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Allergies to Fragrance

By Kellie R. Stone ; Updated August 14, 2017

Though walking through a department store's fragrance section or a candle shop is a pleasant event for many, others avoid it like the plague. Their smell-o-rama detour is necessary if they want to prevent the onslaught of distressing symptoms that come from exposure to scents and chemicals to which they are allergic. A true fragrance allergy is when the immune system reacts to one or more of the chemicals in a perfumed product. More commonly experienced is a fragrance sensitivity. According to Dr. Johnathan Bernstein, MD, "Only 15 to 20 percent of the general population develops allergic antibodies to environmental allergens."

Who and Why?

Have you ever wondered why a scent is loved by one person but found sickening by another? "Why some fragrances affect some people but not others remains a mystery," says Dr. Michael Joffres, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver." Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, an expert in olfactory research, says that the number of olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity, determined by the structure of the nose itself, and even age and sex can affect the frequency and level of sensitivity, according to her research performed at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Identifying the exact cause of irritation or allergy can also be difficult because many products have complex chemical formulas.

Researchers from the University of West Georgia state that "30.5% of the general population reported scented products on others irritating, 19% reported adverse health effects from air fresheners, and 10.9% reported irritation by scented laundry products vented outside."

Hidden Dangers

Fragrance allergies can be annoying but are usually benign in nature. There is, however, some cause for concern considering some of the chemicals the population may be exposed to. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducted an investigation into fragrances, perfumes and colognes and found several areas of concern, including that "16% of products reviewed contained cancer-causing ingredients" and "76% contained ingredients that are considered allergens."

Air fresheners alone often contain hazardous ingredients like dichlorobenzene, a lung irritant and a central nervous system depressant, and benzyl alcohol, a known cause of headaches and lung irritation.

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Consumer Needs

With retail manufacturers capitalizing on the fact that scent entices consumers to buy products, it has become increasingly difficult to avoid adverse smells altogether. Awareness is growing, though, as are businesses that cater to sensitive/allergic consumers.

"Stay away from perfumes," says Emilie Davidson-Hoyt, owner of Lather, Inc. "I believe that we will all be finding out in the future just how bad they are for us." The natural products company guru speaks with confidence because she knows what it's like to suffer the physical effects of fragrance allergies. Emilie grew up ultra-sensitive to her surroundings, especially to the chemicals and fragrances found in most cosmetic brands and paid the price with chronic migraine headaches. Ironically, crediting the healing properties of natural aromatherapy, she rose above her illness and created a corporation that is dedicated to providing natural personal care products and educating others about the role they play in our overall health.

Common Symptoms

Regardless of what the specific allergen is or whether it has been identified, there are symptoms that are commonly experienced by those with true fragrance allergies, as well as by those with more common sensitivities. They include, headaches, nausea and skin irritations such as redness, itching and burning. Watery, itching, burning and red eyes, sneezing, runny nose and congestion are also common. In some cases individuals experience breathing difficulties.


The best defense against fragrance allergy attacks is to stay away from the source. Having a keen awareness of what your primary triggers are will at least save you from the majority of allergic events. But what do you do when avoidance is not possible? There are a few tips you can employ to combat the unexpected fragrance invasion.

Keep an antihistamine, anti-nausea product, pain reliever and any other symptom relief aids handy at all times, especially while traveling.

Speak up about scents that bother you at work, school and home.

Some natural scents like lavender, eucalyptus and rosemary have properties that can help respiratory conditions associated with allergies, according to aromatherapy expert Roberta Wilson. Make sure to test each scent separately, as you could have an allergy to one of them as well.

Drink plenty of pure, clean water and balance your diet. Keeping your body healthy will improve your immune system and overall resistance.

Consult a physician if symptoms are severe or are preventing normal activities.

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