Listener Essay - We Share The Air: Fragrance Sensitivity

May 16, 2014

    Joyce Miller is a college librarian in Queensbury, New York. She created the website fragrancesensitivityawareness.weebly.com, offering a slideshow about fragrance sensitivity, links to medical research, information about unscented alternatives and more. She has also traveled to 25 countries on six continents, primarily in search of birds and other wildlife.

We Share the Air: Fragrance Sensitivity

I’m sure you have your own stories of olfactory assault, about people who wear overwhelming fragrance in a car, elevator, office or at the movies.

You too may have scurried to another table in a restaurant because an overscented customer sat down near you. I moved to another seat in a theater last month to escape a woman who was sprayed with a skunkful of heavy cologne. I go inside when a neighbor perfumes the whole street with scented dryer sheets. At my fitness center, when others' scented deodorant kicks in, it’s like breathing acid.

In 2003, the New York State Clean Indoor Air Act prohibited tobacco smoking in almost all public spaces. The purpose of the act is to protect people from the health dangers of secondhand smoke.

Well, fragrance is the new second-hand smoke. You may remember news reports last year when eight students in a Brooklyn school were hospitalized because one student wore too much Axe body spray. Events like that have been reported around the country in recent years. Fragrance chemicals are a form of indoor air pollution.

So, why is this a problem now? Two reasons: more personal care products are now scented, and their fragrance chemicals are stronger and last longer than ever before. Think about perfumed laundry detergent: the fragrance can last for weeks and, for some of us, be overpowering from 30 feet away.

Fragrance chemicals in personal care products are lung irritants. They contain benzene, formaldehyde, phthalates and other chemicals that can trigger allergies, asthma, migraines and cause other medical issues.

Think about your morning routine: you may use scented soap, shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, hairspray, body lotion, cologne, deodorant and then wear clothes washed in scented laundry detergent. Any one product can contain hundreds of fragrance chemicals. Every day, you may saturate yourself in more than 3,000 fragrance chemicals. The FDA does not regulate their safety.

I developed irritant-induced asthma about five years ago after being exposed repeatedly to large amounts of hairspray, aerosol disinfectant spray and perfume. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. Now that I know these products can cause lung damage, I am spreading the word. Overexposure to fragrance chemicals can create avoidable medical problems.

Here are some numbers: about 9% of New Yorkers have asthma. Fragrances trigger asthma in most. Add in the numbers of people with allergies and migraines, and at least 10% of all New Yorkers suffer medical distress from fragrance chemicals. That’s a big number.

Heavy fragrance is rude. It violates the etiquette of shared spaces. A study in Ohio agreed: it found that 30% of people thought that heavy fragrances are either medically or socially irritating.

Wearing too much scent is like having something dangling from your nostril: few people are going to say anything, but everyone knows it’s there.

Most overcologners are not trying to make us sick. They probably can’t smell their fragrances anymore because of olfactory fatigue. So they use more, leaving others gasping in their wake.

Right now, you’re probably having one of three reactions:

• First, you could be nodding vigorously because you’ve been in these situations and it makes you sick, too.

• Or, you may be thinking “Uh oh…is she talking about me?” Find out. Ask several honest friends if they can detect fragrance beyond your personal zone. That’s only a two-foot circle. If they can, reconsider your use of fragrances. Others will be secretly thankful.

• Finally, you could be apoplectic because I’m challenging your freedom of choice. You may have heard this saying: “Your right to express yourself ends where your fist meets my nose.” Here’s my version: “Your right to express yourself ends where your fragrance meets my nose.” You don’t have the right to make others sick.

I’m asking you now to become a fragrance-free activist.

Here’s how:

• First: Be a model for a fragrance-free life. A consumer backlash against fragrance is already underway. Many products have fragrance-free options. Google phrases such as “homemade soap” and “homemade laundry detergent.” A more natural arsenal of baking soda or white vinegar works for almost everything. You'll also save a ton of money.

• Second suggestion: Speak up when fragrances are bothering you. Perhaps try a version of this statement: “I would appreciate it if you could reduce your use of fragrance. It’s triggering my asthma, allergies and/or migraines.”

Most people first are shocked, then thank you for your honesty and respond with compassion. A few will get ruffled feathers, become defensive, and try to blame the messenger. They don’t understand that allergic responses are not a personal choice, and are much more common than they realize.

• Third suggestion: Spread the word in public places where people gather, work and go to school. Add a sentence to newsletters, agendas, posters, advertising and press releases, such as: “Please avoid wearing fragranced products. They can trigger asthma, allergies and migraines in others.” Gentle pressure relentlessly applied can work.

In my perfect world, everyone would happily go fragrance free. I consider this essay a victory if you now question your use of fragranced products and next time you buy deodorant or detergent, choose unscented.

We have the right to breathe clean healthy air at work, home and school. To coin a phrase: “If you smell something, say something.” We’ll all breathe easier.