Perspectives on Living with Scent Allergies in a World Full of Scent

Fragrance: Subtle Invitation or Nasty Chokehold?

I bubble over with excitement as I scan the program and then gaze around the theatre taking in the audience, the ambiance. What an excellent view of the stage. This is going to be a great performance. I wonder if – through sheer concentration – I can will the cast onto the stage immediately. Presto! They would suddenly appear as if by magic.

But then my excitement fades. I start feeling dizzy, nauseous and confused. My throat hurts and I’m dimly aware that the unsuspecting person sitting in front of me is in imminent danger of wearing my dinner.

What’s happening to me? I’m now part of the roughly thirty percent of the population that is sensitive to scent. Never again will I look forward to a public performance with such unadulterated anticipation.

I try to avoid scent after that but it emerges unbidden from the pages of magazines, stalks me in the aisle at the grocery store, takes me captive at meetings and sometimes causes me to gaze balefully at utter strangers I might otherwise have taken a liking to.

My choices are a) remain seated as long as I can stand it (and feel increasingly ill), b) move to a different seat (possibly feel better; maybe get people wondering why) or c) leave altogether (probably feel resentful; possibly neglect my responsibilities).

Does this sound far-fetched to you? Welcome to the world of the scent-sensitive. But it is not just those with scent allergies that suffer from exposure to scent; a variety of medical conditions are aggravated by it.

Did you know that asthma attacks are triggered by scented products? Scents trigger migraine headaches. Chronic respiratory conditions like bronchitis, emphysema and sinusitis are all worsened by exposure to fragrances. People with depressed immune systems are often sickened by scent, as are those undergoing chemotherapy.

Derived primarily from petroleum, fragrance chemicals are increasingly recognized as significant sources of indoor air pollution. Thousands of scent chemicals are in use today. Many have never been tested for human safety, alone or in combination, or they have only been tested for skin contact, without addressing their effects on nervous and respiratory systems.

With a little research, it becomes increasingly clear that exposure to scented products poses health risks for everyone. Unfortunately, knowledge about the health risks associated with scented products is not widespread. A lot of people react adversely to their own scented products without realizing it.

And, often people don’t understand how negative the impact of scent can be. Those sickened by scents may have to leave their jobs. They may become increasingly isolated from community, avoiding public events and even essential services, as they withdraw to avoid scented products.

Choosing unscented products (which sometimes still contain scent but have much less of it combined with masking agents), helps those with health issues aggravated by scent be part of the community and it is better for your health and the health of your family, also.

Please remember, too, that heavy use of scent not only detracts from intimacy but also imposes itself on everyone in the vicinity.


Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Hormone Disruptors in Scented Products Linked to Attention and Behavioural Disorders in Children

They’re everywhere; in our homes and schools, theatres and work places, in and on our bodies. Fragrance even wafts from our dental floss. Those that don’t like fragrance are supposed to grin and bear it. Those that get sick from it are supposed to suffer in silence. But, maybe there are valid reasons why some instinctively recoil and others get sick.

It’s not common knowledge that registered pesticides, probable human carcinogens and hazardous, toxic and polluting volatile organic compounds constantly vaporize and disperse around us from scented products (

If that’s not enough to rattle your cage, consider this: hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates are routinely used to stabilize scent in scented products. Phthalates are endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system of glands produces our hormones.

Scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Cornell University and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention link prenatal exposure to the phthalates in scented products to attention and behavioural disorders in children ( In their public release statement, Dr. Engel says, “There is increasing evidence that phthalate exposure is harmful to children at all stages of development” (

Why is that? Phthalates are classified as both developmental and reproductive toxins so not only can they affect the unborn child, they can interfere with child development (

An Environmental Health Perspectives study of a wide range of consumer products, Endocrine Disruptors and Asthma-Associated Chemicals in Consumer Products, found that scented products are a primary source of exposure to phthalates. Other than vinyl products which contain very high concentrations of phthalates, they discovered that scented products and sunscreens contain the highest concentrations and kinds of phthalates (

Phthalates are implicated in childhood cancers, in addition to prostate, testicular, breast and ovarian cancers. Yet none of this is disclosed on product labels nor is the general public aware of the phthalates in scented products or the many toxic and hazardous compounds emitting from scented products. Don’t consumers have the right to know so they can make informed choices about the risks they are willing to take with their health and the health of their families?

