Danish researchers looking at how common fragrances affect our perception of air quality have found that even nice smells can distract us or make us less productive at work.
The researchers reviewed hundreds of experiments and reports on four of the most common compounds used in fragrances – α-pinene (pine), eugenol (clove), limonene (citrus) and linalool (orange blossom)– which have been published over the last 30 years.
Stacks of scents
These fragrances are found in a huge number of products – not just your standard air fresheners, cleaning products and scented candles - but also, often enough, in food and beverages.
Many of us – perhaps those with perfume-addled co-workers or fragrance infused homes – may have taken pause to consider whether these scents are a cause for concern for our health and wellbeing.
In a more unusual example, in 2000, eight former microwave-popcorn plant workers were diagnosed with Bronchiolitis obliterans (irreversible lung obstruction caused by inflammation). The disease was caused by long term exposure to extremely high concentrations of Diacetyl (2,3-butanedione), which is used in butter flavouring.
Scary stuff. So could your beloved scented candles putting your health at risk?
The short answer is: no.
People need not be worried about toxic effects of long term exposure.
The good news is that people need not be worried about toxic effects of long term exposure to the four compounds looked at in this study. Concentrations of fragrance particles in homes and public buildings are far below the threshold for long term effects.
In addition, indoor concentrations of the scents are typically so low that sensory irritation of eyes and airways is practically an impossibility.
Interestingly, on-pack warnings about the effect of fragranced products can have a strong impact on their effect on people with asthma– the fear of reacting to a fragrance can act as a psychological trigger which can cause perception of asthmatic symptoms.
Studies on mental performance have found that having smelly surroundings decreases our capability. While none of these effects have been studied in long-term experiments, current studies indicate that bad smells reduce spatial memory performance and increase reaction times.
Strangely enough, even nice smells have been shown to distract from productivity. A study on reaction times suggested that once people have grown accustomed to a fragrance-free surrounding, the introduction of a pleasant smell decreases their performance in the task.
So, while we have little reason to worry about the effect of fragrances on our health, going easy on the perfume might be appreciated all the same.