Scent Sensitivity and Our Skin

There are so many scents I love! The smell of freshly cut grass, laundry that's been air dried outdoors, hyacinths in Spring, tomatoes growing in the greenhouse, eucalyptus trees in the Cypriot mountains ... For many of these scents it's the reminder of a happy memory. What's your favourite fragrance? 

scented laundry drying

Scents and Sources

Think about the number of scents you come into contact with regularly. Besides the obvious ones like perfume and personal deodorant, here are some examples of scented products you might not even think about, that you use every single day: 

  • air fresheners
  • room deodorisers
  • candles
  • laundry detergents
  • fabric softeners
  • cleaning products
  • tumble dryer sheets

If I consider my own routine, I can easily say there are at least five products from the list above that I use often, mostly without even thinking. According to this American study, the vast majority of us are exposed to fragranced products on a weekly basis. 

  • 72.8 % air fresheners and deodorisers
  • 79.9 % cleaning supplies
  • 84.1 % laundry products
  • 77.0 % household products
  • 70.2 % fragrance
  • 3.0 % other

Collectively more than 99% of the population stated they were exposed to fragranced products at least once a week from their own use, use by others, or both and 5% of those questions directly attributed their skin problems to scented air fresheners.

natural air freshener

Scent Sensitivity 

Two American studies, reveal that a considerable percentage of the US population report adverse health effects or irritation from fragranced products, with higher percentages among those with asthma and chemical sensitivity.

Nineteen percent of those questioned reported breathing difficulties, headaches, or other health problems when exposed to air fresheners and deodorisers, with just over over ten percent cited health problems associated with the scent of laundry products, fabric softeners, or dryer sheets vented outdoors.

Since embarking on my skin healing journey, I consciously choose better options, such as essential oil candles, gentle, fragrance free laundry detergents and natural household cleaning products. It's best to opt for a range without parabens, and phthalates. I'll list some of my favourite scent free suggestions below, but first let's look at why these scented ingredients might be an issue. 

Symptoms of Scents

Scents enter our bodies through our skin and our lungs. The chemicals in scents can cause many different reactions. While some people are only mildly affected, others can have some quite serious reactions. Some common symptoms include:

  • skin irritation
  • headaches or dizziness
  • feeling fatigued or weak
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea or sickness
  • cold and flu like symptoms
  • worsening asthma 
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • immune system issues

If you've made significant changes to your diet, considered lifestyle change and you're still seeing reactions on your skin, it could be time to consider what you might be absorbing via the synthetic air fresheners and cleaning products you use regularly. 

scented laundry skin problems

What's the Scented Problem?

We are all magically transported to an imaginary place when we detected a scent we love! So it's no wonder really that companies manufacturing laundry detergents, air fresheners and cleaning products invest so much money in trying to recreate delicious bouquets.

The problem with scented products is not so much the smell itself as the chemicals that produce the smell. A typical fragrance can contain up to 350 different ingredients, and many of these synthetic compounds originally come from petrochemicals. Fragranced chemicals include phthalates, which can disrupt our hormones, benzene derivatives, aldehydes, and toluene, which are commonly linked to cancer, allergic reactions, skin flares, birth defects and problems with our central nervous system. So why do they use this stuff? 

Phthalates are a chemical added to products to help scents last for longer. They're often the reason our laundry still smells so good long after it's come out of the machine! The problem with phthalates is their potential impact on our reproductive system, their ability to cause respiratory problems and the fact they can cause developmental issues. This study from 2016 found phthalates may potentially cause birth defects in males. 

Aldehydes can be found naturally in botanicals including citronella, cinnamon bark, rose, vanilla and orange. However, they are also a family of synthetic chemicals, added to products to create that whoosh of scent when you initially smell it! They're widely used in detergents because not only are they inexpensive, they also have the ability to mask unpleasant nuances of a soap base smell.  Aldehydes have been shown to accelerate the onset and development of certain human ailments that involve oxidative stress, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer's.

Have you seen the documentary STINK! on Netflix yet? Check out the trailer and prepare to be shocked! 

Eczema Advice on Scents

The National Eczema Society recommend that people with eczema should take extra care with clothes, sheets and blankets that come into direct contact with their skin. In addition to opting for gentle, soft, cotton fabrics, choose natural, fragrance free detergent to care for them. Commercial laundry products can potentially cause a reaction with your skin. Dyes, perfumes, fragrances, and detergent that are left on the fabric after washing and drying may irritate sensitive skin, so it's best to avoid them.

They also surveyed members to ask for their tips, users recommended dryer balls over sheets, double rinsing laundry and making homemade cleaning products to reduce irritation.

Psoriasis Advice on Scents

Those of us battling psoriasis have an impaired skin barrier and we're therefore more susceptible to the chemicals that create fragrance in cleaning products. Opting for fragrance free, liquid laundry cleaners would be a sensible choice, as liquid detergents dissolve better compared to solid ones. Choosing liquid products will also help prevent the detergent particles from sticking to clothing.

