When we talk air pollution, it’s standard to take a look at our gas-guzzling cars. Until electric cars become the norm in America, vehicles will be a major environmental concern.

But there’s a surprising category that could be preventing the U.S. from reaching our zero-emission goals: personal care products.

A recent study published in Science reveals new discoveries in air pollution, showing common household items to be significant contributors. When we talk air pollution, we should also take a look at our medicine cabinet. Products like shampoo, deodorant and perfumes are now degrading air quality as much as cars.

Volatile Organic Compounds

For this study, air quality scientists collected samples in Pasadena, California, where pollution-infused smog is in abundance. Perched in the Pasadena hills, the team measured alarming amounts of volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs.

VOCs are chemicals with high vapor pressure at room temperature, causing their molecules to evaporate into the air invariably. They can either be generated biologically or made by humans.

In fact, most scents and odors are VOCs. They’re in the air of practically every indoor and outdoor setting and are common ingredients in commercial products.

Environmental Health Impact

Not all volatile organic compounds are dangerous, like those secreted by plants and bacteria. They can be essential communication methods between plants and animals and utterly harmless to human health.

There are, however, extremely harmful VOCs. Consider those emitted from vehicles, a cocktail of carbon-containing compounds, which are widely known to have detrimental human and environmental health effects. These VOCs react with other airborne chemicals to form smog and haze, contributing to air pollution and climate change. VOCs are linked to numerous health concerns including headaches, nausea, asthma and heart attacks.

Researchers have now discovered household products — including shampoo — contribute to America’s air pollution dilemma. Nearly half of all VOCs studied by the researchers in California came from household products.

Because these VOC-laden products are typically used indoors, they pose health risks that must be addressed by indoor air quality regulations.

The Good News

Could this study be a sign of success? The researchers behind the study seem to think so.

As the transportation industry in the U.S. has gone greener in response to initiatives like the Clean Air Act, other sources of emissions are inching their way into the spotlight. The VOCs from commercial household products found in this study were seen only because VOCs from transportation have dramatically dropped in recent years.

This study proves regulation works. Authors are optimistic about their findings, pointing out that their research doesn’t necessarily indicate worsening air pollution. Instead, we can use this information to identify what we can do to improve our air quality.

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.