Air freshener allergy symptoms

Fragrance Sensitivity: When Scents Cause Symptoms

If you sneeze every time you get a whiff of perfume or room deodorizer, you may be one of millions of people with a fragrance sensitivity.

As many as 30 percent of people surveyed in a study from the University of West Georgia said they find scented products irritating. Those with asthma or chemical sensitivities may find strong scents particularly problematic due to the allergy-like symptoms they cause.

Unlike tree pollen or dander, for example, perfumes and scents aren’t actually allergens, they’re irritants — but that doesn’t mean that they can’t trigger allergy symptoms like sneezing.

So what’s the difference between an allergen and an irritant? In fairly simple terms, a true allergen causes a person’s immune system to release chemicals to fight the invader. On the way to the battle, inflammation could result — eyes could water, nose could fill, and so on.

“An allergen is a protein that is known to cause an IgE-mediated reaction,” explains Beth A. Miller, MD, director of the University of Kentucky’s Asthma, Allergy, and Sinus Clinics and chief of the school’s division of allergy and immunology in Lexington. IgE, or immunoglobulin E, is an antibody produced by the body in response to exposure to an allergen.

An irritant, on the other hand, doesn’t provoke the immune system. But it has no problem making eyes water or noses run.

It’s not understood how or why this happens. “An irritant is a chemical or product that causes symptoms without a known immunologic cause,” says Miller, so it does not cause an IgE-mediated reaction.

“Sensitivity is really a non-specific term,” notes Miller. Only an allergen can cause a true allergy, while “irritants cause sensitivities.”

Bottom line: What people call a “perfume allergy” is either fragrance sensitivity or an allergy to some chemical in the perfume.

Symptoms of Fragrance Sensitivity

You can have two types of allergy symptoms due to fragrance sensitivity — respiratory, nose and eye symptoms, much like that of seasonal allergy symptoms — or skin allergy symptoms.

Symptoms of fragrance sensitivity can include:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • A tight feeling in the chest
  • Worsening asthma symptoms
  • Runny and stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • A skin allergy like contact dermatitis — an itchy, red rash that appears on the skin

The Rise of Fragrance Sensitivities

People who have asthma may be more sensitive to fragrances and may experience allergy symptoms or worsening asthma symptoms from exposure to perfumes, fragrances, and other chemicals. Although, says Miller, there isn’t really an established link between asthma and fragrance sensitivity.

People who already have allergies, like seasonal allergies or allergies to indoor allergens like molds and animal allergens, may be more likely to experience fragrance sensitivities.

“Often patients with allergies are more sensitive to these irritants due to their baseline allergic disease,” says Miller. And with more than 50 million Americans dealing with allergies, that’s a lot of people at an increased risk for fragrance sensitivity.

Combine that increased sensitivity with a constantly increasing level of irritating chemicals and fragrances that are ever-present in our environment and the things we use every day (over 5,000 types used today), and it’s no surprise that fragrance sensitivities are more common than initially believed.

Preventing and Treating Fragrance Sensitivities

If you’re dealing with allergy symptoms caused by fragrance sensitivity, there are some things that you can do for relief.

Nasal antihistamine and nasal corticosteroid medications can effectively control allergy symptoms caused by these sensitivities. But the best medicine is really an ounce of prevention — and that means keeping all fragrances off yourself and out of your environment.

There just aren’t any “safe” fragrances or products that Miller can recommend for anyone who has experienced allergy symptoms due to fragrance sensitivities.

“Any product with a scent can be irritating to patients,” notes Miller. “I suggest patients utilize scent-free products if at all possible.” That means fragrance-free:

  • Lotions
  • Soaps
  • Skin care products
  • Laundry detergents
  • Fabric softeners

You should even be cautious with cleaning and deodorizing products that you use at home — look for products that don’t contain fragrance, which could cause your allergy symptoms.

