Clearing the Air about Fragrances in Cleaning Chemicals


By Laura Louis, Director, PathoSans

In our world, odors have a natural purpose. Scent can make something – a person, animal or thing – more attractive. Odors can also serve as a warning sign, repelling us from something harmful (like a gas leak) or unsightly (like a dead animal). At the same time, they can serve as protection, like how skunks emit a strong-smelling spray to predators.

There are also artificial odors, such as fragrances, which can mask the harmful even though it still poses a very real threat. Our minds have learned to associate pleasant-smelling fragrances with cleanliness. Whether lemon, orange, lavender or another scent, these additives signify that something has been cleaned or disinfected, whether they have been or not.

However, the idea that cleanliness has a particular smell is actually unnatural and can even be a precarious way of thinking. Read on to learn more about how odors impact our perceptions, the downsides of artificial additives in cleaning products and how to successfully address your cleaning and disinfecting needs without the use of scent.

How Odor Influences Perceptions

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of cleanliness in a facility was already a key influence on people’s perceptions of a business. For example, a 2019 Harris Poll found that more than nine in 10 U.S. adults said experiencing a foul odor in a facility would give them a negative impression of the organization as a whole. To protect against this, too often, facilities mask negative odors with overpowering fragrances.

We’re conditioned to assume that because a space has a distinct fragrance, like a bouquet of flowers, that it is clean. While a scented disinfectant may have been used in a restroom that smells like lavender, this does not mean that it was applied correctly to meet the manufacturer’s kill claims. Alternatively, the source of the scent may be from an air freshener to give the illusion that the restroom has recently been cleaned. This adds to the problem because these products can emit volatile organic compounds that pollute indoor air.

The main takeaways here are that 1) unpleasant odors can have a lasting impact on brand reputation and 2) counteracting odors with fragrances does not equate to the true level of cleanliness that is needed today to uphold public health and safety.

The Downsides of Artificial Odors

Artificial odors in cleaning chemicals are simply cosmetic and intended to provide a particular scent to a product or counteract other scents. While some artificial odors are important, such as those added to natural gas to alert people of a gas leak, those in cleaning chemicals are unnecessary. Furthermore, they can pose a danger if overused or misused.

Artificial fragrances can be harmful or aggravating to people with respiratory issues, who make up a large portion of the population. After all, about 1 in 13 Americans suffers from asthma. Many other people also have fragrance sensitivities that can result in headaches, running or stuffy nose, difficulty breathing and other unpleasant symptoms.

With facilities cleaning more frequently today due to concerns around COVID-19 and seasonal viruses like Influenza, we’re continually being bombarded with strong chemical odors that have an added splash of floral, fruity or woodsy fragrance. Cleaning professionals are especially at risk of inhaling these odors given that they use scented products on a regular – sometimes daily – basis.

Chemicals used in fragrance are virtually unregulated by governmental agencies in the United States and standards for prohibited and restricted fragrances are voluntary, with little or no enforcement. Over the years, some conscientious manufacturers have replaced harmful fragrances in their products. However, there is little assurance regarding which fragrances are not used because you often can’t find fragrance ingredients on the label or in the safety data sheet (SDS). The only way to be sure is to use a product with no added fragrance.

Additives like fragrance oils in cleaning products can also leave residues on surfaces, making them appear unclean and causing them to attract soils more quickly and easily. Residues left on surfaces from fragrances may even harbor bacteria, making it harder to disinfect effectively. When residues and dirt are visible on surfaces, facility visitors may complain or feel that their health and safety is not a priority. When cleaning professionals try to tackle residues with the same products that aggravate the issue at hand, this wastes time, chemical and money. Thus, moving away from products with artificial fragrances is crucial.

A Truly Odorless Approach

Another important point to note is that even “unscented” and “fragrance-free” products may actually contain fragrances to counteract the smell of certain ingredients. So, although you can’t smell the additives, they could result in irritation. This begs the question – How can we be sure that the products we’re using to clean and disinfect are truly pure? Thankfully, there’s an easy, safe and sustainable solution.

Electrochemically-activated solutions (ECAS) are cleaning and disinfecting products that are made from salt, water and electricity, often via an on-site generator. They are purposely designed with care to be pure – there’s no added fragrances, preservatives or other potentially harmful ingredients to worry about. And because they contain no added oils, chemicals or substances of concern to the environment or people, they are also safe to dispose of.

ECAS are also just as effective, or more so, than conventional chemicals. This is demonstrated by tests conducted by Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell. With regular and proper use of ECAS, your facility can uphold appearances and tackle pathogens without using potentially irritating fragrances to “signal” a commitment to cleanliness.

Less is More

When it comes to fragrances in cleaning and disinfecting products, nothing is everything. Scented products can actually cause issues for facilities and occupants – both the people who use these solutions and visitors. Meanwhile, many scented air fresheners simply cover up the fact that bacteria are still present in a facility.

Addressing today’s pathogen risks with odorless ECAS allows you to safely and sustainably clean and disinfect while also supporting indoor air quality. And most importantly, ECAS enable your facility’s visitors to see with their own eyes – rather than investigate with their noses – that you are dedicated to maintaining the highest levels of cleanliness. ­

To learn more about odor-free cleaning and disinfecting, contact me at

Laura Louis serves as a Director at PathoSans, a leading provider of on-site generation (OSG) devices that produce ready-to-use, highly effective cleaners and disinfectants known as electrochemically activated (ECA) solutions. Learn more at 

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