Scent-sensitive travelers like Sara Voorhees have always been careful when they’re on the road. A whiff of cologne or detergent can trigger an asthmatic attack for her.
But lately, as travel companies have obsessively cleaned their cars, rooms, and seats, she’s had to be extra cautious.
When she opened the door to a compact SUV she rented at the Philadelphia airport recently, a powerful soap odor wafted her way. It left her gasping for air.
“We kept the windows down and the air conditioning running on high for the first few minutes each time we started it,” says Voorhees, a retired project manager. But the odor lingered.
If you think the risk of a coronavirus infection makes travel difficult, imagine how passengers like Voorhees feel. On the one hand, they could catch COVID; on the other, they might have an asthmatic attack or allergic reaction to the strong cleaners used obsessively to disinfect surfaces.
Travel companies once relied on fragrances to lift their profits. Now they’re turning to smells to save their businesses. Only this time, instead of vanilla and floral scents, it’s the harsh odors of bleach and detergent that greet customers in rental cars and hotel rooms. But travelers with scent sensitivities and allergies can protect themselves from these harsh odors with a few easy strategies.
What to do if you’re a scent-sensitive traveler
Although it may be difficult to avoid all scents when you travel, you can take certain precautions before your next vacation or business trip.
“Reach out to any hotel, airline or place where you think you run the risk of long-standing exposure,” says Michael Rubino, president of All American Restoration, a mold remediation company. “I have called several hotels ahead of time to find out what disinfecting product would be used in my hotel room.”
By the way, here’s how to tell if your hotel room is clean.
Get as many specifics as you can, says Marilee Nelson, an environmental consultant and co-founder of Branch Basics, a cleaning product company. That’s what she did before she flew recently. An airline representative told her it was using a hypochlorous acid electrostatic spray that is EPA-approved to kill pathogens. That worked for her.
She learned that the concentration of chlorine was one ten-thousandth of that in household bleach, and that it dissipated quickly. “Five minutes after spraying, it is odorless and safe for most people,” she says.
Voorhees says she carries a portable air purifier when she travels. On her next rental, she plans to hook it up to the USB outlet inside the rental car to see if that makes a difference.
Some scent-sensitive travelers stay home
The smells are too much for some travelers. Sunnye Sherman, a retired substitute teacher from Louisville, Kentucky, is avoiding travel. It is one thing for her to deal with the many hotel scents emanating from soaps and shampoos, causing nausea, sinus pain and migraines. But the cleaning products are even worse.
“Sometimes, I’ve had to hold my breath as much as possible in the lobby and rush to the room, hoping I can breathe in there,” she says.
Patricia Abreu, a pianist from Boston, has stayed off planes since the pandemic started.
“The new cleaning products are likely to irritate my airways,” she says. “But since the filtration of the air in airplanes is also better than in most places, it might be OK unless we were to board right in the moments after the chemicals were sprayed.”
Abreu wonders if enough travel companies are taking the problems of scent-sensitive travelers like her into account.
“I can’t say I am against all these cleaning regimes, despite my own physical reactions to the chemicals,” she adds. “We protection from COVID. And for now that will mean more potential breathing problems for those with asthma and allergies.”
When she travels, she’ll wear a mask that can filter out the cleaning chemicals. And she’ll pack her medications and inhalers — just in case a company overdoes it on the solvents.
Scents are big business – and so are cleaners
The travel industry started spring cleaning after the coronavirus outbreak and never stopped. For example, United Airlines teamed up with Clorox on an initiative called “CleanPlus” to clean and disinfect its aircraft. Hertz introduced a 15-point Gold Standard Clean program. It includes disinfecting key contact areas like the steering wheel and door handles. And Hilton’s CleanStay program includes a partnership with Lysol to clean high-touch areas at its hotels.
“These old-school disinfectants are toxic and can cause irreversible diseases, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” says Howard Lefkowitz, president of Germ Free Earth, a distributor of commercial disinfectants. The citrus and pine smell covers the “horrible” effects of the harsh cleaners.
“Sadly, we’ve grown accustomed to the smells of alcohol, bleach, and acids just as we used to be accustomed to smoke-filled rooms,” he adds.
I’ve already documented the travel industry’s passion for perfuming. In the past, hotels pumped artificial smells into their lobbies and rooms to boost profits. For example, guests at the Las Vegas Hilton spent 50% more time playing slot machines when it misted the air with a floral scent, according to Haha Lung and Christopher Prowant’s book “Mental Dominance.” A Washington State University study concluded that exposing shoppers to an orange scent made them spend 20% more than they otherwise would have.
But it’s pure hell for scent-sensitive travelers.
How to avoid COVID cleaning problems
Clean the surfaces yourself. That’s the advice of Brooks Trotter, a physician who specializes in internal medicine in Grapevine, Texas. “You can wipe surfaces that have been cleaned with harsh chemicals, such as arm rests and tray tables, with non-toxic wipes,” he says. “That will remove the chemicals.”
Wash your hands. The extra cleaning can leave industrial solvents on high-touch areas such as door handles and TV remotes, says Ryan Steele, a Yale Medicine allergist and immunologist. “Frequent hand washing can help to quickly get these chemicals off of your skin and minimize your exposure,” he says. If you can’t get to the bathroom, he recommends minimizing contact with any cleaned surface.
If you see cleaning crews entering one area of an airport, such as a restroom, steer clear if you have an aversion to strong odors.
Avoid recently disinfected areas. For example, if cleaning crews are in a bathroom at the airport, use a different one. “Understand your sensitivities and prepare for them,” says Curtis White, chief technology officer of ViaClean Technologies, a biotech company that develops cleaning agents. “Most people with severe food allergies or severe reactions to environmental pollutants already are well-disciplined in avoidance and reaction to exposures.”
If you’re scent-sensitive traveler and encounter a problem on a trip, contact my consumer advocacy organization. We’re here to help.