You may also need to ask your friends, spouse or partner, and co-workers to avoid wearing or using heavily-fragranced products around you to prevent your allergy symptoms.

Of course, there’s no hard and fast rule about what you can and can’t use — fragrance sensitivity is an individual issue.

“This type of sensitivity can vary among individuals,” says Miller. “In some patients all scents are bothersome, and in others only strong smells are irritating.”

But rather than run the risk of having allergy symptoms from fragrance sensitivity, it’s best to be conservative — and avoid all products containing fragrance for the best chance at avoiding your allergy symptoms.

Can Simply Smelling Peanuts Cause an Allergic Reaction?

A UNC allergist addresses the risk of airborne peanut allergies.

Your carry-on bag is safely stowed overhead, your little one is buckled in and playing with her favorite toy, and you’re ready to dive into the thriller you brought to read on your flight when you smell it. Peanuts. You begin to panic. Her EpiPen is somewhere in the carry-on above, but the “fasten seat belt” sign is glaring at you. What should you do?

Take a deep breath and relax. Even if you are allergic to peanuts, touching, smelling or inhaling particles from peanuts cannot cause an allergic reaction—at least not the serious, life-threatening type that everyone with a peanut allergy fears. You are not in danger unless you eat them.

What It Means to Be Allergic to Peanuts

When you’re allergic to peanuts, you’re actually allergic to the proteins found in peanuts. Antibodies in your immune system float around waiting to jump into action if they come into contact with these proteins. This occurs when you eat a peanut—even a miniscule amount.

“When you have someone who’s allergic and ingests peanuts, the antibodies in the person’s immune system find and grab onto this peanut and cause your body to release certain chemicals, the most important of which is histamine,” says Edwin Kim, MD, director of the UNC Food Allergy Initiative.

Histamine can cause symptoms ranging from itching and hives to a severe, life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis must be treated with epinephrine, which comes in an injectable pen, often called an EpiPen, followed by an emergency medical evaluation.

Smelling Peanuts Is Not the Same as Ingesting Them

While it is possible to breathe in a little bit of food protein, such as a peanut protein, that exposure is not enough to trigger a severe allergic reaction.

“The way I try to visualize it is it comes down to a threshold amount,” Dr. Kim says. “In order to get enough of an exposure to trigger a big reaction, it really takes ingestion. It is very, very, very, very rare for someone to just inhale it and then actually have an all-out anaphylactic attack.”

And while this idea holds for both peanuts and tree nuts, it’s important for people who are allergic to seafood to be aware: Reactions without ingestion do occasionally occur, Dr. Kim says. But the circumstances have to be just right; simply sitting next to someone eating shellfish, for example, won’t be a problem.

“There are reports where patients who are allergic to shellfish may be exposed to a steaming pot, perhaps at a clambake, and develop hives or asthma symptoms,” Dr. Kim says. “This is not (from) being in the same room as someone eating shrimp, but from directly breathing in the steam as it’s being cooked or boiled.”

When Exposure to Peanuts Can Cause a Physical Reaction

While just smelling peanuts won’t cause a severe reaction, if you’re allergic to peanuts, the smell can trigger a response in your body because it senses danger.

“Peanuts have a very potent smell. The smell may be enough to trigger some of the anxiety, concerns and fear that rightfully come because you anticipate a reaction,” Dr. Kim says. “It’s a survival instinct. Your body knows there is something around that it should not be eating.”

Dr. Kim says that if you are allergic to peanuts, you can experience nausea or just feel a little off if you smell them. “And if the person who sat in an airplane seat before you happened to eat peanuts and was not very clean, you could potentially touch it in a chair and have a little bit of a rash or irritation” on the skin, he says.

So whether it’s on a plane or at the lunchroom table, wipe down the area if you smell peanuts or are concerned about residue. Also, if you have a child who is allergic to peanuts, make sure you teach him or her early not to share food with friends.

