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Why Perfumes Are Poison for Some People

Fragrance-free policies are meant to promote health.

Key points

  • Exposure to fragrances can exacerbate health conditions such as asthma.
  • Between 2% and 4% of people experience eye and respiratory symptoms secondary to fragrances, but the true rate may be higher.
  • Blanket fragrance-free policies may be overreaching, with case-by-case approaches more prudent.
  • The smell from perfume or cologne should not extend past one arm's length, per the experts.

Ever since 2009, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has followed a fragrance-free policy. In part, this move was meant to inspire other public institutions to also institute fragrance-free policies .

The CDC policy involves guidelines that promote the well-being of people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS). In part, soaps, cleaning products, and paints used in the workplace need to be fragrance free. MCS is a syndrome in which multiple symptoms manifest at low levels of chemical exposure. This syndrome could be mediated by allergy, toxic effects, and neurobiologic sensitization.

The CDC policy goes a step further by prohibiting the use of scented personal care products, such as colognes, perfumes, and hair products. According to their website, the “CDC encourages employees to be as fragrance-free as possible when they arrive in the workplace. Fragrance is not appropriate for a professional work environment, and the use of some products with fragrance may be detrimental to the health of workers with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, and chronic headaches/migraines. Employees should avoid scented detergents and fabric softeners on clothes worn to the office. Many fragrance-free personal care and laundry products are easily available and provide safer alternatives.”

The fragrance-free policy at the CDC reflects an emerging public-health concern. Let’s take a closer look.

Understanding perfume allergies

Perfumes and perfumed consumer goods, including cosmetics, detergents, and fabric softeners, draw on in excess of 2500 ingredients to provide pleasant smells. Nevertheless, these ingredients can lead to skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Source: Iakovenko/123RF

Fragrances are volatile substances. As such they can cause skin reactions like rashes (i.e., contact dermatitis) in some people. Moreover, the European Commission estimates that between 2% and 4% of adults experience respiratory or eye symptoms related to exposure.

According to the Commission, “It is known that exposure to fragrances may exacerbate pre-existing asthma. Asthma-like symptoms can be provoked by sensory mechanisms. In an epidemiological investigation, a significant association was found between respiratory complaints related to fragrances and contact allergy to fragrance ingredients.”

The number of people who are sensitive to fragrances may be higher than that estimated by the European Commission.

According to the results of a survey published in Environmental Sciences Europe in 2020, of 1102 Germans, one in five expressed being fragrance sensitive, with more than half reporting respiratory problems and more than athird reporting mucosal problems.

“In the present study, respiratory problems are the predominant health effect associated with fragranced products indicated in the general population (11.0%) as well as in all subgroups (7.6–55.3%), followed by mucosal problems (5.9–35.6%), dermal problems (4.8–34.7%), neurological problems (4.1–30.6%), and migraine headaches (4.0–25.1%). All these health effects are reported by at least 5% of the general population,” wrote the author.

Those with scent sensitivity may complain of coughing, sneezing, gagging, shortness of breath, rhinitis and asthma attacks, as well as headaches, anxiety, and dizziness.

Importantly, the impact of scents can also be psychological. For people who have one adverse reaction, or associate a scent with adverse reactions, anxiety about exposure to fragrances can result. This anxiety can be exacerbated by feelings of loss of control.

What can be done?

For those who have MCS or perfume allergies, prevention has been key, with exposure limited. According to the CDC, “Reducing exposure to chemicals in the workplace is a preventative action that can lead to improved outcomes for worker health and the environment.”

Various workplaces and institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and government buildings, have implemented scent-free or scent-reduction policies. These policies instruct those entering the building not to apply perfumed products.

Nevertheless, the evidence backing these policies is inconclusive, according to the author of an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“While scents can trigger both physiological and psychological symptoms in some individuals, there is no reliable diagnostic test for fragrance allergies,” wrote the author. “Allergies to substances where a protein is easily identifiable can be tested with a skin test, so determining an allergy to peanuts, cat dander, or pollen requires only a simple scratch test. Scents, however, are more complicated, as one fragrance can be made up of many different ingredients.”

The author highlighted expert input that recommended against a blanket ban on scented products in lieu of a case-by-case approach. Specifically, if one employee wears a particularly fragrant scent that bothers coworkers, this case can be addressed and mitigated.

For those who wear perfumes, colognes, or other scented personal-care products, an “arm’s length policy” may be a good idea. If the perfume, body wash, or deodorant can be smelled from more than an arm’s length away, it’s likely that too much product was applied, and use should be reduced.

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