Fragrance Allergies

By Marisa Ramiccio. May 7th 2016

You walk past the department store perfume counter that’s filled with tiny bottles of colorful liquid designed to leave you smelling like a bouquet of fresh-picked flowers. A saleswoman sprays a heavy mist of the newest scent onto a small strip of paper and shoves it under your nose as a means of enticing you. But instead of grabbing a bottle of the perfume, you grab a handful of tissues to cover your string of sneezes.

If you’ve been through scenario such as this before, you probably suffer from an allergic reaction to fragrances. According to the International Fragrance Association’s website, only 2 percent of the general population is affected by fragrances in some way, be it an allergy or other form of irritation. Here are some interesting things you should know about fragrance allergies.

That Ever-Present Scent

When you think of the term “fragrance,” the first thing that may come to mind is perfume, cologne or body spray. But the truth is fragrances are everywhere, in almost everything from deodorant and shampoo to dish soap and laundry detergent. They’re used in many household items and beauty products, some of which you may not be aware. Here are some of the most common items that contain fragrances:

  • Soaps and shower gels
  • Cosmetics
  • Lotion
  • Shaving cream
  • Hairspray
  • Detergents
  • Furniture polish
  • Cleaning products

Just about every product that has a scent contains some sort of fragrance. This makes avoiding fragrances tough for those who do have an allergy or sensitivity to them.

What Is A Fragrance?

Although fragrances are found in many different products, they don’t all have the same scent. Your laundry detergent doesn’t smell like your shower gel and your cleaning products don’t smell like your deodorant. On top of that, these products also come in a variety of scents, such as “fresh citrus” or “summer breeze.” So what actually is a fragrance?

The truth is, it could be almost anything. The word “fragrance” is actually a blanket term used to describe more than 3,100 different materials or ingredients that go into everyday items. The real names of the majority of these ingredients are long and scientific, for instance, heptanal dimethyl acetal and methyl phenylacetate. But some of these ingredients are very recognizable such as:

  • Grass and hay
  • Juniper
  • Molasses
  • Citronellal
  • Xanthan gum
  • Peppermint oil
  • Canola oil
  • Sodium hydroxide
  • Ammonia solution
  • Vanillin
  • Eucalyptol
  • Jasmine

While most of these ingredients can be expected to be labeled a fragrance, some may be a bit surprising. Grass and hay are also common causes of allergies (see Seasonal Allergies) while ammonia solution and sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, are caustic substances. Canola oil and Xanthan gum are often used in cooking.

Pinpointing Your Allergy

Because so many substances make up the definition of the term fragrance, it can be tough to pinpoint the exact cause of the allergy. You may even be allergic to one or multiple ingredients. The only way to be sure is to be diagnosed by a doctor.

The first thing he or she will ask is if you have experienced these symptoms:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery, itchy eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Headaches
  • Hives
  • Anaphylactic shock

If you have experienced these symptoms, the doctor can then test you either through a blood test or, most likely, through a skin prick test. This entails sticking needles that have a trace amount of the allergen into your back or arm. If a reaction occurs, it’s likely that you have an allergy.

However, it may turn out that you have a sensitivity instead of an allergy. What’s the difference? An allergy is an immune system reaction; when your body comes in contact with the substance it’s allergic to, the immune system triggers the release of hormones like histamine, which cause the symptoms associated with an allergic reaction.

A sensitivity, on the other hand, is not caused by the immune system. That doesn’t mean that a sensitivity isn’t serious, though. The symptoms can be just as serious and it also warrants a doctor’s diagnosis.

The Regulation Of Fragrances

Because fragrances and all of the ingredients that go with them cause these kind of health problems, it may seem strange that they are used in so many products. The problem is, the Food and Drug Administration has little jurisdiction over the fragrance industry, which largely monitors itself. That means that masking ingredients behind the label of “fragrance” is not a practice that will be ending any time soon. In fact, in 2010, the Environmental Working Group and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics conducted an analysis on the fragrance industry and found that 17 common fragrances contained ingredients that had not been disclosed and, therefore, had not been tested for safety.

But just because the fragrance industry isn’t properly monitored, that doesn’t mean that you can’t monitor the amount of fragrances you come into contact with. Of course, in a world full of fragrant products, that can be easier said than done. However, there are some measures you can take:

  • Get rid of products that you know will trigger a reaction.
  • Avoid using products contain the fragrances you are allergic to.
  • Use products that are labeled “fragrance-free.”

Although some fragrance-free products do, in fact, contain some type of fragrance, they’re a better alternative to their heavily-fragranced counterparts. Although avoiding fragrances isn’t easy, the more you recognize your triggers and work on avoiding them, the better you will breathe.


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