“If they’re too young to know not to share foods, then that might be the one time where an actual separated table (for children with peanut allergies) could make sense,” Dr. Kim says. “But as they get older and you feel like they have learned this and can control their instincts, there’s no reason they can’t sit alongside their friends.”

Talk to your or your child’s doctor if you’re concerned about food allergies. If you need a doctor, find one near you.

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The sign on Joyce Miller’s office door reads: “Please do not wear scented products near this office. Chemicals in scented products can trigger serious health reactions in people with asthma and other sensitivities. I am one of them. Thank you for your consideration!”

A librarian in upstate New York, Miller admits that it took some judicious diplomacy to get permission to mount the sign. She didn’t want to offend her colleagues but she had no choice. After several years of problems breathing at work – during meetings, in a restroom that was badly ventilated and even in her own office – she was shocked when a doctor said she’d developed irritant-induced asthma.

She says exposure to fragrance is definitely her key indoor trigger and is now on daily medication to control it.

Miller also had bouts of eczema after using products such as scented shampoos. “I had no idea that any of this existed,” she says. As a librarian, she did her research, discovering just how commonly perfumed products affect Americans’ health. She now has her own webpage with information on fragrance sensitivity.

She is in good company, as nearly three-quarters of asthma patients report that fragrances bring on airway symptoms.

“People who are ‘over-cologners’ are generally not aware they’re wearing too much fragrance,” Miller said. “To the rest of us, it’s like getting hit with pepper spray.”

Konrad Ejbich agrees. The professional wine taster based in Toronto says he can actually taste smells on his tongue and that whenever he gets a strong whiff of fragrance or aftershave, he has trouble breathing properly and may get a facial rash. Fortunately, his wife doesn’t wear perfume, but it’s only recently that his mother-in-law has started to get it.

She wears “some kind of cologne and used to get offended when I didn’t kiss her hello,” he says. These days she warns her son-in-law to steer clear if she’s wearing perfume, which he greatly appreciates.


Skin Reactions

While they can be severe in people with asthma, respiratory symptoms usually fall under the umbrella of irritant, rather than allergic, reactions.

When it comes to the skin, however, the eczema or contact dermatitis that’s set off by fragrances is true allergy. The immune system reacts to contact with certain scent ingredients with a rash or skin eruption. This can occur anywhere on the body, though often on the face, neck and hands. There may be swelling and redness or a rash a few hours after physical contact, or it can emerge up to a day or two later.

Lisa Garner, a dermatologist in Garland, Texas and vice-president of the American Academy of Dermatology, explains that for most patients to have a contact allergic reaction, the skin must directly touch the fragrance.

In rare cases of this condition, people can be sensitive to ingesting or inhaling perfumed products. Think foods spiced with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg or breathing in air fresheners. Symptoms in such cases include a breakout around the lips or a widespread rash.

One German study published in the British Journal of Dermatology did find that those with a skin allergy to perfume also “have more frequent and more severe eye or airway symptoms” after exposure to airborne fragrances.

The standard for a definitive diagnosis of contact allergy, including those caused by fragrance, is the patch test, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Patches containing specific allergens are placed on a patient’s back and then the doctor removes them after 48 hours to see which allergens cause the skin to react. The patient is re-examined for reactions a second time within the next three to seven days. As a rule, 48 common contact allergens are the first to be tested, although some spicy and floral-scented fragrance allergens may be grouped together into a kind of allergen bouquet.

See also:
Perfume Allergy and the Battle Over Scent Labeling
Airborne Anaphylaxis: My Son’s Fragrance Battle

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Hyperosmia is associated with multiple conditions and can trigger a variety of symptoms. Some conditions associated with hyperosmia can cause the change in smell, and vice versa. Because of this, it may be difficult for you to determine whether your hyperosmia is a symptom of a larger disorder or the cause of it.


