Friends and Fragrances
The author, a Quaker, wishes to step away from the limelight.


(Copyright, 2002,   Permission is given to make copies.)

With good weather upon us, many Friends will be traveling. Encounters with other Friends may take place as part of a traveling ministry, a weekend trip to a Quaker retreat center or library, or simply a visit when passing through a town.  But intervisitation can present problems for Friends with certain kinds of asthma and other conditions acquired from exposure to chemicals.  The presence of chemical irritants in conventional cleaning products may not surprise anyone.  But few people may realize that products like room deodorizers and "personal" fragrances, such as aftershave, cologne, and scented lotions, contain toxins that pollute the air and make people ill.  The effects can be sinus swelling, migraine headaches, asthma, flu-like symptoms and other painful conditions that grow in severity with continuing exposure.


Because of trade secret laws, fragrance manufacturers remain unaccountable for the toxins they produce.  They do not have to include the same warning labels for the same toxins disclosed in cleaning products under right-to-know laws in workplaces.  The absence of such warning labels gives false assurance of safety to consumers of fragrance products and invites skepticism towards individuals who plead for fragrance-free air.  Despite this unaccountability, there is information available based on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies.  One study lists the 20 most common toxic chemicals found in fragrances, such as toluene and other benzene derivatives.  This list, and the health effects of those chemicals, can be found on numerous web pages, including the following:


For those unfamiliar with the dangers of fragrance chemicals, I can offer some starter information.  First, please be clear that I am not talking about allergies in the common sense of one's immune system overreacting to something inherently harmless to most people, like certain foods. Though fragrance chemicals pose an additional threat to people with allergies, I am talking about chemical toxins in the air that are harmful to everyone. Taking an allergy remedy is as effective as popping an Allerest tablet would be for someone in a room where

tear gas has been thrown in.


Please consider that there was a time that I and other Friends did not have this problem.  We acquired it from exposure to toxins, and other people can too. Consider us canaries taken down into the coal mine to test for toxic air.  We have merely keeled over before the sturdier occupants. Sooner or later the harmful chemicals will do them in too.


It is of some help to ask already damaged Friends what products typically make them ill.  But keep in mind that such an individual cannot predict all brands that may cause a severe reaction in herself or himself, let alone in another person.  Because of the danger of toxins to all attending, what is needed is a broad commitment to healthy indoor air at Friends facilities and places rented by Friends for conferences and retreats--not a separate "accommodation" for those of us already clearly damaged by toxic chemicals.  Our need for healthy air is not different from that of anyone else present. It is simply more urgent.  For us, walking into a room filled with hairspray, body splashes, scented hand lotion, aftershave, scented candles, cologne, fabric softeners, perfume, room deodorizers and cleaning chemicals is walking into an ambush.  To protect ourselves from this onslaught, we have to get out.


Perhaps a few people in every meeting would be willing to look up some of the information listed below and discern if they feel any call to go forward in raising awareness in this matter.  I will name a few web places to help Friends become better acquainted with the dangers of fragrance products and some safe alternatives to using them.  Here is an EPA web page listing alternatives to toxic products, reprinted with permission by Tennessee Valley Authority Regional Waste Management Department.  On the FDA web site, you can read the

plea filed by Amy Marsh of the Environmental Health Network (EHN) with the FDA regarding pollutants in fragrances.


Among concerns addressed by the EHN are the effects on children's learning and health, and the marketing of fragrances to small children.  Marsh points out that the Miss Piggy line of fragrances is the marketing equivalent of the Joe Camel cigarette campaign to teens. Remember, labeling the toxins in trade-secret formulas is not required.  Children, because of their breathing rate and small body mass, are especially vulnerable to toxins.  They, most of all, should not wear fragrances, breathe in room deodorizers, or wear toxins infused into their clothes by fabric softeners.  Solvents like toluene, commonly found in perfumed products and markers, alter the functioning of the brain and affect performance.  Studies show that effects of such toxins can mimic true learning disabilities and encourage false solutions to difficulties some children have trying to concentrate in the presence of cleaning chemicals and the wake of teachers' and classmates' perfumes.  Here is a PBS web page on the subject of pollutants.


It is very, very important to read labels.  If "fragrance" is listed as an ingredient, assume that the chemical formula contains toxins.  Note that products labeled "unscented" typically contain fragrances.  If you read the ingredients, you will usually find "masking fragrance" listed.  Assume that the formula for that masking fragrance contains toxins.  Keep in mind that the problem is not that some people find the scent unappealing.  The smell may actually appeal to a person made ill by the chemicals in a fragrance.  The strength of the scent is also irrelevant.


I'm hoping to discover Friends' meetinghouses, churches, libraries, campuses, retreat centers, and other Quaker facilities that have made themselves fragrance-free.  I'd like to make this information available to Friends who would find it helpful.  So I am compiling a list of Quaker places where travelers can have a reasonable chance of breathing healthy indoor air.



I'm looking for ways to make this list available.  I realize that visitors accustomed to wearing fragrances may show up at any time.  Friends need to consider that, if they don fragrances when they set out to worship elsewhere, visit Friends libraries, or partake in conferences, retreats, or committee meetings, chemically-injured Friends will be faced with a difficult choice.  They will have to depart altogether, or continually retreat to hallways and porches to dodge fragranced Friends.  I can testify to the battle fatigue that results from those kinds of retreats.  Intervisitation has long been an essential aspect of the ministry of Friends to one another.  Please consider how the use of fragrances is curtailing this treasured practice.  



Opportunities for discussion of this, and information about other topics are available from:

Toxics Information Project (TIP), Tel. 401-351-9193 or E-Mail:

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