From a health risk perspective, it makes little difference whether home fragrances including candles, oils or wall plug-ins are artificially produced or naturally occurring. Even if some are not downright unhealthy, they place an unnecessary burden on the already overworked detoxification system of the body, public health expert of Semmelweis University warns.

Given that we spend 90% of our time indoors, air quality of the indoor environment is the single most important environmental health factor. Half of the pollutants indoors originate from within (the other half coming from outdoors). Besides frequent airing, the best way to improve indoor air quality is to cut back on the number of chemicals we use.

Every chemical we bring into our household will add to the disease burden caused by the indoor environment

, explains Tamás Pándics, head of Public Health Sciences Department at Semmelweis University.

One source of pollutants, especially during wintertime, is scented candles, artificial or natural home fragrances. These may only produce a small amount of vapors and particles at a time, but with regular or continuous use, these amounts add up. “This cumulative impact and the constant exposure to these chemicals is what leads to potential health risk of these products”, Pándics says.

“Unlike living next to a busy road where we can only alter air quality by moving, this is an impact we create. We can decide not to”, he adds.

Using multiple fragrances (candles, wall plug-ins, aroma diffusors, etc.) together are associated with migraine headache, an increased risk of respiratory diseases, irritation of the eyes and the throat, hormonal disruptions.

They can exacerbate the health of those with existing conditions including asthma, chronic respiratory diseases.

Children, in particular, are exposed to their potential harmful effect which can be induced by a smaller dose or a shorter exposure than in adults.

“Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MSP), a condition where a low dose of checimals can trigger sensitivity, was first described at children”, Pándics notes.

This exposure is further exacerbated by household cleaning products, furniture, paint that also release harmful substances continuously. With household chemicals strictly regulated, chemical safety has improved considerably, but people also use more chemicals at home.

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may sound controversial but we do get overboard with the use of disinfectants. We use too many household chemicals in unreasonably large quantities

, Pándics says.

Risk estimates that serve as a basis for chemical safety are calculated for the use of a single product, not many used simultaneously. This type of use is concerning from a health perspective due to the synergistic effects. “We expose ourselves to the effect of hundreds of substances which, with the additional unnecessary burden of substances such as scented candles, home fragrances, wall-plug ins can lead to serious problems”, Pándics says.

To circumvent the downsides of artificial fragrances, some producers recommend the use of essential oils. But these come with health risks, too.

When it comes to the reaction of the human body, the source of the substance makes little difference. Regardless of whether they are artificially produced or naturally occurring, every substance foreign to the body poses a chemical risk

, Pándics says. 

“They may not be carcinogenic, these substances place an additional burden on the liver and our metabolic system is not prepared to process them either”, Pándics adds.

Essential oils are made up of dozens or even hundreds of components, which may include some toxic ones. One such is thujone, found in medical sage and in the essential oil produced from it. In large quantities, thujone can damage the nervous system. Cinnamaldehyde in cinnamon oil can cause the irritation of the skin and an allergic reaction. As with artificial fragrances, long-term use and high doses of essential oils should be avoided. Depending on the species, they can cause irritation to the skin or mucous membranes.

The impact of most households fragrances and other chemicals have been known for decades: the World Health Organization (WHO) and numerous research institutes regularly inform the public about their risks. However, there is little information about their long-term and combined effects. “The chemical properties of limonene, a relatively common ingredient in household fragrances have been known for a while. Yet regarding its lifelong use only estimates are available”, Pándics says.

It is not a matter of using the right fragrance in the right quantity: it is an additional chemical exposure that should be avoided altogether.

If the aim is to cover up some kind of odour at home, we should find and eliminate the source instead” he adds.

In addition to regular airing, to improve indoor air quality the expert recommends wet cleaning which effectively removes both pollens and particle pollution settled on surfaces.

Illustration: iStock