One of the most common causes of hyperosmia is pregnancy. An early symptom of pregnancy is a heightened sense of smell. This can trigger headaches, nausea, and vomiting during first-trimester morning sickness. It’s also associated with hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of morning sickness that can lead to hospitalization. Symptoms often fade as the pregnancy goes on, and typically go away after birth.


Migraine headaches can cause and be caused by hyperosmia. Heightened sensitivity to smells can happen between migraine episodes. Odor sensitivity can also trigger a migraine or make you more susceptible to having them.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease is another illness that is associated with hyperosmia. In one study, 50% of Lyme disease patients experienced a heightened sense of smell. If you think you might have been exposed to Lyme disease, talk to your doctor about being tested.

Autoimmune diseases

Recently, researchers have begun studying links between autoimmune diseases like Addison’s disease. Hyperosmia is also a symptom of untreated adrenal insufficiency, which is a precursor to Addison’s disease.

Neurological conditions

Some neurologic conditions have also been linked to hyperosmia, including multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and epilepsy. Multiple sclerosis is known to affect senses like taste and smell. Loss of smell is most common in these conditions. With the exception of MS, people with these conditions may experience hyperosmia instead.

In rare cases, neoplastic growths like polyps or tumors can occur intranasally or intracrannially. These may affect the olfactory nerve.

Other possible causes of hyperosmia include:

  • allergies
  • sterile meningitis
  • diabetes
  • Cushing syndrome
  • B-12 deficiency
  • nutrient deficiencies
  • certain prescription medication

The condition (or predisposition to hyperosmia) may also be genetic. More research needs to be done into its causes and possible treatments.

Fragrance Sensitivities Can Actually Be Very Severe, Study Finds

© 2007 Christine Glade Getty Images

You may not love the scent of your coworker’s hand cream, or the perfume wafting across the aisle on the train. But for some people, fragrances like those can trigger a range of very real symptoms, according to a new Australian study, from migraines to difficulties with breathing.

For her research, Anne Steinemann, PhD, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering, asked nearly 1,100 people to complete questionnaires about their exposure to fragranced products—such as personal care products, air fresheners, cleaning solutions, and laundry supplies—and any reactions those products may have triggered.

The findings, published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, suggest that fragrance sensitivity is not only a common issue, but can be quite severe. One-third of the study participants reported experiencing one or more health issues from scented products (whether they used the items themselves, or were exposed to them in public places).

The most common reaction was respiratory difficulties, including coughing and shortness of breath. Almost 17% of participants reported this effect.

Fourteen percent reported mucosal symptoms (such as congestion and watery eyes); 10% had experienced migraines; and 9.5% said they developed skin problems (like rashes, hives, tingling skin, and dermatitis).

RELATED: 20 Ways to Stop Allergies

Other reactions reported included asthma attacks (7.6%) and gastrointestinal problems (3.3%). Almost 5% of people said they suffered neurological symptoms (dizziness or fainting, for example); and 4.1% reported cognitive problems, such as trouble with their memory and difficulty concentrating.

What’s more, nearly 8% of the respondents said they had missed work or lost a job(!) in the past year as a result of feeling ill from exposure to fragrances in the workplace.

“Based on my findings, it’s clear that the health effects of fragrance sensitivities can be immediate, severe, and potentially disabling,” says Steinemann. Her previous research in the United States found that 19% of Americans experience adverse reactions to air fresheners.

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

For anyone who reacts to fragrances, there are a few simple things you can do to protect yourself, she says. First, get rid of air fresheners, which don’t actually improve air quality; and open windows for ventilation instead. You can also try to go old school with your cleaning supplies, she suggests, using products like vinegar or baking soda to wipe down your kitchen and bathroom.

Finally, don’t be afraid to let colleagues know a second-hand scent (from a candle, for example, or an odor-eliminating spray) is making you sick. “Speak up!” urges Steinemann. “It’s a health hazard and workplace liability that doesn’t help productivity.”

Can I be allergic to perfume?