Consumers baffled about how to change over to healthier products might find the non-profit Guide to Less Toxic Products (, Skin Deep Cosmetics Database ( and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning ( excellent resources.

Additional Sources:

Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Dept. of Preventive Medicine: Dr. Shanna Swan (

  • Women’s exposure to phthalates and personal care products:
  • Lifestyle behaviours associated with exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals in a Mennonite population

Environmental Health Perspectives Paper of the Year, 2009:

Chemical Exposure Linked to Attention Deficit Disorder in Children:

Breast Cancer Fund:

Metametrix Library: Phthalates & Paraben Profile: Urine

Healthy Child Healthy World: Avoid Phthalates: Find Phthalate- Free Products Instead


Perspectives on Living with Scent Allergies in a World Full of Scent

Stigma & Sensitivities: Must They Coexist?

Those with environmental sensitivities look like others do but their bodies react differently to substances like automobile exhaust, mould, fragrance, tobacco smoke and pesticides. While reactions vary, neurological symptoms such as headaches, depression, insomnia, anxiety and difficulties with coordination, memory and concentration are almost universal. Symptoms like these strongly impact employability.

Though the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions formally recognize environmental sensitivities as a disability, people tend to respond differently to those with non-evident disabilities than they do to visibly-disabled persons. What happens when accommodating the needs of someone with a non-evident disability involves personal sacrifice? Let’s explore the impact that environmental sensitivities may have on personal relationships, when a person – like many afflicted with environmental sensitivities – has adverse reactions to synthetic fragrance.

Say a scent-sensitive person wishes to attend a function and asks someone attending to please reduce or refrain from wearing a fragrance that has made them ill before. The person may be outraged that someone would presume to suggest what they can and cannot wear. Why should they change their personal habits? They may feel controlled and suggest the person making the request has an overly developed sense of self-importance. They may delegitimize the person and trivialize their concerns by suggesting the disability is psychosomatic. Thus they rationalize their decision to wear fragrance anyway.

And what of the person with the disability? As they struggle to come to terms with being exposed to fragrance in virtually every indoor environment, as they grieve the loss of rights and freedoms, do they lash out? Most likely. When everything from buying eggs to going to work becomes complicated by fragrance sensitivity, do they talk about it too often? Perhaps they speak out while anxious or disoriented from a fragrance reaction. How sensitive are they when they make their request? Yet, how can a request for someone to alter personal care habits be sensitive?

Actually, the person making the request may feel as uncomfortable as the person being asked. According to Dalhousie University’s scent-free program, although such a request may seem intrusive, “when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a … personal and private matter” because it involves “real harm to real people.”

Those unwilling to resign themselves to a life of either sickness or isolation, may repeatedly request that others respect their health needs. Do they grow weary with frustration and despair? Do they find themselves viewing others with fresh eyes? Do others begin to see them differently? These types of dynamics can lead to the stigmatization of people with environmental sensitivities.

Going back to our hypothetical situation, is the refusal to accommodate the request, the equivalent of a person placing a barrier across a wheelchair ramp and then going in to enjoy the function while the person with the disability sits alone outside? No, it’s not similar, is it? The effect may be the same – in both cases, a person with a disability experiences a barrier that prevents them from experiencing a full and normal life – but, in one situation, a person creates a physical barrier, whereas, in the other, a person creates a chemical barrier by wearing fragrance.

Some might suggest that the person with environmental illness can still attend. But, if they do, they may be ill for 2-3 days. Should they wear a mask? A mask impedes breathing and talking which can compound feelings of alienation. Others may not know how to respond since they cannot see their facial expressions. A mask can lead to ostracism and is not conducive to personal comfort or dignity.

Though it is not common knowledge, “about one-third of the Canadian population is sensitive to fragrances,” according to Nancy Bradshaw, community outreach coordinator for the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Will society continue to ignore the needs of those with sensitivities? Are we to fight the good fight unsupported, even stigmatized, by community? Alternatively, need we resign ourselves to a life of isolation from others?

