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Fragrance Sensitivity: Allergy Symptoms, Triggers & Treatment

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Fragrance sensitivity - Dr. Axe

Believe it or not, up to one-third of all adults deal with some type of fragrance sensitivity, which can trigger symptoms such as trouble breathing, headaches and skin irritation. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology considers fragrances to be the leading cause of cosmetic contact contact dermatitis.

How do you treat fragrance sensitivity? As explained below, the best way to manage fragrance sensitivities or allergies is to rid your life of as many scented products as possible, especially those made with a multitude of synthetic chemicals, as many are.

The truth is it can be hard to avoid all scented products given how popular they are and because ingredient labels are not always transparent. Even some products that are labeled as “unscented” or “fragrance free” contain certain ingredients, such as oils or herbs, that can be irritating to some people.

That said, there are steps you can take to reduce your exposure to fragrances and minimize your reaction to them when avoiding them is impossible.

What Is Fragrance Sensitivity?

A fragrance sensitivity is a negative reaction to fragranced products, which can include beauty, household and personal care products.

Did you know that there are over 5,000 different fragrances used in products today?

People with fragrance sensitivities most often react to products including:

  • perfumes, body mists and colognes
  • air fresheners
  • laundry detergents
  • cleaning solutions
  • body lotions and other toiletries
  • hair care products, such as shampoo, hairspray, mousse, etc.
  • essential oils and various products made with these oils, such as candles, cleaning supplies and facial serums
  • pesticides

What causes fragrance sensitivity?

Most people are unaware that a “fragrance” in personal or household products is typically a chemical mixture of several dozen to several hundred chemicals. Fragranced products emit dozens of different volatile compounds that are then breathed in or that come into contact with the skin or eyes, including some that are considered air pollutants.

In some cases, these products contain essential oils that are normally health-promoting when used properly, but some people are sensitive to their smells and effects. This can be due to genetic factors, allergies or other causes.

Certain perfumed products even contain chemicals that are known to be dangerous, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

Unfortunately it can be hard to know if you’re being exposed to irritating perfumes and other fragrances, since it’s not required that manufacturers list all ingredients on their product labels. You can usually tell if a product will be irritating by smelling it yourself or by contacting the manufacturer or looking on its website or more detailed information.

The following chemical ingredients are among the most likely to cause symptoms:

  • Oakmoss absolute
  • Isoeugenol
  • Eugenol
  • Cinnamyl alcohol
  • Cinnamic aldehyde
  • Hydroxycitronellal
  • Geraniol
  • Amyl cinnamic aldehyde
  • Lyral
  • Citral
  • Farnesol
  • Coumarin
  • Citronellal
  • Alpha hexyl cinnamaldehyde

Can you be allergic to fragrances?

Is fragrance sensitivity a disability? Is it different than an allergy?

Some people with fragrance sensitivity symptoms actually experience allergic reactions to some chemical, or combination of chemicals, in scented products. People with a history of asthma, allergies or other respiratory disorders are usually more susceptible to the effects of fragranced products.

Allergies are defined as an “exaggerated or pathological immunological reactions (as by sneezing, difficult breathing, itching, or skin rashes) to substances, situations, or physical states.”

There are two main types of allergy symptoms due to fragrance sensitivity: respiratory and skin allergy symptoms. The best way to prevent fragrance sensitivity is to remove, block or avoid the offending substance.

When someone is affected by a fragrance allergy in the workplace, this can be considered a form of disability. For those with strong sensitivities or allergies to certain scents, fragrance product exposure can be harmful enough to interfere with workplace performance, the ability to attend school and generally how well someone functions in society.

Symptoms

Symptoms that can be caused by a fragrance sensitivity can include:

  • breathing/respiratory problems, including coughing, shortness of breath and worsened asthma symptoms
  • congestion
  • watery eyes
  • migraines
  • skin rashes, as well as hives, tingling skin and dermatitis
  • upset stomach
  • neurological effects in some severe cases

There can also be an emotional and social component to this type of sensitivity.

For example, one expert told Health Magazine, “Some people feel like they can’t enter public restrooms or walk inside shops because they don’t want to risk an asthma attack…This loss of functionality makes a fragrance sensitivity not just a health issue, but a societal and economic one too.”

Stats/Facts

How common is a fragrance sensitivity? Findings from one large study conducted in Australia that were published in Preventive Medicine Reports found that about one-third of participants experienced one or more health issues from exposure to scented products.

Some participants even had severe reactions to scented products that caused symptoms strong enough to interfere with daily living, such as due to trouble breathing.

The same study also uncovered the following statistics about prevalence and common symptoms associated with fragrance sensitivities:

  • 17% of participants reported experiencing respiratory difficulties due to certain fragrances, while 14% reported mucosal symptoms (such as congestion and watery eyes).
  • About 10% experienced migraines and skin problems.
  • About 8% reported asthma attacks, and the same number said they missed work due to symptoms caused by fragrance exposure in the workplace.
  • Between 3% and 5% reported gastrointestinal problems, cognitive or neurological symptoms (dizziness or fainting, trouble concentrating, etc.).

