Sensitive to Scents

Fragrance chemicals wreak havoc

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 washrooms? 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 Canada, US studies found large numbers of people reporting problems with scents:

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

In Denmark, a population-based study reported that 42 percent 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. In Canada, the word “parfum” or “parfum/fragrance” is all we may see in the ingredient list.

In fact, more than 3,000 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, then 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.

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.

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 washrooms.
  • 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 developing such a policy, visit the Lung Association at lung.ca.

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

These can still contain fragrance chemicals used to cover up the smell of certain ingredients. The terms “fragrance free” or “unscented” can indicate that no fragrances have been added to the cosmetic product or that a masking agent has been added to hide scents from the other ingredients in the product.”

Hidden Scents

Here are some of the chemicals lurking in common consumer products that have been subjected to “scents-itization.” Although exposure levels affect sensitive people differently, these are some of the potential effects of a few of the many chemicals commonly found in consumer products with fragrance.

10 common chemicals Potential toxic effects Possibly found in
acetone can cause dryness of the mouth and throat, dizziness, nausea, loss of coordination, slurred speech, and drowsiness perfume, cologne, dishwashing liquid/detergent, nail polish/remover
alpha-Terpineol can irritate eyes and skin; can also cause nausea perfume, cologne, soap, hairspray, aftershave, deodorant, laundry detergent, bleach, fabric softener/dryer sheets, air freshener
benzaldehyde can irritate the throat, eyes, skin, and lungs; may also cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and contact dermatitis perfume, cologne, hairspray, laundry bleach, deodorant, shaving creme, shampoo, bar soap, dishwashing detergent
benzyl acetate can irritate eyes, skin, and respiratory passages perfume, cologne, shampoo, soap, hairspray, after shave, deodorant, fabric softener/dryer sheets, air freshener, dishwashing liquid/detergent, bleach
benzyl alcohol can irritate upper respiratory tract, skin, eyes, and mucous membranes; can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness perfume, cologne, soap, shampoo, deodorant, nail polish/remover, air freshener, laundry bleach/detergent, fabric softener/dryer sheets
ethanol can irritate eyes and skin; can cause nausea, headache, and dizziness perfume, hairspray, shampoo, shaving creme, soap, nail polish/remover, fabric softener/dryer sheets, dishwashing liquid/detergent, laundry detergent, air freshener
ethyl acetate can irritate eyes, nose, and respiratory tract perfume, cologne, aftershave, shampoo, nail polish/remover, fabric softener/dryer sheets, dishwashing liquid
gamma-Terpinene can irritate eyes, skin, and respiratory tract; can cause dizziness perfume, cologne, soap, shaving creme, deodorant, air freshener
limonene can irritate eyes, skin, nose, throat, and respiratory tract; can cause vomiting and headache bar soap, shaving creme, deodorant, nail polish/remover, fabric softener/dryer sheets, bleach, disinfectant spray, air freshener, dishwashing liquid
linalool can irritate eyes and skin perfume, cologne, bar soap, shampoo, hand lotion, nail polish/remover, shaving creme, aftershave, deodorant, fabric softener/dryer sheets

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