If you’re predisposed to itchy eyes, headaches and respiratory irritation in the presence of strong fragrances, just walking downwind of someone who’s wearing perfume could trigger a reaction. You may have a hypersensitivity to one or more of the chemicals in some fragrances, and your allergy might not be limited to perfume, either. Many cosmetics and even household products, like soap and furniture polish, can contain fragrance compounds that make perfume allergy sufferers sneeze, cough or worse. Dabbing on a little cologne or perfume before a big date may make you feel sexy, but if you’re allergic, it could also be a risky health proposition.

What’s in Perfume?

Perfume allergies can be particularly hard to pinpoint because it’s almost impossible to discover all the ingredients in a fragrance. Unlike cosmetics, recipes for fragrances are protected from government scrutiny in the United States. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose the contents of what is legally considered a proprietary trade secret.


Are You Allergic?

Because fragrance is added to so many products, the culprit ruining your day could be in a perfume, food additive, household cleaning agent, cosmetic, deodorant or other product. Some common symptoms of perfume allergies are:

  • Migraines
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Flulike symptoms
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Hives
  • Hoarseness
  • Anaphylactic shock

You don’t have to have all of the symptoms above to be allergic to an ingredient or ingredients in a fragrance. These symptoms can signal illnesses or reactions to substances other than fragrances. Your symptoms could also be more severe if you have asthma or other allergy-related conditions.

If you’re suffering from symptoms that are interfering with your daily routine, consult a physician. Diagnostic treatments may help to identify problem substances and offer useful workarounds.

Ingredients to Watch For

Perfume allergies can range from mild and irritating to life threatening. The list of ingredients in fragrances that may cause allergic reactions is long and growing, but there are some common offenders that could be causing your discomfort:

  • Acetone
  • Amylcinnamic alcohol
  • Anisyl alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Benzyl salicylate
  • Benzyl acetate
  • Camphor
  • Essential oils
  • Musk

If you want to limit your exposure, try going fragrance-free. In some cases, this could be challenging, though. Products advertised as “fragrance-free” may still contain fragrant ingredients included to mask less pleasant odors. Looking for the term “fragrance-free” on product labels isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s still a good place to start.

Your powers of observation can help, too. Start recognizing the things that seem to trigger symptoms, and eliminate them from your environment. Introduce new products one at a time, and use them sparingly at first. If you see an escalation in your symptoms, discontinue using that product immediately.

If you ever find it difficult to breathe or swallow after trying a new product or being exposed to a new perfume or cologne, seek medical help immediately.

Although you can’t protect yourself from every perfume-laden breeze wafting across a crowded elevator, you can take some measures to protect yourself. With time and luck, you may be able to lose the tissues and take a deep, satisfying breath.

Source: Best Health Magazine, March/April 2009

Fragrance isn’t for everyone. It makes some people cough, wheeze, sneeze, break out in an itchy rash or clutch their head in a migraine attack. So while many of us love scent, some prefer to be able to choose cosmetic products without it.

In fact, 37 percent of Canadian women look for cosmetics or skincare products that are free of fragrance, according to a poll by Roper Reports Canada, which conducts face-to-face interview surveys for businesses, including personal-care companies.

‘I like to wear a little bit of fragrance, but these days I am very careful of what I put on so that I don’t bother others,’ says Holly Nathan, a communications officer at the University of Northern British Columbia, adding that wearing scents ‘seems to be more socially unacceptable’ these days.

Is fragrance sensitivity for real?

For those sensitive to fragrance, it’s not ‘just in their heads.’ Fragrance in personal-care products is the second most common cause of allergic skin reaction (after nickel in jewellery) and the most common cause
of reactions from personal-care products, according to Dr. Sandy Skotnicki-Grant. She is medical director of the Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto and a leading Canadian expert on contact dermatitis (an inflammation that can cause redness, dry skin and blisters). A study in 2004 found that 11 percent of people had a reaction when patch-tested with a standard mix of fragrances used in cosmetics and grooming products.

