Despite the growing popularity of aromatherapy, many people find scented products objectionable. A study in one dermatological journal reported that exposure to the scent of sandalwood promotes relaxation. Another marketing study found that people spend more money when they smell lavender. However, for some people, scents provoke symptoms. About 1% of the population is allergic to fragrance and many more find fragrance irritating. To a doctor, there is a difference between an allergen and an irritant.
To a person who suffers a rash, hives, runny nose, or headache in the presence of scented products, the biggest distinction is that allergies are likely to respond to medication. There isn't much you can do about an irritant other than avoid it. Patch testing can help identify the vast majority (about 75%) of offending fragrances.
Doctors who treat people with fragrance allergies can tell you that there are really only about eight substances in the fragrance world that cause the lion's share of the problems. However, even if you can identify the substance that causes problems, it is not always possible to avoid it. Most perfumes are composed of a mixture of scents that are not printed on the labels. Perfumers jealousy guard their trade secrets, and the exact components of a specific perfume are never listed anywhere (except possibly on a piece of paper in a vault somewhere). So even if you know you are allergic to a substance called geraniol (a common perfume substance that smells like roses), it may be hard to know where it is.
That's why one fragrance may cause severe symptoms and other fragrances not bother you at all. However, the world of fragrance is much bigger than the perfume industry. Today, fragrances are everywhere. They are commonly used in a wide range of household products from detergents to soaps, deodorants to lotions, toothpaste to tissues. Although not widely known, many foods also use fragrance to enhance their taste.
Thus, you can find fragrance in baked goods, chewing gum, and soft drinks, to name just a few products. Another fragrance on the "most irritating" list is isoeugenol, which smells faintly like cloves and spices. It's used in dental cement! And based on that lavender study, many department stores and trade shows are experimenting with "scented environments" for shopping. Conventions and trade shows nowadays sometimes pay for services to pump the air with fragrance to help stimulate business. The scents are usually pretty subtle.
People with known allergies to fragrance are advised to avoid fragrance, which can be tough. Labeling on products can confuse as much as help! When a product calls itself "unscented," it means that it has no perceptible fragrance. Do not assume, however, that no fragrance-type substances were involved! It just means that if you were to put the product up to your nose, you would not smell anything. Some unscented products actually use fragrance to cover up the product's natural scent. That is, fragrance is sometimes used as camouflage. So you don't smell a thing, but the product may still irritate you.
"Fragrance-free" products are more likely to be free of fragrance additives. In the business, scent means smell and fragrance means a substance. An unscented product can use fragrance and a fragrance-free product may have a distinct smell! (For instance, freshly ground coffee is fragrance free, but it has a natural aroma.
) Because a product has no fragrance added does not mean that chemicals used in its manufacture are not the cause of irritation. Many cosmetic and cleaning products are manufactured using things like acetone, ethanol, and other chemicals that can irritate. Thus, even fragrance-free products can produce an irritation.
What can you do if you find some fragrances make you sick? If you are able to pick out which specific scents or products (such as a brand of perfume) bother you, you can avoid them as much as possible. Though not always possible, that is the easiest solution. I once worked with a lady who asked that her staff not wear a particular brand of perfume. She had no problem with any other perfumes or fragrance products, but one particular brand gave her an instant headache. If you have a real fragrance allergy (and you may need to go to a doctor to be sure), you may be able to take allergy pills or even get allergy therapy (shots to help bolster tolerance) to help you. Here's a completely unscientific poor woman's allergy test: if your eyes or nose itch, it's more likely to be an allergy.
If your eyes water and your nose runs but you don't feel any itching sensation, you are probably dealing with an irritant rather than an allergen. This test is not foolproof, but it gives you a starting point. If irritating substances seem to be everywhere, you can create an allergy-free space in your home by using HEPA filters for your heating and cooling system, using a HEPA-type vacuum cleaner, and possibly getting HEPA air purifiers for within room. These will filter out most particulate matter from the air. While you're at it, you should probably try to have carpeting, drapery, and even upholstered furniture traded out for stuff that won't harbor irritating particles in the air. What to do if you're married or work with a perfume lover? Very politely inform the perfume wearer that you're having problems with the scent.
Unlike a sweater, perfume cannot simply be removed on the spot. As much as possible, move away from the perfumed person. Most fragrance fans will be very understanding about your situation and will avoid wearing scent when they are going to be around you. If you want to be very generous with the perfume lover in your life, you may want to talk to them about "sampling" some different scents.
Many people with perfume allergies are actually not allergic to all perfumes but only a few. There may be a compromise you can work out. If everything the perfume fan likes makes you sneeze and wheeze, maybe you can negotiate a cease-spritz.
Joanna McLaughlin has real allergies but still loves perfume and wears it all of the time. To learn more about perfumes, check out http://www.theperfume-reporter.com . Joanna blogs at http://www.perfumecrazy.blogspot.com . Her favorite perfume today is Lemon Sugar by Fresh.