Could you have fragrance sensitivity?

Do perfumes, scented lotions and deodorants cause you painful irritation? Here’s what you need to know.

Written by Caitlin Saville

Fragrance surrounds us. It lingers in our gardens and cafes, our deodorants and detergents. It can be natural or synthetic, sprayed, squirted, burned or washed.

Generally our reactions to fragrance depend on the amount we’re exposed to. A cup of peppermint tea smells pleasant, while a touch more can help clear the sinuses. But for an estimated third of the population, the slightest exposure can trigger irritation and pain.

Why can fragrance cause irritation in some people?

Research into why irritation to fragrance occurs is still in its infancy, according to Melbourne-based allergist Dr Colin Little. It can also be somewhat difficult to determine if you have a sensitivity.

Symptoms of a sensitivity tend to last for prolonged periods of time, while an allergic reaction can be more short-lived, Dr Little explains. Additionally, reactions to airborne exposure can be more adverse than those of skin patch testing.

Fragrance sensitivity symptoms aren’t what we would normally associate with irritation. They can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Nose congestion
  • Sinus headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling unwell, tired, or flat

What are common ingredients that cause trouble?

It’s no secret that fragrance is in almost everything – cosmetics, soaps, detergents and cleaning agent to name a few. The word ‘fragrance’ is clearly listed on the packaging of any product containing it.

However, as writer Kate Grenville explains in her new book, The Case Against Fragrance, most of us aren’t aware that ‘fragrance’ can mean any combination of 40,000 ingredients. This makes it tricky to pinpoint the exact substance that may be causing trouble.

By law, industries must clearly label ingredients on the packaging. However, due to ‘trade-secret protection’, fragrance companies aren’t required to list what’s in the ‘parfum’ part of their product, to avoid the risk of competitors replicating formulas to produce cheap rip-offs.

This means no one actually knows what’s in fragrance except for the manufacturers. Apparently, it takes 40,000 kilos of roses to make one kilo of rose essential oil. On the flip side, synthetics cost almost nothing to produce yet smell identical. So, the ‘natural’ essential rose oil some of us use to relax, sleep, or heal may not be natural at all.

That said, it’s not only synthetic fragrance that can cause irritation. According to Dr Little, plants such as jasmine, lavender, and lilies naturally emit terpenes, a strong odour produced to deter or attract insects and animals. Terpenes can be found in lavender and jasmine oils, common ingredients in perfumes which have shown to be a major cause for irritation.

Tips for reducing fragrance exposure

If you suspect you may be sensitive to fragrances, perhaps try some of the following to see if it makes a difference.

Look at what’s fragranced in your life

Many of us are exposed to 10 or more fragrances before breakfast, Kate Grenville says. Fragrance is in laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, toilet paper, bin-liners, soaps, shampoos, moisturisers, cosmetics, deodorants, disinfectants and medical creams.

Check for the word ‘fragrance’ on your cosmetic tubes or shampoo bottles. If it’s not one of your products setting you off, it could be something a family member is using.

Clean up your home

Try minimising the use of fragranced products in your home. Cosmetic and household sprays, scented lavender sachets, potpourri or fresh flowers can all be triggers for irritation. When you’re at the supermarket, opt for the products labelled ‘fragrance-free’.

Ask your workplace to change their products

Some of the biggest cases of fragrance sensitivity happen in the workplace. As a result, many workplaces in the US and Canada – including hospitals, universities, government offices and private businesses – have ‘low-scent’ or ‘fragrance-free’ policies. Colognes or perfumes, toilets air fresheners, and cleaning products like carpet shampoo can all be irritants. Raise the idea with your workplace of using non-scented, or minimally scented, products.

Take note of where else you experience symptoms

Public spaces such as shopping centres and boutiques often have fragrance diffusers, scented candles, or air fresheners that can all cause irritation. Crowded spaces such as theatres, cinemas, or churches are also hotspots for perfume cocktails.

Written by Caitlin Saville

Caitlin Saville lives in Melbourne and has worked in the world of books, films and opera. You can follow her on Twitter @cjaville.

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