Fragrance Sensitivity: What You Need to Know

By Leanna Serras July 1, 2019
image of Fragrance Sensitivity: What You Need to Know

Imagine you’re at your office and all of a sudden you catch a whiff of your co-worker’s new perfume. Within minutes your eyes begin watering and you’re sneezing non-stop. What do you do? 

This is one way that many people experience fragrance sensitivity. While it may seem arbitrary, fragrance sensitivity is a real condition that millions of people live with every day. Unfortunately for them, fragrance can be found almost everywhere, from traditional perfumes and air fresheners to cleaning products and even advertising inserts.

If you suspect you or someone you know might have a fragrance sensitivity, read on. We’ll cover how to recognize the symptoms and how sensitive people can limit their exposure to fragrances.

What Is Fragrance Sensitivity?

Fragrance sensitivity is a condition in which someone displays irritation or an allergic reaction to ingredients or chemicals in fragrances. These people are often allergic to the scents in a variety of daily-use items like toiletries, cosmetics, cleaning products and pesticides. 

Since fragrance is used in so many household items, exposure can be constantly occurring and usually increases when much time is spent indoors. What’s worse, it’s often difficult to identify the source of the allergy since so many complex chemical formulas are used in our everyday products.

While many people think fragrance sensitivity is a minor issue, it’s actually a very common issue and can be quite severe.

a list of different symptoms of a fragrance sensitivity

Symptoms of Fragrance Sensitivity

The symptoms of fragrance sensitivity can vary based on the type of sensitivity one possesses. There are two types of allergy sensitivity — respiratory and skin. The frequency and level of sensitivity can differ from one person to another. Symptoms can include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Skin redness 
  • Skin itching and burning
  • Watery, itchy and red eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Chest tightness
  • Worsening of asthma symptoms

Nasal Allergies

People who have nasal fragrance allergies usually experience symptoms that feel similar to seasonal allergies. This may include headaches or nausea. The allergies could also manifest as watery, itchy eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion or other breathing difficulties. Those who have asthma need to be especially careful if they have fragrance sensitivities, as their reactions could worsen their asthma symptoms. 

Skin Reactions

Other people may exhibit a skin reaction when exposed to certain fragrances or chemicals. These can include contact dermatitis such as skin redness or itching, burning skin. These people often develop their symptoms when they have touched the offending product or substance.

illustrated image of different scented items like cleaning supplies and air fresheners

The Rise of Fragrance Sensitivities

Fragrance sensitivities are on the rise, which could, in part, be because of the rise in scented products. Scent can be found everywhere, and those who are exposed to these allergens daily can see increased symptoms.

People who have seasonal allergies are more likely to develop fragrance sensitivities due to their baseline allergic disease. With more than 50 million Americans suffering from allergies each year, these fragrance sensitivities are becoming more common.

The combination of allergy-afflicted Americans and the increasing presence of fragrance and chemicals available to the public means that more and more people are seeing the impacts of fragrance sensitivity.

Fragrance Sensitivity in the Workplace

Sensitivity to fragrance has become a hot-button issue in the workplace. As more and more people report experiencing symptoms, people have begun to debate whether or not workplaces should be required to limit fragrance usage to accommodate sensitivities. 

Federal courts have ruled that an allergy to scents can be considered a disability under ADAAA (the most recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act). Under this law, when an employee has a severe reaction to exposure to an odor or scent their employer must act on their behalf to remedy the situation.

An employee who is experiencing debilitating symptoms like asthma, breathing difficulties or an itchy, inflamed rash has the right to request a safe workplace. Their employer is required to take steps to ensure their work area is free of scents. This includes banning other employees from using scents. 

image showing places fragrance can be found in the office like candles or wall plugins

Preventing and Treating Fragrance Sensitivities

If you’re allergic to fragrance or know someone who is, there are several things you can do to ease the symptoms. You can be more cognizant of what you buy, and there are also certain medications that those who are affected can take. 

If symptoms are respiratory-focused, purchase nasal antihistamines and nasal corticosteroid medications to control the allergy symptoms. These are much like what you would purchase for seasonal allergies or allergies to dander.

Try to keep all fragrances off of your body and out of your immediate environment. Many everyday products can contain scent. These products may include:

  • Soaps
  • Lotions
  • Fabric softeners
  • Laundry detergents
  • Skin care products
  • Cosmetics
  • Air freshener
  • Room spray
  • Scented candles
  • Cleaning and deodorizing products

How to Buy Fragrance-Free Products

Since fragrance allergies are becoming so common, many companies are opting to offer fragrance-free products. However, their packaging can be confusing to some. Here’s a list of resources to help you find the right products.

  • Find EPA Safer Choice-certified products: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created a new Safer Choice label to help people identify products that have safer chemical or natural ingredients. Products that are free of chemical scents are marked “fragrance-free” in the upper left-hand corner of the label.
  • Read the EWG guides: The Environmental Working Group has provided an extensive online database where you can look up healthy cleaners and personal care products. We recommend looking at the ingredients provided to see if fragrances are listed in the products that you use. 
  • Look for MADESAFE certified products: MADESAFE has put together a list of certified fragrance-free and allergen-free products. 

illustrated zoom in of the safer-choice label

Fragrance-free vs. Unscented

Did you know that many products can call themselves “fragrance-free” if the word “fragrance” doesn’t appear on the products ingredient label? This doesn’t necessarily mean that no scented additives have been added to the product.

To determine if a product is truly unscented, look to see if you see essential oils or fruit/flower distillate waters on the ingredient label. If you see these, the product is scented and it can cause an allergic reaction.

Other companies may use chemicals to mask scents so that your product will smell like “nothing”. These will claim to be fragrance-free but many people will have reactions to these chemicals as well. 

While many people love wearing their favorite perfume daily, it’s important to be courteous to those who may be struggling with any sensitivities. While you can’t control everything you expose the people around you to, perfume and cologne are things that are easy to monitor.

Fragrance sensitivity can vary among individuals, and those who have more severe allergies should be treated with care. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you may need to ask your friends, spouse or partner and your co-workers to avoid wearing heavily-scented products when they are around you.

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