Scents And Sensitivity

BY ON February 26, 2013

mother holding young daughter in her arms

Before Heather Collins enrolled her 5-year-old daughter, Sophie, in ballet classes at the local recreation center in Boulder, Colorado, she went to the ballet studio to sniff around. Literally.

That’s because Sophie is one of an estimated 2% to 11% of Americans with fragrance allergy. For some, the symptoms of a fragrance allergy involve skin irritation. For Sophie, the symptoms are a little more serious. An encounter with perfumes, a laundry vent wafting scented detergent, most cleaning products, or air fresheners, not to mention shampoos, moisturizers, or sunscreens, can send her to the Emergency Room with respiratory problems.

When Heather walked into the ballet studio, she could smell right away that there was artificial fragrance in the air. She spoke with the staff about the cleaning regime, and learned that the floor was routinely washed with a scented product. After some discussions, the rec center staff agreed to wash the floors of the ballet studio with water on the morning of Sophie’s class, which seemed to remove the fragrance from the studio’s air. Heather also asked the teacher if she would refrain from wearing scented products on the class day. So far, Sophie has been able to participate without any adverse reactions.

It takes a lot of work for Heather to keep Sophie safe. One thing standing in her way is the fact that most manufacturers don’t disclose the ingredients that make up their fragrances. Fragrance ingredient disclosure is not required, so very few manufacturers actually do it.

A new report from Women’s Voices for the Earth, a Moms Clean Air Force partner, highlights the extent of this ingredient secrecy. While manufacturers disclose the presence of 26 common fragrance allergens in products sold in the European Union, many of these companies make the same products in the U.S., but don’t disclose the allergens because it’s not required by law.

Allergic reactions to fragrance are common, and appear to be on the rise. Many fragrances are factory-made from petroleum. Some are engineered to grow stronger over time (such as some laundry detergent fragrances, designed to fight the smell of dirty clothes). Fragrance allergens commonly used in cleaning products include limonene, 
Hexyl cinnamal, citronellol, 
butylphenyl methylpropional, linalool, geraniol, and benzyl Salicylate.

The problem is, you can’t make informed decisions about whether you want to avoid these ingredients because manufacturers keep the ingredients secret.

Heather, for one, thinks we have the right to know what’s in our products. She says,

I want fragrance clearly labeled on products so that people are aware of what they are purchasing, and those with allergies can make better decisions on what products are safe… We have the right to know which products contain artificial fragrance. It is something that all consumers have the right to know.”

Sophie is home-schooled. She can’t go to Target, Walmart, or Marshalls, because of the fragrances there. The family can’t travel by airplane or stay in hotels, so they go car camping to get away. Even having relatives visit is difficult, as many hotels use plug-in air fresheners that linger on clothes and trigger reactions in Sophie. And every time Sophie goes to the hospital for breathing problems, there are a myriad of other artificial fragrances in hand sanitizer and other products that can trigger Sophie’s allergies.

“Our normal is not like other families,” Heather says.

Fragrance allergy of this severity are not common. But doesn’t it make you wonder what’s in that bathroom cleaner? Or room spray? Or laundry detergent?

The Safe Chemicals Act would require better ingredient transparency. Tell Congress to keep toxic chemicals out of consumer products.

Photo: M.E. Collins Photography 

TOPICS: Allergies, Indoor Air Pollution, Pollution, Science, Toxics

  • Lori Alper

    We all have the right to know what’s in our products. Transparency is a must. It’s the only way we, as consumers, can make educated decisions about what we put on our bodies. With the prevalence of allergies and other skin sensitivities, passage of The Safe Chemicals Act is crucial.

    • Molly Rauch

      Thanks Lori! I totally agree.

  • Kathryn

    Thank you for this article, this is such a serious problem for the world. It is like cigarette smoke use to be. We can’t get away from these fragrances. They are everywhere and they are getting worse. There is rarely a place that I can go to get fresh air anymore. Even when I hike the people who walk by me smell of these awful chemical scents. When I leave my home at 5am in the morning I smell these chemicals lingering in the air. They do not biodegrade in the atmosphere like pure steam distilled essential flower oils do. When I am shopping and return home to my fragrance free home my clothes and hair are saturated with the scents. I have to wash the clothes and shower right away. We need to bring awareness to the public these harm animals as well, cause cancer etc. Research this my fellow man and act!! Thank you.