Common ingredients that can cause a reaction are citronella, oak moss, balsam of Peru and synthetic fragrances (particularly Lyral). And, increasingly, we’re seeing reactions to botanical fragrances such as ylang ylang, jasmine and narcissus, Skotnicki-Grant says.

‘Just because it’s a natural fragrance doesn’t mean it won’t have an irritant or allergic effect,’ she says. ‘A lot more companies today are using fragrances that come from botanical sources. We are starting to see reactions to things like sage and thyme that we don’t use in our standard patch of the most common allergens. So our impression is that reactions to fragrance certainly have increased.’

Dr. Roy Fox, medical director of the Nova Scotia Environmental Health Centre (Canada’s leading centre for people who suffer from environmental sensitivities), notes that surveys show about 16 percent of the population now reports sensitivity to environmental triggers such as strong odours, and about five percent of people report the symptoms are severe enough that they are made physically ill.

Each year, more than 300 new patients are referred to Fox’s clinic, most of them because they have started to react to environmental triggers, especially fragrances. The majority are in their 30s and 40s. About half of these patients have worked in jobs with a high level of exposure to chemicals’and strong smells’for example, painters, hairdressers, pest exterminators and autobody workers.

‘It’s as if the human body, after living a lifetime of exposure, can no longer deal with it,’ Fox says. Common symptoms are headache, coughing, muscle aches, breathing difficulties, confusion and fatigue. And, he notes, a new study found that 44 percent of people who suffer from migraines say strong fragrances can bring on an attack.

Fox says a fascinating series of studies out of Sweden has shown that some sensitive individuals react even when wearing a sealed mask and breathing fresh air. When a fragrance was released into the room without the subjects’ knowledge, the mask meant they couldn’t smell it or breathe it into their lungs, but still they began to show symptoms. The researchers concluded the fragrance may be triggering symptoms upon exposure to patients’ eyes or skin.

The rise of fragrance-free products

Fortunately, there seems to be more choice. A quick perusal of drug- and department stores indicates a larger selection of personal-care products with little scent, or specifically labelled unscented or fragrance-free, than even a year ago. One of the new trends in cosmetics, for instance, is fragrance-free mineral makeup. Just a few of the many skincare lines with fragrance-free options include Aveeno, Olay, Kiss My Face and Curel, in addition to long-standing fragrance-free companies Marcelle and Clinique. Spectro also has a long history of fragrance-free skin care.

The online brand Paula’s Choice is fragrance-free. For hair care, La Coupe recently came out with a fragrance-free line. Darren Praznik, president of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, notes that the cosmetics industry is highly competitive and keenly sensitive to consumer demand and customer need. ‘We have been seeing a greater interest in scent-free and fragrance-free products, so consequently the industry has been very responsive and will continue to be responsive to that consumer demand.’

Wearing fragrance in public

One thing is certain: In the last five years, scent-awareness policies have increasingly been posted in public spaces, and it is not uncommon now to see ‘Please, no scent’ signs in many Canadian hospitals, universities, libraries, doctors’ and dentists’ offices and workplaces.

For those who do enjoy fragrance in their lives, and who think scent banning is taking things too far, Holly Pattison, administrator of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, has one solution. She often feels guilty wearing perfume so, she says, ‘I save it for special occasions and use it sparingly.’

To wear scent responsibly, a rule of thumb is that the fragrance should be somewhat private. It should stay within your personal ‘scent circle’: About an arm’s-length away from your body is the farthest anyone should be able to detect it.

Label lingo: ‘Fragrance-free’ vs. ‘unscented’

‘Fragrance-free,’ according to international and Canadian labelling laws, means that no fragrance or perfumes have been added during the manufacturing process.

‘Unscented’ means the product may contain a compound classified as a fragrance by the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI; a standardized list established by the European Commission in 1996) and used as a masking agent. Essentially, it prevents the nose from smelling the unpleasant odour of the other ingredients.