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” ~ Arthur Schopenhauer


Canadian Human Rights Commission, Accommodating Environmental Sensitivities: State of Knowledge, Balancing Conflicting Interests, see introductory section and Section 4:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 6: Typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals (and may contribute to initiation of environmental sensitivities):

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, Table 7: Environmental sensitivity symptoms/reactions:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, What are “environmental sensitivities”?, Summary:

Dalhousie University, History of Dal’s Scent-Free Program

Dalhousie University, Questions & Answers:

Dalhousie University, Statement on the Use of Scented Products:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, 2.2 A broader approach to understanding disability: a social perspective:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 4.1.1, Respect for Dignity:

The Environmental Illness Resource, Secondary Reactions and Effects of Having MCS, excerpted from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Survival Guide by Pamela Reed Gibson, PhD:

Women’s Health Matters, Why Fragrance Free Works at Work:


Perspectives on Living with Scent Allergies in a World Full of Scent

A Moral Dilemma: “Scentual” Pleasure at the Expense of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of Others

Hundreds of Canadians have contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission to find out whether their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being violated because they are unable to access basic services or social and cultural events in their community without becoming ill from fragrance exposure.

Legal rights under the Canadian Charter include equality of person, freedom of association, the right to pursue a livelihood, the “right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” It can be argued that Canadians have the right to clean air and an environment that is conducive to their health since the Charter includes the right to life and security of person.

Under the UN’s, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone “is entitled to realization … of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality,” “the right of equal access to public service” and “the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community.”

Yet, many Canadians with health conditions aggravated by respiratory irritants, asthma triggers and neurological toxins in scented products do not experience the same freedoms enjoyed by other Canadians. What about their rights? The degradation of the quality of life for these Canadians can range from mild to severe.

Those suffering from environmental sensitivity – a poorly understood disability recognized by both the Canadian and Ontario Human Rights Commissions – experience varying degrees of adverse reactions to chemicals and other environmental factors that many people are able to tolerate. The Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) reports that scents in perfumes, personal care products and air fresheners are “typical agents that trigger reactions in susceptible individuals.”

The choices made by others can impact the quality of life for those afflicted by environmental sensitivities enormously. The CHRC points out that “the health and ability to work for those with environmental sensitivities rests with the choices and actions of others, such as building managers, co-workers and clients.”

Environmental illness is often misdiagnosed and ranges in severity, so reliable statistics on the number of affected Canadians is unavailable. According to the CHRC, while 1 million Canadians have been diagnosed by doctors with environmental sensitivities, evidence suggests that “up to a third of the population may be experiencing discomfort.” Environmental sensitivities worsen with age and women are twice as likely as men to be affected by them.

But those suffering from environmental sensitivities are not the only ones whose fundamental right to be part of community is degraded by exposure to scented products. The Asthma Society of Canada urges asthmatics to “avoid … triggers in order to keep airway inflammation to a minimum and reduce the symptoms.” Perfume is listed as a symptom trigger for asthma. Yet how can asthmatics realistically avoid exposure to perfume if they wish to be involved in community? They cannot.

Significant numbers of Canadians with chronic respiratory problems and other medical conditions aggravated by scented products are in the same position.

The Canadian Lung Association notes that reactions to scent range from mild to severe and lists common symptoms such as “headaches, feeling dizzy, feeling tired or weak, shortness of breath, nausea, cold-like symptoms and worsening asthma symptoms.”

Additional symptoms reported to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health include lightheadedness, fatigue, insomnia, malaise, confusion, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, numbness, upper respiratory symptoms, shortness of breath, difficulty with concentration and skin irritation.

The Centre notes that “the severity of these symptoms can vary. Some people report mild irritation while others are incapacitated and/or must give up many ‘normal’ activities in order to avoid exposure (such as going to public places).”

Why do we continue to passively tolerate or contribute to the constant bombardment of fragrance in offices, stores, churches, restaurants, theatres, malls and virtually every indoor environment when so many of us experience reduced quality of life because of it? Do preferences for the intense fragrances manufactured today really outweigh health needs? Is it morally acceptable for heavy scent users to enjoy their “scentual” pleasure at the expense of the rights and freedoms of others?



