Respirators are used to filter volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air, such as paint and solvents. Is the threshold for these VOCs damaging you the same as your threshold for being able to smell the VOCs? In other words, could you be harmed by VOCs that are so low concentration that you can't consciously detect them through smell?

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    I think that might depend on the VOC and one's particular sensitivity to it. Commented May 19, 2023 at 0:23
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    – Carey Gregory
    Commented May 19, 2023 at 3:31
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    I think, for starters, you assume that (1) all VOCs have discernible smells, and (2) people have roughly the same sense of smell, neither of which are true. Thus, it is probably safe to say that there isn't a strong correlation between smell and VOC concentration or toxicity. You'd have to narrow down your query to a reasonably small number of compounds first to yield a possibly useful answer.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 15:24
  • Well we all have different tolerances for heat, but a sensation of too hot is a good measure for if you're going to get burnt so I am not sure that logic holds up but I think that's the crux of the question.
    – rfii
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 3:35

1 Answer 1


We breath in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) without realizing it all the time. Not all of them are equally harmful, and many are downright wonderful to the psyche.

My favorite gardening chore is weeding or otherwise tending to lavender and rosemary; a mere brush of the hand releases tons of VOCs which are (imo) intoxicating. Many people love the smell of a newly mown hayfield, and the aroma of steak being grilled (talk about toxic VOCs!*) is mouth-watering for most carnivorous humans. Every odor we can detect is caused by VOCs, therefore I would consider the presence of an odor indicates the presence of VOCs. Their relative toxicity, however, is not detectable without expensive equipment.

To answer your question generally, the absence of an odor upon using a respirator indicates a significant reduction in the presence of VOCs, but does not guarantee their complete absence.

...could you be harmed by VOCs that are so low concentration that you can't consciously detect them through smell?

Probably. But I would consider it like I consider sunlight and the risk of skin cancer. Every exposure has the potential to cause a mutation in a gene of a dividing skin cell, but one single exposure is extremely unlikely to cause a deleterious mutation, and the degree of harm is dependent on many factors: length and frequency of exposure, one's personal genetic constitution, one's immune status, and other mitigating factors (e.g. the presence or absence of susceptible lesions.)

You cannot avoid VOCs. However, the risk is most likely affected by the degree of exposure, the particular VOC(s), etc.

Personally, I am surprised by the frequent use of products to scent one's environment. Unscented products are less likely to expose one to high amounts of VOCs.

*My field of research as a molecular biologist was polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons/co-carcinogens, which positively abound in the smoke of grilled meat and grilled meat itself.

Well-Done Meat Intake, Heterocyclic Amine Exposure, and Cancer Risk
Heterocyclic Amines and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Cooked Meat Products: A Review
INDOOR AIR QUALITY: Scented Products Emit a Bouquet of VOCs

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