Sensitive to Scents


Sensitive to Scents

It can hit you like a wall: the overpowering odour of too much perfume. For those who are sensitive to scent, hidden scents can also pose a variety of health problems.

Have you noticed lately that almost everywhere you go, fragrance follows? Even into public toilets? And those fragrances have the smell of money. The industry that creates synthetic fragrances is booming. However, new research is uncovering a dark side to our newly fragranced world.

Scents-itivity problems

The problem is that, along with the booming industry in scents, a booming number of people are being negatively affected by the proliferation of scents. Although studies don’t exist for Australia, US studies found large numbers of people reporting problems with scents:

  • 30.5 per cent reported scented products worn by others are irritating
  • 19 per cent reported adverse health effects from air fresheners (such as those in public toilets)
  • 10.9 per cent reported irritation by scented laundry products vented outside
  • 1.7 to 4.1 per cent show a contact allergic response to a mix of common perfume ingredients

In Denmark, a population-based study reported that 42 per cent of the population experienced symptoms involving their eyes, nose, mouth, throat or lungs after exposure to fragranced products.

Scent symptoms

What makes the problem of scent sensitivities so complicated is that people react differently to fragrance—and often people will react to one fragrance but not another.

Reactions to scents range from the mild, such as slight throat irritation or nausea, to the more debilitating, such as migraine, anxiety and depression. Still others, such as those with asthma or allergies, can have such severe reactions that they must avoid exposure altogether—some having to completely avoid public places such as restaurants and theatres.

What’s more, studies indicate that repeated exposure can increase sensitivity or create new cases of asthma in adults.

Here are some of the reported symptoms:

  • headaches (including migraines)
  • dizziness/lightheadedness
  • nausea/loss of appetite
  • fatigue/weakness
  • confusion/difficulty with concentration
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • upper respiratory symptoms (coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath, etc.)
  • skin irritation

What’s that smell?

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know what that smell is in the cologne or shampoo we—or those around us—are using.

The reason? Regulations—both here and in the United States—allow manufacturers to keep the ingredients that make up that scent secret. According to a June 2013 guide issued by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, the only stipulation for products that contain fragrance is that the ingredients must include one of the following words: fragrance, fragrances, parfum or parfums.

In fact, more than 3000 fragrance ingredients have been reported in various consumer product studies, and a single fragrance in a product can contain a mixture of between 50 and 300 different chemicals. ‡

Far more than a bad smell

In a 2010 study led by Dr Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington, researchers found that tested fragranced products emitted 133 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 24 of them classified as toxic or hazardous air pollutants, such as acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde or methylene chloride. These are all carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants with no safe exposure level, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act.

The creation of air pollutants happens when fragrance chemicals, such as limonene (a citrus scent), react with ozone in the air to form dangerous secondary pollutants, including formaldehyde. Other common—and harmful—VOCs detected in studies included chemicals known to be irritants and allergens, such as toluene, benzene, acetone, alpha- and beta-pinene (pine scents) and ethanol (often used as a carrier for fragrance chemicals).

Staunching the stench

According to a European Union document titled Fragrance Chemical Allergy: A Major Environmental and Consumer Health Problem in Europe, “At the present time there is no treatment, other than symptomatic, for fragrance hypersensitivity reactions, and the only means available to improve public health in this sector is prevention.”

In a report published in Environmental Health Perspectives, Dr Claudia Miller, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, says that the research on fragrance “strongly suggests that we need to find unscented alternatives for cleaning our homes, laundry and ourselves.” The best smell, apparently, is no smell.

As the scent of money becomes increasingly ubiquitous in everyday products, it becomes ever more important to pay attention to potentially harmful effects of fragrance chemicals—and choose the product less scent-full.

Tips for the office or classroom

  • If you suffer the effects of a fragrance sensitivity or allergy at your workplace or school, here are some suggestions.
  • Help those around you understand that fragrance chemicals don’t just pose a problem for the allergic or sensitive; chemicals contained in fragranced products can include human carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and reproductive toxins that can enter and persist in the environment.
  • Suggest your workplace or school switch to cleaning products without fragrance and eliminate air fresheners, such as those commonly found in public toilets.
  • Ask to relocate your workstation or desk away from a problem fragrance source.
  • Explore the option of telecommuting or distance education—at least part of the week.
  • Try using an air purifier at your workstation to help eliminate fragrance; use one with a gas or carbon filter.
  • Use a portable fan to deflect odours from your workstation.
  • Discuss the possibility of establishing a scent-free policy at your workplace or school. For information about chemical sensitivity in the workplace, visit the Australian Human Rights Commission website

If you use scented products

  • Be aware that something called “olfactory fatigue” can prevent you from detecting the power of your own fragrance.
  • Ask others if they can detect your scent from an arm’s length away.
  • Tone down your scent if you spend time in shared spaces such as boardrooms, vehicles or classrooms.

What about “unscented” or “fragrance-free” products?

“Fragrance-free” products should have no perceptible odour, while “unscented” on a label can indicate that small amounts of fragrance—a masking agent—have been added to hide scents from the other ingredients in the product.


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