The Arthritis Foundation recommends patients with psoriasis should wash clothes with fragrance-free detergent and fabric softeners to reduce the risk of skin reactions. They also suggest wearing natural, soft fibres such as cotton, which can be less irritating to skin and cooler when the weather's warm.

natural scented plants

Natural Scent Tips

We could certainly all benefit from switching to natural products where possible in our lives. Particularly if you think scents might be an issue for your skin, ensure you opt for fragrance-free laundry detergents, natural household cleaners and real trees over magic ones!

Here are my seven favourite tips for going scent free this season:

  • Switch to homemade! Not only are homemade products generally less expensive than shop bought cleaners, you will also know exactly what's going into the cleaning products you make
  • Opt for dryer balls over dryer sheets when using the tumble dryer, or air dry laundry for a natural, fresh air fragrance
  • Avoid candles made with paraffin wax - this is a petrochemical byproduct that undergoes chemical processing. It's often contaminated with carcinogenic compounds. Choose non-toxic candles instead, made with wax from soy, coconut, rice, uncontaminated vegetable oils, or beeswax. And opt for natural over synthetic scents, choose fragrance derived from essential oils and botanicals
  • Deodorise air naturally. Leave a bowl of white vinegar out in the room overnight, you’ll be amazed at the difference in the morning
  • Use bicarbonate of soda by itself to remove odours and to clean carpets. Leave a bowl of it in the fridge to absorb nasty smells, add some to the bottom of your bin to remove pongy refuse odours, and sprinkle onto your carpet before you hoover
  • Use plants and flowers to naturally purify your home. Aloe vera, spider plants and bamboo palms are a good option. Click here to read Country Living's article on twenty favourite purifying plants
  • Switch to non-irritating, hypoallergenic, and fragrance-free laundry detergents, specifically designed for sensitive skin

homemade cleaner recipes

Multi-Purpose Spray Cleaner

  • 50ml part white vinegar
  • 50ml part water
  • Rind of 1 lemon
  • 2 fresh rosemary sprigs

METHOD: Combine all the ingredients together, pour into a spray bottle, shake, and then let infuse for a week before using. Great for removing hard water stains, cleaning the bin, wiping away wall smudges, and more. Besides a fresh scent, the lemon rind may help boost cleaning power. IMPORTANT: Do not use acidic cleaners on granite, as they can damage the stone.

Sparkling Glass Cleaner

  • 500ml 
  • 125ml apple cider vinegar
  • 50ml rubbing alcohol (70% concentrate)
  • 1 to 2 drops of essential oil for scent (optional)

    METHOD: Perfect for shining windows and mirrors, combine these ingredients and pour them in a spray bottle to make a homemade glass cleaner. TIP: Avoid cleaning windows if the weather is hot as this will dry too quickly and streak! For your mirrors, spray the solution on a piece of kitchen towel or a soft cloth first before wiping clean. 

    Non-Toxic Laundry Detergent 

  1. 500g borax substitute (amazon sell it)
  2. 500g washing soda (like this one)
  3. 250g cups baking soda
  4. 330g castile bar soap (like this one)
  5. 10-20 drops essential oil (optional) 

  6. You'll also need a 20 litre bucket, like this one. And it's advisable to wear a protective mask and gloves


    • Cut the castile soap into chunks with a knife, then throw the chunks into a food processor and blend into a fine powder
    • Mix the borax substitute, washing soda and baking soda together in a large bucket, add the powdered soap, then pour over enough warm water to almost fill the bucket, leaving a few inches at the top so nothing spills. Mix together with a large wooden spoon
    • If you're using essential oil, do so once the mix has cooled
    • Allow your new detergent to sit overnight. It will turn to a gel-like substance
    • Use a funnel to carefully pour the gel into recycled, well cleaned detergent bottles 
    • Shake well before use. I'd recommend around 100-200ml per wash

    Zingy Citrus Freshener Spray

    • 150ml water
    • 2 tablespoons vodka or rubbing alcohol
    • 10 drops lemon or orange essential oil
    • 8 drops peppermint essential oil

    METHOD: Combine everything together in a spray bottle. Shake well before use. Use to freshen up rooms and bins for a zingy, invigorating scent.



    Do you think scented laundry products, cleaners and air fresheners might be an issue for you? I'd love to hear about your experience in the comments below. 

    1 comment
    - Kieran

    Thank you so much for this article!!! I am awaiting allergy testing and I am 99.99% sure scents are an issue for me. Only today I used cologne and I had a headache and was itching like mad. I changed my laundry to a hypoallergenic ball that contains natural beads that lifts stains off clothes, and I am sure that I am seeing a difference. Very helpful Hanna :)

    Leave a comment
    Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.