Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Scented Room

I like many different smells.  I love citrus and pine and lavender and any number of scents.  I think they're lovely.  But sometimes room scents are just too much, or they can smell a bit chemical-like.  When you notice that the scent is a bit overwhelming or doesn't quite have a completely natural scent, it probably is not natural.

When I was a teenager, it was the rage to have scented candles and incense in our bedrooms.  I had the little brass incense burners from India and big fat, scented candles.  When I was feeling morose (which was most of my adolescence), I would sit in my room becoming saturated with the smells of whatever I'd chosen to burn.

Today, products to create scent are a hot item for gifts and a little "me" time in the bathtub.  Women are the primary purchasers of these items and all the accessories such as holders for candles, incense sticks and potpourri.  We buy these for aromatherapy, mood-enhancements, covering up unpleasant smells, sometimes for a ceremony, a fashion accent, or event for lighting in the case of candles. The market is so good, there are specialty stores that just sell these items.

So, I used to like these smelly products--especially the berry-scented ones as I recall, but now that I'm older than dirt and I hope a little wiser, I don't like these strong smells anymore.  I pretty much don't want to smell anything unless I know it's truly natural and harmless.  When I go into a home with air fresheners, burning scented candles or incense or even potpourri, I don't find it appealing--I just wonder what I'm breathing.  I don't consider myself a paranoid person (though researching for this blog may lead me in that direction), but I am cautious about my health.

When you can smell it, you're inhaling it into your body.  Something to always keep in mind.

Air Fresheners

According to the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency, air fresheners have four basic ingredients:  formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellents.  They are typically highly flammable and a strong irritant to eyes, skin, and throat.  And they report that the solid versions usually cause death if eaten by humans or pets.   I'm guessing these are young children who are drawn to the pretty colors and smells, and are more susceptible to poisonings.

Prevention magazine reports a study which has shown that more frequent users of air fresheners have an increased link to reduced heart rate variability--which is linked to heart attack and high blood pressure.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) did a study of several air fresheners which uncovered that 12 in 14 of the tested air fresheners contain phthalates--this included the unscented varieties and the ones claiming to be "all natural."  Phthalates can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.  A study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-National Institutes of Health determined that a chemical compound found in many air fresheners, toilet bowl cleaners, and other deodorizing products may be harmful to the lungs.

Those air fresheners are not sounding that good!  So how about a pretty candle?

Scented Candles

The U.S. EPA did a study on candles in 2001.  The conclusion for candles is that many candles used to have lead wicks.  Metal wicks were banned several years ago by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission--but candles with metal wicks can still be found in stores.  Burning lead wicks can generate indoor airborne lead concentrations of "health concern."  Check the wick to make sure there is no metal wire in the middle of it. 

Most candles are made from paraffin unless they state otherwise.  Paraffin wax is a petroleum by-product created when crude oil is refined into gasoline. It is a white, odorless solid that is formed into slabs, and it is the most commonly used wax for candle making.  Burning paraffin candles causes indoor air pollution.  A study by the University of South Carolina showed that paraffin candles emit toxic chemicals like benzene and toluene.  The study mentioned that soy candles do not emit these nasty by-products, but bees wax was not mentioned.  (I could not find the full study on-line for a look.)  An associate professor from the New York University School of Medicine advices to use caution burning any candles in enclosed spaces. 

Scents in candles are also mostly made from petroleum.  These oils can make the candle burn inefficiently so that black soot results.  This soot has particulate matter that can be breathed in to the lungs.

If you want to set a mood, burn unscented natural candles.  My favorite candles are made from bees wax.  I love the smell even when they're not lit.  I do have some soy-based candles scented with essential oils, but some of them have put soot on my slanted wall--I'm guessing because of the oils.


A study of temple workers in Asia showed that sustained exposure to incense smoke can result in damage to DNA and greater susceptibility to cancer.

A respiratory tract cancer study in 2008 showed an association of substantial incense use with respiratory tract cancer including nasal/sinus, tongue, mouth, laryngeal and other cancers, but not lung cancer.

Most people in North American are not exposed to incense on a frequent basis, but it's something to keep in mind, especially for people who smoke.  The combination of the two could cause more irritation to the respiratory tract and increase chances of various cancers.

Bouquet of dried lavender

Potpourri often consists of any decoratively shaped dried plant material (not necessarily from scented plants) with strong natural and synthetic perfumes (and often colored dyes) added.  Other vegetative materials with no scent may be added for bulk and a pretty mixture.   There are spray scents to use in potpourri--these are typically synthetic.

If you want to know what is in your potpourri (and thus what you are inhaling), you can make your own.  If you dry flowers or buy dried flowers, herbs, and spices and the fragrance is not strong enough, just add a few drops of essential oils.  There are many recipes available on-line if you do a search. Many health food stores sell dried flowers such as roses or lavender in bulk as well as many herbs and spices (including orris root which is used as a scent fixative).

Safer Alternatives for Freshening the Air

soy candle from
If you can improve your ventilation for more fresh air when it's reasonable, then that's a start.  Instead of covering up a smell, get rid of it, if you can, by cleaning.  If you still want some scent in your home, consider the following:

-  Use a natural air freshener that provides all ingredients on the label for you to check and does not have aerosol propellents
-  Make an air freshener spritzer with vodka, white vinegar, or just plain water and several drops of essential oils
-  Use pure bees wax or soy candles with cotton wicks
-  If someone stinks up the bathroom (not you, of course), just light a match and hold it in the air for a few seconds
electric Aroma Stone
-  Make your own potpourri so you have control of what's in it
-  Buy an electric or clay diffuser for essential oils

Don't let anyone else tell you what smells best.  Use your head as well as your nose.

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