Other research studies have found that between 17% and 20% of the general U.S. population has reported breathing difficulties, headaches or other health problems when exposed to air fresheners and deodorizers.

When participants in one study were asked about their preferences related to fragrances/scents in indoor environments, here’s how they responded:

  • 42.8% would be supportive of a fragrance-free policy in the workplace.
  • 43.2% would prefer that health care facilities and health care professionals be fragrance-free.
  • 57.7% would prefer flying on an airplane without scented air pumped through the passenger cabin.
  • 55.6% would prefer staying in a hotel without fragranced air.

Treatments

How do you treat fragrance allergies or other negative reactions? Here are recommendations according to leading experts:

1. Avoid Synthetic Scents

Many fragranced products are capable of emitting hazardous air pollutants. For some people, synthetic scents can trigger adverse reactions due to the chemicals they contain, which can be irritating to the sinuses.

To cut down your exposure, get rid of the following from your beauty routine, home, car and office:

  • Air fresheners
  • Candles with synthetic fragrances
  • Cleaning supplies with strong fragrances
  • Toiletries/personal care products with strong smells

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) helps consumers identify cleaning and other products that have been determined to be effective and safer for human health and the environment. This is a good resource for looking into potential dangers of some scented products.

The Environmental Working Group also posts information on many beauty and household products, which are worth checking out if you experience sensitivity symptoms or allergies.

Another helpful allergy remedy that may help reduce your reaction to fragrances is taking quercetin. Quercetin is an antioxidant that is naturally found in plant foods, such as cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or cauliflower), onions/shallots, green tea and citrus fruits. As a bioflavonoid, it helps stabilize the release of histamines and helps naturally control allergy symptoms, including those caused by hyperactivity in the respiratory system/airways.

2. Use Natural Cleaners in Your Home

If using scented cleaning products in your home tends to trigger your symptoms, try simple solutions such as vinegar and baking soda instead to clean and wipe down your kitchen and bathroom. Fragrances don’t actually have any functionality or cleansing effects, so unscented, natural cleaning products work just as well to keep your home clean and germ-free.

If you don’t react badly to it, you can also try putting several drops of eucalyptus oil into a diffuser in your home (or a neti pot) so you can inhale it to help clear out your nasal passageways and cleanse the air of allergens. It can also be used in homemade laundry detergent as an antimicrobial agent.

3. Upgrade Your Beauty Products

Among those with fragrance sensitivities, fragranced skin, hair and beauty products should be swapped out for fragrance-free options instead. It can be difficult to find personal care products that are unscented in most stores, which means making your own may be your best option.

You can use readily available ingredients, such as coconut oil, sugar, argan oil, apple cider vinegar and aloe vera, to make homemade cleaners, serums, toners, conditioners and so on. If you can tolerate essential oils, feel free to add a bit of lavender, chamomile or frankincense oil for even more benefits.

4. Speak Up About Your Sensitivity at Work

Some surveys have found that about twice as many people prefer fragrance-free indoor environments rather than fragranced environments, which means that asking your workplace to remove harsh scents won’t put you in the minority.

If it’s interfering with your ability to work, speak to co-workers or HR about the need to reduce secondhand scents in your workplace (such as from candles, air fresheners, odor-eliminating sprays or even others’ perfumes). If fragrances cannot be banned or removed from your workplace, your employer may be able to move you away from the fragrance source instead, or you can consider taking steps such as modifying your schedule, using an air purifier in your office, keeping windows open or using fans.

For more information regarding your rights at work when it comes to avoiding irritating scents, you can refer to the Job Accommodation Network’s website.

Other Tips

Here are other tips and home remedies for managing your reaction to scents indoors:

  • Keep windows open to improve ventilation when you’re indoors.
  • Only shop in stores that don’t use candles and perfumes, and be careful about trying on clothing that has been sprayed with fragrances.
  • If you can’t avoid smells in certain places, consider wearing a facial mask to help reduce how much you breath in.

Conclusion

  • Fragranced beauty, cleaning and household products emit and generate a complex mixture of chemical pollutants that can cause adverse reactions among some people.
  • It’s estimated that up to one-third of adults may have a fragrance sensitivity, in which they experience symptoms like breathing/respiratory problems, including coughing (shortness of breath and worsened asthma symptoms), congestion, watery eyes and migraines when exposed to strong scents.
  • To cut down on exposure to irritating scents, opt for homemade beauty products, fragrance-free cleaners, and natural products made without chemical pollutants.
  • Be especially careful about using candles, air fresheners, odor-eliminating sprays and perfumes in your home and on your body.
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