Asthma Society for Canada, Common Asthma Triggers:

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace, See “Can Scents Cause Health Problems?”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, “Initiating factors, triggers and symptoms of environmental sensitivities, and their impacts in the workplace, See Table 6 & Summary”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, p. 2 See “What are “environmental sensitivities?” & “Summary”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities by Margaret E. Sears, p. 7 See “Scents”:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Policy on Environmental Sensitivities:

Canadian Human Rights Commission, Personal Communication, Jan. 5, 2010 1-888-214-1090

Department of Justice Canada, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:

Office of the Auditor General of Canada, Right to Clean Water, Clean Air and a Healthy Environment, Petition: No. 163A:

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Policy and Guidelines on disability and the duty to accommodate, Section 2.3: Non-evident disabilities:

The Canadian Lung Association, Pollution and Air Quality, “How can scented products affect my health:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Articles 21, 22 & 27:



Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Built-In Sensitizers Make Use of Scented Products Dicey

If you stepped from the shower and abruptly felt confused, nauseous and disoriented, would it occur to you that you might be having a scent reaction? If you use scented products, this could happen to you even if you’ve never had a scent reaction before, because the fragrance industry routinely includes sensitizers in its formulas (

Sensitizers are chemical agents which, upon repeated exposure, can lead to permanent sensitivities or allergies. Once a person is sensitized, every exposure – even to increasingly smaller amounts – causes an adverse reaction. Reactions may set in more quickly and increase in severity over time (

The fragrance industry’s refusal to disclose the common allergens in its formulas makes it difficult or impossible to figure out which sensitizer to avoid. Avoidance of all scented products becomes necessary yet complete avoidance is impossible because we are all subject to second-hand scent. Of all known allergens, fragrances are ranked among the top five and the most frequently reported (

Often people are unaware that they are even having scent reactions and they may not realize that symptoms from scent reactions can be mental, emotional and/or physical. Mental symptoms may include problems with memory and concentration, dizziness or light-headedness. Emotional symptoms such as depression, anxiety, irritability or mood swings may also be experienced.

An incomplete list of physical symptoms includes headaches, nausea, sore throat, fatigue, insomnia, respiratory difficulties, asthma attacks, pain, dizziness, eye irritation, contact dermatitis or eczema (BC Lung Association: When No Scents Makes Sense; Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace).

The routine use of scented products on the body and in the home is risky. The older we get, the less our bodies can cope with chemical insult, thus increasing the risk of activating that irreversible switch – fragrance allergies.

If you’d like to reduce your risk of developing scent allergies, the user-friendly, non-profit Guide to Less Toxic Products (, the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database ( and the Environmental Working Groups’ Guide to Healthy Cleaning ( are excellent resources to help ease the transition to unscented products.


Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Scented Products

Scent Reaction Misconceptions

I once gave a handout about scented products to a person on 3 puffers per day for asthma. After reading it and doing a bit more research, she replaced the scented products in her home with unscented ones. Even though she continued working in a highly scented environment, she was able to reduce her use of puffers from 3 to 1 per day. She’d been having scent reactions to her own scented products yet she’d never made the connection between her asthma attacks and the fragranced products she used.

Surprisingly, it’s common for people to have scent reactions without realizing it. This is partly because reactions may occur almost right away, a few hours or even a day later. Often people who are constantly exposed to scent at work and/or home experience chronic symptoms. This state of ill health soon becomes the norm for them. Because they never get a break away from scent, they don’t realize how much better they would feel if they didn’t breathe it all the time. In this way, scented products can significantly impact quality of life even when a person is completely unaware of it.

What’s not surprising is that scented products make people sick. According to the BC Lung Association, over 5000 fragrance chemicals are used in personal care products and a single perfume may contain over 500 chemicals. We’re talking petrochemicals here; not natural ingredients made from flowering plants.

The BC Lung Association publication, When No Scents Makes Sense, indicates that “a short list of chemical overload symptoms can include headaches, nausea, pain, and fatigue; depression, anxiety, irritability or mood swings; difficulty sleeping, concentrating or remembering things; difficulty breathing or swallowing, or frequent asthma attacks” ( It is also not uncommon to experience cold-like symptoms such as watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing or to develop rashes. Taking additional medications to cope with symptoms further complicates health.