent of us suffer from laundry products that are vented to the outdoors. Those with asthma report double the rate of health complications.

So, it’s both important to protect your own health and the health of your loved ones, as well as make sure you’re not contributing to the problem.

The research shows fragrance-free products dramatically improve the quality of laundry room air and the air emitted from dryer vents. After households using fragranced detergent in the study switched to using fragrance-free detergent, the concentrations of toxic chemicals such as limonene in laundry room air dropped by up to 70 percent and dryer vent emissions were almost totally eliminated.

Of course, not all fragrance-free laundry products are safe.

Scary unscented laundry soaps 

It’s not just the scented versions of laundry products that fill the air with cancer-causing toxins. Although counterintuitive, many unscented laundry products carry a shocking number of toxins.

In a study from the University of Washington on top-selling laundry products and air fresheners, researchers found products that carried dozens of chemicals, many of which are considered toxic or hazardous under federal law.

Yet at the time of the study, none of those chemicals was listed on the labels of the products. This included things like acetone, limonene, acetaldehyde, chloromethane, and 1,4-dioxane.

That last one, 1,4-dioxane, is one of the worst offenders. It’s a synthetic petrochemical carcinogen that is known to cause cancer, based on the results of animal studies. The dangers included an increased risk of breast cancer after exposure to the toxin. It also triggered liver and nasal tumors in rats.

The worst part about all of this is that manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the ingredients they use in fragrances or laundry products. The University of Washington researchers who analyzed consumer products had to buy those products at the store and then put them in an isolated laboratory system where the surrounding air was analyzed for volatile organic compounds.

How to rid your laundry room of poisons 

The best way to protect your family against cancer-causing laundry toxins is by browsing the wide array of “green cleaners” you can find at most any wellness store. Seventh Generation and Method continue to be two of the leading safe laundry detergents that test free of 1,4-dioxane and many other toxic chemicals. And this is a pretty good list from Green Matters of the cleanest, safest detergents on the market.

In addition, learn to read labels and avoid anything with these potentially poisonous ingredients:

  • Sodium Myreth Sulfate
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Phenoxyethanol
  • Polyethylene
  • Polyethylene glycol (PEG)
  • Polyoxyethylene
  • Polyethoxyethylene
  • Polyoxynolethylene
  • Any chemical that contains "-eth" or "-xynol" which are signs dioxane may be lurking

Easy, safe dryer sheet solution 

Instead of fabric softener and dryer sheets, use wool balls. They’re cheap and generally available through Amazon and Target. Most are the size of a softball and made of tightly wound wool. All you do is toss from one to three wool balls into your dryer with a load of wet clothes, and you’ll find your fabrics will feel softer (but without the fake scent!).

If you’re keen to have scented laundry, you can add about seven drops of essential oil to each wool dryer ball, and your clothes will come out smelling terrific. Popular oils include  lavender and jasmine.

When it comes to avoiding the scent of other peoples’ toxic laundry perfumes, there are a few things you can do. If you like to take walks, do it early in the day or late at night, when fewer people are likely to run a washer and dryer load.

And as your best defense, keep your immune system healthy by eating a heavily plant-based diet, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and keeping stress to a minimum.

Finally, if you’re outside and you detect the heavy fragrance of laundry perfumes… head back inside till the coast smells clear.

Best regards,

Lee Euler,


  1. “Scented laundry products release carcinogens, study finds.” By Ryan Jaslow for CBS News, 26 August 2011.
  2. “Toxic chemicals found in common scented laundry products, air fresheners.” By Hannah Hickey for the University of Washington, 23 July 2008.
  3. “Chemical emissions from residential dryer vents during use of fragranced laundry products,” By Anne C. Steinemann, et al, for Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health, An International Journal.

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