Global expansion of human activities is associated with the introduction of novel stimuli, such as anthropogenic noise, artificial lights and chemical agents. Progress in documenting the ecological effects of sensory pollutants is weakened by sparse knowledge of the mechanisms underlying these effects. This severely limits our capacity to devise mitigation measures. Here, we integrate knowledge of animal sensory ecology, physiology and life history to articulate three perceptual mechanisms—masking, distracting and misleading—that clearly explain how and why anthropogenic sensory pollutants impact organisms. We then link these three mechanisms to ecological consequences and discuss their implications for conservation. We argue that this framework can reveal the presence of ‘sensory danger zones’, hotspots of conservation concern where sensory pollutants overlap in space and time with an organism’s activity, and foster development of strategic interventions to mitigate the impact of sensory pollutants. Future research that applies this framework will provide critical insight to preserve the natural sensory world.