When Fragrance Makes You Sick
Can you relate with the following scenarios?
- The person beside you sprays his perfume and then you suddenly experience a headache.
- You get hives after opening a bottle of dish-washing liquid.
- You begin sneezing uncontrollably and feel dizzy after smelling the scent of a perfumed candle.
- Your eyes turned watery after you get a magazine out of the mail box.
The above symptoms are typical of perfume-induced allergy. People who are sensitive to fragrances experience sneezing, watery eyes, runny nose, dizziness, difficulty in concentrating, headache, respiratory problems (such as hard breathing and wheezing), hives, itching, and other skin reactions.
As the fragrance market grows, so is the cases of perfume-induced skin allergies. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), perfumes are one of the major causes of cosmetic contact dermatitis. This type of allergic sensitivity approximately affects 2 million Americans, and research shows that the number is on the rise.
The rampant use of fragrances in commercial products poses serious health concerns. Perfume-sensitive people are gaining awareness on the health complications caused by fragrances. As the number of allergy cases grows, perfume-sensitive people are urging authorities and the public to limit the use of this popular personal care commodity.
Some experts link the growing incidence of fragrance allergies to the prevalence of scented commodities. AAD estimates that manufacturers use 5,000 different variants of fragrances and countless combination thereof in their products. Some of these fragrances may be powerful enough to cause toxic effects in humans.
There are innumerable household goods and other consumable products that use fragrances: shampoos, shower gels, moisturizers, and other personal care items. There is such an overload of perfumed goods, making it difficult for allergic people to totally shield themselves from fragrances. Though these people may switch shampoos and discard perfumed goods in their home, they can do little to prevent their co-workers from using scented goods. Perfume-sensitive people are helplessly exposed to strong scents lingering in public areas, their school or workplace. These people cannot escape from the scents of goods and people around them just as non-smokers are trapped in the smoke of cigarette users. With no control over the intensity of fragrances in public sphere, perfume-sensitive people may suffer from significant health problems.
Perfume-sensitive people are beginning to invoke their health rights via legal means. Several lawsuits and perfume policies were initiated by advocates of perfume-free environment.
- There is a pending lawsuit filed by a Detroit-based civil servant against her employer on the ground of fragrance toxicity in the workplace. She accused her employer of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by not protecting workers from toxic fragrance. The plaintiff argued that neurotoxins from fragrances can cause brain damage.
- In the fall of 2007, a group of students at California State University prompted school officials to enforce a fragrance-free policy. The students complained that strong fragrances used by some students and faculty were causing headaches, nausea and difficulty in concentrating. The decision of the school authority is still pending.
- The Bureau of Emergency Communications of Portland, Oregon banned its employees from wearing fragrances. This was the first fragrance-free policy ever implemented by a government body. This was followed by similar measures in Portland State University and Cecil College in Maryland.
How Fragrance Causes Allergy
Physiological responses to fragrance differ from person to person. A pleasant smell to some may trigger adverse reactions to others.
The internal geometry of nose and the number of olfactory receptors affect olfactory sensation. This explains why some people can smell things at lower levels than others. Those who have less olfactory sensitivity are likely to apply bigger dose of fragrance.
Women have higher olfactory sensitivity than men during their reproductive years. Repeated exposures further increase women’s sensitivity to smell.
Usually, allergies caused by scents subside once the odor is cleared away. However, there are cases in which symptoms are more intense and last longer following repeated exposures. Sensitivity to fragrance can worsen into debilitating condition known as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). This misunderstood and somewhat controversial condition leaves its victims defenseless amid the rampant use of chemical odors and fragrances. The American Academy of Allergy and Immunology reports that a small but growing percentage of allergic population are experiencing MCS.
There is no consensus yet on what triggers adverse fragrance reactions. Medical experts are not sure whether such reaction is really an allergy or just a response to an irritant. Sensitivity is a general term that encompasses true allergic reaction and irritant reaction. Thus perfume sensitivity may be categorized as either an allergy or simply a physiological reaction to an irritant. It is not clear how these two different responses develop.
Medical experts do not know whether it is the fragrance or just one part of a mix of chemicals (200 or higher) that causes allergy. These chemicals are used to create fragrances and masking agents for unscented products. Since perfume-sensitive people can only perceive fragrance but not chemicals, the resulting allergic reactions are commonly associated with fragrance. However, it is also equally possible that chemicals mixed with fragrances are the one causing adverse reactions. These chemicals are not only found in scented commodities but in unscented items a well.
So how can you determine which of the two causes allergy? Try trial and error method. To rule out chemicals, switch from scented to unscented products. If you do not develop allergic reactions as you do with scented products, then fragrance is the apparent cause of your allergy; otherwise, it should be a chemical-induced reaction.
Products with single-note fragrance, like a rose scent or freesia scent, are likely to trigger allergic reaction than multi-scented products, unless it is the single note you are reacting to.
Managing Fragrance Sensitivity
Regardless whether your allergy is directly caused by fragrances or chemicals, avoiding exposure to scented products is the best way to manage fragrance sensitivities. If keeping oneself from offending smell is not possible, inform the people around you about your health condition. Do so not only for your sake but for others who are exposed as well. Do it courteously and you will likely get good response.
This means asking your co-workers or classmates who wear strong fragrance to tone it down, or asking your employer to discuss fragrance allergies and teach all employees how they can minimize fragrance overload in the workplace. By talking to a group rather than singling an individual, people will better understand the health implications of strong fragrances and hopefully will be more selective when choosing what scented toiletries to apply.
These guidelines will help you cope with perfume-sensitivities.
- Transfer to a new workstation where there is less exposure to fragrance. Stay away from people whom you know are using strong fragrance. Also avoid going to places where many people congregate like break room, rest room, and foyer. The more you stay in crowded place, the more likely you’ll be exposed to fragrances.
- Telecommute few days a week. Spending more time in the outside environment will make allergic symptoms more manageable.
- Change work schedule to avoid rush hours and crowded space. Going to work earlier means less likelihood to encounter offending smell. Leaving work earlier means less contact with people and their perfumes and more time to recover from fragrance exposure.
- Use an air purifier. Take note that some air purifiers and cleaners are less effective when placed in cubicle than in private offices where doors can be shut. Choose a unit with gas or carbon filters. A unit with only dust filtration system will not treat strong odor.
- Use portable fan to blow odors away and keep them from staying in your office space.
- Try alternative media of communication. Use fax machine, electronic mail or telephone to avoid exposure to offensive fragrances.