If you react to fragrances, choose fragrance-free products (those without perfume or parfum in the ingredient list), since products labelled unscented may still provoke a reaction, notes Toronto dermatologist Dr. Sandy Skotnicki-Grant.

As for words on the label such as ‘hypo-allergenic’ or ‘for sensitive skin,’ those terms have no established legal or scientific meaning under INCI or national labelling laws, says Skotnicki-Grant. ‘They are just marketing terms and people may still have reactions.’

Halifax leads the way in North America

The most scent-aware region in North America is Halifax, where over the last 10 years the Regional Municipality of Halifax, the provincial government, many businesses, the transportation systems, many performances spaces, hospitals and educational institutions have adopted a scent-awareness policy. Although non-enforceable, it is a code of conduct requesting that people be aware of others’ sensitivities and forgo scents.

Elsewhere in Canada, universities with scent-awareness policies include the University of Calgary, University of Toronto and McMaster University.

Should fragrances be banned in public spaces? Tell us what you think in our forums.

This article was originally titled “Fragrance Sensitivity,” in the March/April 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.


Fragrance Allergies Pose Real Threat to Some Allergy Sufferers

Sweet aromas often serve as trigger for asthma and contact dermatitis

DAYTON, Ohio (March 13, 2015) – Ragweed, mold and dust mites may be a huge trigger for most Americans with allergies, but for a growing number of individuals the cause of their symptoms comes in a much sweeter smelling package.

Fragrance or perfume allergies are a very real threat to many individuals. Scientists estimate that one in 10 individuals have some type of allergic reaction to fragrances. Research cited in the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology said that there are more than 2,800 known fragrance ingredients of which 100 are known allergens. In fact, fragrance was a past winner of the American Contact Dermatitis Society’s allergen of the year.

“A fragrance allergy is exactly what it sounds like: It’s an allergy to a chemical used to produce a smell,” said Joseph Allen, MD, of Family Medicine of Vandalia. “It’s much like if you have an allergy to poison ivy. If you touch it, you’re going to break out in hives or a rash. However, the chemicals used for fragrance can produce a reaction through touch or by breathing chemicals in the air.”

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America said perfumes and fragrances are among the top known triggers for individuals suffering from asthma. These substances can be composed of hundreds of different allergenic ingredients that lead to coughing, wheezing, tightening of the chest, and other symptoms of allergic asthma, the foundation said.

“We don’t often think of a chemical compound floating through the air, but if you are able to smell something then that is likely what is happening,” said Dr. Allen. “Instead of the substance coming in contact with the skin, it comes in contact with the trachea or bronchia triggering an allergic reaction in a person’s respiratory system.”

Fragrances and perfumes are known to cause contact dermatitis, a reaction caused by a substance that comes into contact with one’s skin and often produces redness, itching or swelling. About 80 percent of skin reactions are caused by direct contact with irritating, harsh or dangerous chemicals, AAFA said. Chemicals used to give scent to household items such as dish soap, cosmetics, tissues and even toilet paper can contribute to this allergic reaction.

Diagnosing a fragrance allergy can be difficult, Dr. Allen said. Often an allergic reaction may happen when several possible causes are present. A good starting point is for one to eliminate things they are exposed to and see if it makes a difference. An individual can also keep a diary of their surrounding symptoms and activities. Lifestyles should be adjusted once a pattern of symptoms and causes is determined; however, the ability to do this isn’t always simple.

According to Dr. Allen, fragrance allergies can be a difficult thing for individuals and can greatly impact their daily life. Controlling exposure in one’s home may be manageable, however, once that individual enters a public area it can be quite difficult. The workplace has become a growing concern for individuals with a fragrance allergy since they may be surrounded by a kaleidoscope of scents including perfume and aftershave worn by co-workers.