    • Molly Rauch

      Sorry to hear that fragrances bother you so much. As Lori says, transparency is so important so that people know what is in the products they are buying. Also, without transparency, it is hard to do the research that will help us understand exactly how these industrial petroleum products affect our health.

  • Possum Combes

    Ohmygosh!! Anyone who knows/cares about me (& even some that don’t lol) would have heard of the troubles/reactions I have had recently with a houseguest who (despite saying he didn’t use scented stuff) stunk our home out for a month with his products, while staying?! Towels, pillows & bed linen have been on the line for a week now & still smell, plus in that end of the house there is an ongoing trace of scent!!! *sigh*
    For me even essential oils can cause coughing/breathing problems on top of skin reaction!! Pretty much has to be fragrance free all the way!! And don’t even mention stores like Lush, that I can smell a block away, even when I don’t know they are there?! Thankfully I seem ok with vanilla – probably why I am drawn to that smell?!

  • Nancy

    The reactions that Sophie is having is not an allergy. It’s a toxic reaction from the chemicals that are used in fragrance, perfume and parfum. We have to educate people that this is NOT a simple allergy. Many of these chemicals are neurotoxic, carcinogenic, narcotic, respiratory depressants, etc.

    If we continue to perpetuate the myth that this is an allergic reaction than most people will think “I’m not allergic. It doesn’t affect me”. But it doe effect them. It effects everyone. The chemicals are toxic and they are toxic to everyone.

    We need to get the correct information out there not the false information about these ingredients being allergens. Sure there are a few ingredients that are common allergens. However most of the reactions that people are experiencing are neurological.

    Let’s get the truth out there!

    The Fragrance Free Project

    • Molly Rauch

      Hi Nancy, Sophie’s pediatrician, a holistic doctor, has diagnosed Sophie’s reactions as an allergic reaction. Heather (Sophie’s mom) also mentioned that Sophie has skin and intestinal problems as well as respiratory problems when exposed to artificial fragrances. However, there are indeed other possible health effects of these chemicals that are of concern. The report from Women’s Voices for the Earth focused solely on fragrance allergy, while acknowledging that there are many other potential health effects of exposure to these chemicals. Thanks for your interest.

    • John

      God bless you, Nancy for making this distinction. I have MCS and I become so upset when people comment about my “allergies”. No folks, it’s not an allergy…..I’m having a neurological event that feels like a mini-stroke, and subsequently causes me severe depression. It takes me days in bed to recover from episodes like this. We need to elevate the consciousness of everyone who will listen regarding this very impt. topic.

    • I don’t think we should hide the fact that people are experiencing allergic reactions, where their histamine levels rise drastically in response to the chemicals in artificial fragrances. That to me is a huge concern that the public should be aware of.

      This is a serious issue and everyone’s voice has the right to be heard. It is true that fragrances contain harmful chemicals. It is true that no one should be exposed to them. But it’s also true that these fragrances cause allergic reactions in people, where their body literally undergoes an allergic response.

      As Sophie’s mom, I know better than anyone what it feels like for someone to say that it’s just Sophie and not them in regards to being affected by artificial fragrances. I do my best to educate people that artificial fragrances affect everyone, even if they have no obvious symptoms. But I will not suppress the truth that it causes allergic reactions in people.

      As a mom of a child that has been hospitalized and put on oxygen and medication in order to recover from being exposed to artificial fragrances, you can be assured I have dealt with anger towards the companies that use artificial fragrances and the people who blindly use them without even thinking about the ingredients.

      However – In order to educate and spread awareness, it needs to be done with both compassion and knowledge. Everyone’s story is important.

