Why perfumes are poisonous for some people
Since 2009, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has had a scent-free policy. Part of the move was to inspire other public institutions to institute scent-free policies as well.
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 must 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 neurobiological sensitization.
CDC policy goes further by banning the use of scented personal care products, such as colognes, perfumes, and hair products. According to their website, the âCDC encourages employees to be as scent-free as possible when they enter the workplace. Scent is not appropriate for a professional work environment, and the use of certain scented products 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 clothing worn in the office. Many fragrance-free personal care and laundry products are readily available and offer safer alternatives.
The CDC’s fragrance-free policy reflects an emerging public health concern. Let’s take a closer look.
Understanding fragrance allergies
Perfumes and scented consumer products, including cosmetics, detergents, and fabric softeners, use over 2,500 ingredients to provide pleasant smells. However, these ingredients can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
Source: Yakovenko / 123RF
Perfumes are volatile substances. As such, they can cause skin reactions such as rashes (i.e., contact dermatitis) in some people. In addition, the European Commission estimates that between 2% and 4% of adults have respiratory or eye symptoms related to exposure.
According to the Commission, âIt is known that exposure to perfumes can exacerbate pre-existing asthma. Asthmatic-like symptoms can be caused by sensory mechanisms. In an epidemiological investigation, a significant association was found between respiratory complaints related to perfumes and contact allergy to perfume ingredients.
The number of people sensitive to perfumes may be higher than estimated by the European Commission.
According to the results of a survey published in Environmental Sciences Europe in 2020, out of 1,102 Germans, one in five said they were sensitive to fragrances, with more than half reporting respiratory problems and more than a third reporting mucosal problems.
âIn the present study, respiratory problems are the predominant health effect associated with scented products indicated in the general population (11.0%) as well as in all subgroups (7.6 to 55.3%) , followed by mucosal problems (5.9 to 35.6%), skin problems (4.8 to 34.7%), neurological problems (4.1 to 30.6%) and migraines (4.0 to 25 , 1%). All of these health effects are reported by at least 5% of the general population, âthe author wrote.
People who are sensitive to smells may complain of coughing, sneezing, gagging, shortness of breath, rhinitis and asthma attacks, as well as headaches, anxiety and dizziness.
It is important to note that the impact of scents can also be psychological. For people who have a side effect or associate a scent with side effects, anxiety about exposure to scents can result. This anxiety can be exacerbated by feelings of loss of control.
What can be done?
For those with MCS or fragrance allergies, prevention has been key, with limited exposure. According to the CDC, “Reducing exposure to chemicals in the workplace is a preventative action that can lead to better 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 require people entering the building not to apply scented products.
Nonetheless, the evidence to support these policies is inconclusive, according to the author of an article published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association.
âAlthough scents can trigger physiological and psychological symptoms in some people, there is no reliable diagnostic test for fragrance allergies,â the author wrote. âAllergies to substances for which a protein is easily identifiable can be tested with a skin test. Therefore, determining a peanut, cat dander or pollen allergy requires only a simple scratch test. Perfumes, however, are more complicated because a perfume can be made up of many different ingredients.
The author highlighted comments from experts who recommended not to ban scented products altogether instead of a case-by-case approach. Specifically, if an employee is carrying a particularly fragrant odor that bothers his co-workers, that case can be treated and alleviated.
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, shower gel, or deodorant can be smelled from more than an arm’s length away, it is likely that too much of the product has been applied and use should be reduced.