Dr. Allen suggests the following steps for those who suspect a fragrance allergy:

Eliminate the source – Use only unscented products. Be aware that some products that are labeled unscented can still contain chemicals that are used to mask natural aromas. These chemicals, while not scented, can also be a source of an allergic reaction.

Share your struggle – It may be difficult at first, but take time to tell loved ones and friends about your allergy. Education will help them understand the importance of staying fragrance free when they are spending time with you.

Initiate change – Approach your employer if fragrances are becoming a problem in your workplace. Ask to be moved to an area that is somewhat removed from a lot of workers. Ask for accommodations to be made during meetings where a number of employees are contained in a small room. Explore the option of working from home either part- or full-time.

So which detergent can I switch to?

An option like Neutral 0% Liquid Laundry Detergent is a good choice as it contains zero perfumes or colours and has been specially developed to help reduce the risk of a skin allergic reaction. It’s mild, unscented formula effectively cleans clothes and removes stains to leave fabrics soft against the skin.

If you think you may be suffering from perceived fabric softener allergies as well as washing powder allergies, a gentle fabric conditioner, can be a good choice too.

When it comes to allergic reactions and laundry detergents, everyone’s different. It’s all about experimentation: if one hypoallergenic detergent doesn’t work for you, then try another.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate the irritant that’s causing your skin to react and this can involve some trial and error. If you have no luck after trying multiple laundry detergents, it’s best to consult your doctor as they can identify if something else is triggering your allergic reaction.

Once you find the right detergent for you and your family’s skin, stick to this and wash all clothes and fabrics in your home with it. Anyone who is sensitive to the ingredients used in products such as detergent will come into contact with a variety of fabrics in your home, so it’s best to eradicate the original irritant altogether by washing everything in hypoallergenic washing powder. Allergy relief can also be obtained by speaking to your doctor or pharmacist but the most obvious piece of advice is to avoid using the source of the irritant as quickly as possible.

Can fabric softener trigger an allergic reaction?

A fabric softener is specifically designed to minimize the amount of static in synthetic fibers and composed of various chemicals in which some are major irritants on the skin. Children, infants, elderly and individuals who have weakened immune systems are more sensitive to the chemicals present in fabric softeners and more likely to end up with reactions.

Contact dermatitis is the reaction of the skin once it is exposed to an allergen such as the fabric softener. The indications of an allergic reaction to fabric softener can include a reddened rash or bumps, pain, itchiness, tenderness or a localized rash. There are 2 chemicals in fabric softeners that are responsible of the reactions – imidazolidinyl and quanternium which are described as formaldehyde releasers. In a severe reaction to fabric softener, it can trigger hives on the skin. Even the fumes can trigger irritation which leads to difficulty breathing, tiredness, dizziness, anxiety, headaches, memory problems and fainting.

It is best to remove the clothing suspected of causing an allergic reaction and instruct the individual to avoid scratching the affected area.


It is best to remove the clothing suspected of causing an allergic reaction and instruct the individual to avoid scratching the affected area. The over-the-counter variants of anti-itch creams that include hydrocortisone can relieve the discomfort or the application of moist dressings on the skin. It usually takes 2-4 weeks for a skin reaction to subside.

In case hives develop, an over-the-counter antihistamine can be given every 6 hours until the symptoms subside.

Possible alternatives

Even though a fabric softener makes clothes feel nice, there are alternatives for those who are prone to an allergic reaction. The fabric softener can be replaced with vinegar to help soften the laundry in a natural manner. All you have to do is add ¾ of a cup of vinegar to the last rinse cycle of the laundry.

Considerations to bear in mind

If the individual is worried about a reaction to fabric softener, he/she can wash the clothes again to check if the symptoms reoccur. If they do, consult an allergist so that an accurate diagnosis can be given.

A doctor must be consulted if the individual experiences sleep disruptions from the skin discomfort, pain, skin infection or if the individual is embarrassed how his/her skin looks.

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