      • darcy

        Thanks Heather. I am getting a little tired of this useless debate. It doesn’t matter if it’s an allergy/sensitivity/toxic response – there is nothing healthy to what is happening to an individual when they are exposed to fragrance. Regardless of the “correct” explanation, it’s chemicals and it’s causing people’s bodies to be put in distress. When a kid almost dies from eating peanuts, people still call that peanut allergy… so is the term allergy really that offensive/divisive when the same thing happens with perfume? We ask people to refrain from eating peanut butter, just like people should refrain from using fragrances. People can get reactions from essential oils too. Allergies can cause people to die and get sick too. To me, debating over these terms takes people’s attention away from the issue. No matter what you call it, it is serious.

        I get skin rashes when I’m in the same room as someone wearing scented fabric softener, my face flushes beet red if I’m around perfume/cologne, even citrus essential oils give me the EXACT same reactions. Anti-histamine pills barely touch the problem, and I’ve been told nothing can be done.

        • Thanks for your comment Darcy, and for sharing your story. Everyone’s comments are important and appreciated.

          I wish you the best and can fully sympathize with your frustrations about being exposed to artificial fragrances.

      • Laura

        Hi Heather,
        Firstly, I am really sorry to hear about your child’s allergies. My daughter is 9 and has a severe tree nut allergy and as a family we are all sensitive to fragrances. I was wondering what laundry soap you use. The one we use has just added a very strong fragrance and although they claim it is natural we have all broken out in rashes. I would be delighted if you could recommend any products that have worked for your family. Wishing you and Sophie all the very best.

  • Sneezerdoc

    This is not a true allergic reaction. This is an intolerance much like non-allergic asthma. Furthermore the anxiety associated with the paranoia / fear of odors only adds to a sensation of having a difficult time breathing. My recommendations would be to find a pediatric pulmonologists and inquire about vocal cord dysfunction in response to irritant smells as I have seen many patients with this and they can be treated successfully.

    • For Sophie, it is a true allergic reaction. Sophie goes to a doctor who specializes in this. Thank you for your comment, but she does not have a vocal cord dysfunction. Keep in mind this article touches only a very small part of the real story and all of the things we have gone through and done to get Sophie to where she is now — in a very healthy state. Thanks!

      • Sneezerdoc

        The immune system is not capable to specifically recognize these scents therefore it is not a true allergic reaction. In order for it to be a true allergic reaction, IgE, the allergic antibody would have to be produced and at this time there is no commericially available, FDA approved test to confirm this. Please stop calling this an allergic reaction and misleading the public about this.

        • Sophie’s doctor is a specialist in this field, and I find it very hard to believe that you are debating with me about this. You don’t know everything. Let’s leave it at that. Thanks!

          • tdibari

            Hi Heather,
            I feel so bad for Sophie, I am 55 yrs old and have been suffering for most of my life from chemical allergies. Just the other day while at work, I thought someone had a pumpkin candle because I experienced a sudden headache and pain in my shoulder (I not sure why I always get pain in my right should when exposed to chemicals) anyway, come to find out it was a pumpkin latte from Tim Horton’s.

        • tdibari

          Wow, FDA you mean the Fraud and Deception Administration!

        • Lucreza Borgia

          I realize that this article is 3 years old and that you might not be around anymore, but there are allergies to perfumes and there are no tests because the companies won’t tell us what’s in the ingredients!

          However, they can test our histamine levels. Even if there is no histamine response it’s a non-ige mediated allergy and you treat it exactly as an allergy. Non-ige allergies are tricky but no less life threatening. They are related to MCS, MCAD, and mastocytosis. Yes there is also VCD but there is an easy test for this. I’m so tired of being dismissed by undereducated doctors!

          • Sneezerdoc

            Of course doctors will dismiss you if you make claims without scientific evidence.

            Provide a legitimate reference for your claims and people might listen!

            Checking histamines doesn’t prove or disprove anything.

            VCD is not always easy to confirm as you need to visualize the vocal cords during an episode.

            Non-IgE mediated disorders are a heterogeneous group of conditions. For that reason it’s hArd to make any generalizations.

  • BB

    Yep. Every time my daughter is hospitalized, I have to ask for a private room for her because I have the fragrance allergies, and hospital floors first thing in the morning are scented up strong, so we have to keep the door closed. Sometimes we’ve had to change nurses and had to have specialist consults outside her room, me wearing a mask. At least nice to know I’m not the only one dealing with this.