“It smells like vinegar in here,” my son said after I had been cleaning mirrors.

            I assured him that the smell would soon dissipate.

            He said, “I like it. It smells clean.”

And herein lies the difference. He has grown up with vinegar and Sal Suds and tea tree and peppermint. All of these say, “Clean!” to him. When I started down the green road, I had to grow accustomed to the new smell of clean.

Changing the smell of clean by Lisa Bronner

To me, growing up, the smell of clean was sharp, pungent, and nose scouring. It didn’t smell like any naturally occurring substance I knew of. When I smelled it, I felt reassured that everything was dirt and germ-free.

However, the lack of scent in many homemade cleaning recipes, and especially the lack of a lingering scent, can be a real roadblock to someone’s adoption of safer cleaners. Consumers like the smell of Pledge and Tide and Febreze. And they’re supposed to. The manufacturers spend loads of time and money to sell consumers on their products’ smell. Can’t you picture the commercial with the stylishly dressed and made up woman sniffing her house’s air with satisfaction? It must smell clean. And don’t we all want our house to smell clean like hers?

So what makes those nearly addictive smells? It is certainly not lemon essential oil, or any other essential oil. If it were, that fact would be well broadcast across their labels and advertising. And the products would also be a good deal more expensive. The fragrance is made up of synthetic substances, including phthalates, sensitizers, and allergens. Phthalates (pronounced without the initial “p”) are widely acknowledged as endocrine (hormone) disrupters and a cause of birth defects in boys. Sensitizers are chemicals that cause a substantial proportion of repeatedly exposed people or animals to develop an allergic reaction in normal tissue.

However, the troubling part is that there is no required ingredient disclosure for cleaning products. The closest they come is the required Hazard labels. There’s actually a large loophole in personal care products around “fragrance” as well. “Fragrance” is considered proprietary information. It is a blend of chemicals that could contain anything.

The fragrance can be the most toxic part about conventional cleaning products. Other aspects of them can be dangerous, but only if you touch or ingest them. Three-year-olds notwithstanding, the adults who do most of the cleaning aren’t likely to gulp them down. They take precautions to make sure little ones and furry friends don’t have access to them (still safer not to have them around at all). But what about breathing? It’s rather unavoidable. Every being in the room during and after the cleaning will be absorbing these fragrances. The fragrances added to these products are designed to be airborne. Their target: your sensory receptors then your lungs and your bloodstream. And the worst of it is, these fragrances don’t have to be there – they add nothing to the effectiveness of these products. They are added to the product for a variety of reasons: to mask unpleasant chemical smells, to create product loyalty, to leave lingering “clean” connotations, and to imply that the solutions are closely derived from nature.

It is for this reason that the Environmental Working Group (EWG, www.ewg.org ), an independent consumer advocacy group, gives “Fragrance” very high hazard ratings of 8 and 10, http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/search.php?query=fragrance&h=Go. (They focus on personal care products, but their overview of “fragrance” applies to house cleaning products as well.) Although ingredient disclosure is not required, bear in mind that if a product has a smell, then it has a fragrance. And to pop any remaining bubbles, “unscented” products can contain masking fragrances, too. If that fragrance were healthily derived, such as essential oil directly from lemons, the manufacturer would certainly make sure you knew.

            According to the EWG, “Fragrance”:

  • represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.

           They go on to say:

  • “Fragrance” is usually a chemical cocktail, often containing individual chemicals associated with allergic reactions and hormone disruption. Some fragrance chemicals have not been assessed for safety. Until all fragrance ingredients are disclosed on the label, consumers cannot know what is in a particular fragrance.

There is one exception to my ranting: listed “fragrance” that is approved by independent third party organic certifiers. Not all fragrances are created equal, and there are some good naturally occurring fragrances. A fragrance house may not want to share the specifics of its blend with a purchaser, but it will share the details with an independent certifier. With the certifier’s OK, customers and consumers have the trust and confidence they need. As always, read the labels, and follow the asterisks.

Adjusting to new norms
With green cleaning there is a different smell of clean. The upside is that you get to decide what that smell is. If you want, you can have no smell; that could be your smell of clean. In that case, add no essential oils to your cleaning solutions. The smell of vinegar or Sal Suds will dissipate when they dry. If you want your clean smell to be oranges, add essential orange oil. If you prefer lemon, add essential lemon oil. If you prefer patchouli with a twist of cinnamon and lime, you can do that, too. That’s the great thing here: you are in control. You make the products; you can add anything you want to them. Have fun! Match your mood, the weather, your guests, your dinner.

Also realize that essential oils have beneficial properties of their own. For example, lavender oil is very calming; peppermint oil is invigorating and a deterrent to animals and insects; tea tree oil is antibacterial.

I purchase my essential oils from Frontier Natural Products. I am part of a buying co-op that is large enough to order wholesale. Perhaps you could also start one in your community. Check out https://wholesale.frontiercoop.com/ for more details on that. Essential oils are also widely available online or in health stores. Be sure you are buying pure essential oils, and not scented carrier oils. Do a little online research before you buy. (Frontier’s Simply Organic line and Aura Cacia line are reliable, but certainly aren’t the only good options.) The bottles are small and pricey, but a little goes a long way, so don’t be deterred by the price. One bottle can last for a couple years. Five drops goes into a quart solution, 20 into a mop bucket.

So instead of being waylaid by the different smells, turn this into an opportunity for personal expression.