Home Air Quality Is Your Signature Scent Making Guests Sick?

Is Your Signature Scent Making Guests Sick?

Mark Kohoot

According to a recent report published by Allied Market Research, the global market for air fresheners could reach $12 billion by 2023. One of the areas that is expected to see the most growth in this area is hotels and hospitality, which, more and more, have started to develop “signature scents” as part of their brand marketing strategy, in lieu of more generic, commercial air freshener options.

Signature scents are nothing new; in fact, hotel chains pour millions of dollars into developing these formulas, often enlisting the help of high-end perfumers to do so. However, there is a dark side to these, and most other fragrance products meant to scent the air: they are filled with toxic chemicals. Studies have shown that fewer than 10 percent of all volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are typically disclosed on air freshener labels or material safety data sheets, and that these fragrances are the most common source of VOCs contributing to indoor air pollution.

Understandably, it can be easy to write this type of information off as a scare tactic that would benefit those with a certain amount of skin in the game, in particular those companies selling “green” alternatives. Yet, the truth is, numerous scientific studies support the notion that many artificially-scented products contribute to indoor air pollution and can exacerbate certain health conditions including asthma. In fact, some studies have shown that exposure to chemicals in many common air fresheners may even contribute to serious health problems.

What the Research Says About Air Fresheners, Artificial Fragrance, Toxicity

In 2009, Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a report on the “odor neutralizer” Febreze Air Effects as part of a larger study examining the chemicals in cleaning products used in California schools. Their analysis resulted in the detection of 89 airborne contaminants, including acetaldehyde, exposure to which the CDC notes can cause side effects including eye, nose and throat irritation; dermatitis; cough; central nervous system depression and even pulmonary edema.

EWG later published additional research, this time specifically on air fresheners. One of the most disturbing findings was that more than 75 percent of products analyzed contained phthalates. Phthalates are known hormone disruptors that can result in reduced sperm counts and reproductive malformations, and have been linked to liver and breast cancers, diabetes, and obesity.


  • Research out of Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center has linked fetal exposure to phthalates with autism, ADHD and neurological disorders.
  • A 2008 University of Washington study found that eight unnamed, but widely-used air fresheners, released an average of 18 chemicals into the air. On average, one in five of these chemicals were hazardous substances highlighted in federal and some state pollution standards.
  • A 2007 review by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nonprofit, found that 12 out of the 14 common air fresheners they analyzed contained phthalates. Worse, several of the air fresheners that tested positive for these chemicals were labeled as “all-natural” or “unscented.”
  • The 2009 to 2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey tracked the presence of VOCs in a cross-sectional study of the country’s home indoor air quality. Of the 84 VOCs measured, 47 were detectable in more than 50 percent of homes. These included decanal, 2-furancarboxaldehyde, hexanal, nonanal, octanal, benzene, styrene, α-pinene, 2-methyl-1,2-butadiene and naphthalene—all of which are negatively associated with lung function.

Accidental Immunity: Fragrance & the FDA

If air fresheners and other signature scents are as toxic as the research indicates, how are consumer packaged goods companies and fragrance manufacturers allowed to continue to develop and distribute products that may pose a threat to public health? The answer has to do with the way in which the catch-all term “fragrance” is regulated by the FDA.

The U.S. government doesn’t require the disclosure of the individual chemical constituents of a specific fragrance as it is viewed as a type of trade secret. It only requires that the use of the general term “fragrance”—whatever that might mean—in a product is disclosed. This protection is the result of a time when high-end perfumeries wanted to protect their signature scents from being copied. When these regulations were codified by the United States Congress in 1938 as part of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, most fragrances were natural and plant derived, and limited almost solely to perfumes and colognes. Unfortunately, these long-standing regulations have fostered the unintended consequence of allowing artificial fragrances, such as those found in air fresheners, to be utilized in all manner of products.

Alternatives to Artificial Fragrances

Contrary to many marketing messages, there is no way to actually “scrub” the air clean, and, even if there was, spraying yet more chemical pollutants into the air would never be the answer. However, there are many excellent options to air fresheners and “signature scents” that are natural and completely non-toxic. One is adding more plants—nature’s air filters—to indoor environments. For instance, spider plants can filter out carbon monoxide; gerber daisies can help remove trichloroethylene (a common chemical used in dry cleaning processes); and aloe vera plants assist in removing both benzene and formaldehyde from indoor areas.

Creating an environment where windows can be easily opened in order to air out rooms and common areas is also helpful to preserving indoor air quality, as is running HEPA air filtration systems and minimizing the use of chemical cleaners.

And, crucially, if you do choose to scent the air in your facility in order to add ambiance, or as part of your brand marketing plan, consider your guest’s wellbeing and opt for pure essential oils, not artificial fragrances. Be sure that any oils you choose are labeled “essential” oils, rather than “fragrance” oils. Essential oils are natural and derived from plants. Fragrance oils, on the other hand, might appear the same as they are often packaged in similar bottles, but are derived mainly from petrochemicals, and, depending on the formulation, can be just as toxic as products like Febreze or Glade. There are commercial essential oil diffusers that can be purchased for just such a purpose and are well worth the investment to ensure your guests are able to fully enjoy both your hospitality, and a toxin-free stay.

Mark Kohoot is the founder and CEO of Aeroscena, the parent company and research division behind Ascents Clinical Aromatherapy products, which include large room essential oil diffusers and personal inhalers featuring Aeroscena’s proprietary formulas. The company’s mission is to make aromatherapy a viable adjunct treatment option in clinical environments. Aeroscena’s corporate headquarters is located on the campus of the Cleveland Clinic, giving the company unparalleled access to some of the best medical facilities and practitioners in the world.