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  • Dr. Stephanie Bayliss ND

Alternative to Air Fresheners: Essential Oils

Bombarded with scents all day long.

It is becoming increasingly more difficult to find unscented products, as fragrances are added to most household products including laundry detergent, hand soap, hair products, etc.

These fragrances have been implicated in triggering asthma, migraines, allergies as well as accumulating in breast milk and adipose tissue. Fragrances not only negatively impact humans, but there is an environmental concern because they contribute to both water and air pollution. Many of the clinical studies that have been done on fragrances focus on the topical application of the fragrance and potential local skin reactions, however beyond this, the potential respiratory and neurological effects remain poorly understood. (Bridges, 2002)

What I offer here is that because the potential damaging health implications of fragrances are unclear, it is worth exploring known safe alternatives.

The best alternative to candles is diffusing essential oils in your home and burning beeswax candles! Both of these products have air-cleaning qualities - without creating potential toxicity.

Fun Fact: There are even options for diffusing essential oils in your car to avoid using the typical car air fresheners!

Essential Oils and Beeswax Candles

Essential oils are highly concentrated, and have a great potential when used safely. My personal favourite way to use them is in essential oil diffusers, such as these from Sage. With just a few drops of essential oil, in roughly a ¼ cup of water you end up having 6 + hours of natural smells diffusing your home.

I offer this as a safe alternative to the traditional ways we experience scents, through air fresheners and scented candles.

All essential oils (EO) are known to be anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and have antioxidant properties due to their high concentration. (Burt, 2004)

For example - it takes 256 pounds of peppermint leaves to make 1 pound of peppermint EO.

When used aromatically through the home, people often report it having a calming effect - depending on which EO is being used. For example, it is well documented that lavender essential oil has an anxiety reducing effect. Other ways to use EO safely are diluted topically (not on open wounds or cuts), or added to household cleaners. Be sure to consult your primary health care provider about safety - and do not use internally unless otherwise directed. My policy is that I direct my patients to never use essential oils internally due to the high potential for toxicity - specifically on the liver.

Not all essential oils are created equally, and it important to find organic, environmentally friendly and sustainable sources. A pure essential oil is one that has not been adulterated with other oils (i.e., a vegetable oil) or had other synthetic chemicals added. Overtime a pure EO will completely evaporate, therefore a test would be to put a couple of drops on a piece of paper and after a few hours it should be completely evaporated. If there is any leftover residue it is likely it was not a pure EO.

Air Fresheners and Candles

Personally, I would consider fragrances to be the new second hand smoke as we are being bombarded with scents all day long. All air fresheners and candles (even if they claim to be natural), are synthetic and contain harmful chemicals within their ingredients. It is not possible to produce scents such as ‘birthday cake’ without the use of chemicals, as there is no all-natural essential oil that has a scent of a birthday cake.

The base for a lot of these products is paraffin wax, which is produced from a by-product during the production of gasoline. (Rezaei, 2002) While it is burned, it releases formaldehyde, which on the Environmental Working Group website is rated as a known human carcinogen (i.e., cancer-causing agent).

Formaldehyde is also considered a volatile organic compound, along with benzene and toluene which are also commonly found in air fresheners and candles. Toluene is specifically rated as a reproductive organ disruptor, and if there is exposure during pregnancy it may cause developmental damage to a fetus.

What is the most concerning part of these air fresheners or candles is that the full list of ingredients are not available. I am a big proponent of not buying products that do not disclose the ingredients in their products.


Perfume exposure can cause respiratory concerns such as aggravating symptoms of asthma. One study found that there is a dose dependent increase in the amount of histamine released based on the amount of perfume you are exposed to. (Eberling, 2007) Histamine is a trigger for allergic reactions - i.e, asthma, or skin reactions and is what is inhibited by products such as benadryl.

In one particular study with fragrances, mice were either exposed to various fragrance products or placebo (no scent). The mice exposed to fragrance products, experienced sensory irritation, pulmonary irritation, as well as showed signs of neurotoxicity. Neurotoxicity was more severe with repeated exposure to the perfume. (Anderson, 1998)

Because of all of these findings, I believe It is worth considering a transition to unscented products. For example even using scented laundry detergent, you are being exposed to the scent/chemicals continuously.

My Favourite Essential Oil Blends for the Diffusor:

  • The favourite blend from Sage is Liquid Sunshine - described as being an uplifting, fresh citrus scent.

  • At home I often mix 3 drops of peppermint and 3 drops of cinnamon together.

  • Thieves of Marseille is another commonly available blend and it contains clove, cinnamon bark, rosemary, lemon and eucalyptus.

Look out for an upcoming page on my website for descriptions of which brands I choose to use as well as homemade recipes for different cleaning products.


  1. Rezaei, Karamatollah, Tong Wang, and Lawrence A. Johnson. "Combustion characteristics of candles made from hydrogenated soybean oil." Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society 79.8 (2002): 803-808. http://lib3.dss.go.th/fulltext/Journal/J.AOCS/J.AOCS/2002/no.8/v.79n8p803-808.pdf

  2. https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/702500/FORMALDEHYDE/

  3. Eberling, J., Skov, P., Mosbech, H., Dirkson, A., Johansen, J. (2007). “Increased Release of Histamine in Patients with Respiratory Symptoms Related to Perfume”. Clinical and Experimental Allergy, Vol. 37: 1676-1680.

  4. Anderson, Rosalind C., and Julius H. Anderson. "Acute toxic effects of fragrance products." Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal 53.2 (1998): 138-146.

  5. Bridges, Betty. "Fragrance: emerging health and environmental concerns." Flavour and fragrance journal 17.5 (2002): 361-371.

  6. Burt, Sara. "Essential oils: their antibacterial properties and potential applications in foods—a review." International journal of food microbiology 94.3 (2004): 223-253.

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