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Perfume Allergy

By Susha Cheriyedath, MSc

Perfume or fragrance allergy is second most popular cause of skin allergies, according to contact dermatitis expert, Dr. Sandy Skotnicki-Grant, form the Bay Dermatology Centre in Toronto.

Fragrance sensitivity can be defined as an irritation or an adverse reaction to chemicals in a perfume or other scented products such as air fresheners and cosmetics. Sensitivity to strong odors can make allergic people severely ill. People with asthma or other respiratory illness can be more susceptible to fragrance allergies compared to healthy individuals.

Symptoms of fragrance allergy

Sensitivities to perfumes or in general fragrances trigger various unpleasant reactions in people. Some common symptoms of perfume allergy include the following:

  • mild to severe headache
  • skin irritation, itching, and rashes
  • sneezing, coughing and runny nose, also called allergic rhinitis
  • breathing difficulties, dizziness, and fatigue
  • muscle aches
  • watery, red, and itchy eyes
  • wheezing
  • inability to concentrate
  • swelling – or angioedema
  • nausea and vomiting

Studies have shown that in people suffering from migraines, strong fragrances from perfumes or colognes can even trigger a migraine attack.

Fragrance chemicals in perfumes and other products

Perfumes contain a mix of several ingredients that include a complex blend of natural essences as well as synthetic chemicals. The average perfume or cologne contains about 14 secret chemical ingredients that are capable of triggering mild to severe allergic reactions in fragrance-sensitive individuals.

People having widespread exposure to these sensitizing chemicals are at risk of contact sensitization to such fragrances. Many of these chemicals are highly unstable and readily oxidize during storage or on exposure to sunlight and air. These oxidation products act as phototoxic agents and potent sensitizers.

One such fragrance chemical, limonene is used in cleaning products as a solvent. It can not only break down and form potent sensitizers but also react with ozone generating hazardous pollutants such as acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, which pose serious risk of a variety of health concerns. Another commonly used fragrance chemical is linalool, a component of lavender oil.

Its derivatives - linalyl acetate and linalyl anthranilate – generate contact allergens on exposure to air. In addition to fragrance ingredients, perfumes and body sprays also contain stabilizers, solvents, preservatives. UV absorbers, and dyes. Apart from affecting the user, fragrance allergies also cause passive reactions to others in contact with or sharing space with the wearer.

How to prevent / treat fragrance sensitivity?

One way to prevent fragrance sensitivity is to avoid products containing the sensitizing substance. Carefully observing labels on products and choosing products labeled "fragrance free" or "unscented" can help, although these labels are not always reliable and the product can still contain herbal ingredients. Limit exposure to perfumes or scents worn by others at public places or workplaces. Fragrance-sensitive people should make sure coworkers are aware of their condition.

A dermatologist or allergist can recommend safe products based on individual sensitivities. The allergen causing the sensitivity is usually diagnosed with the help of a patch test on the skin of the affected individual. A mix of several fragrance ingredients are used for testing. A positive patch-test for a particular ingredient would mean the person is allergic to that fragrance chemical. With that knowledge, the person could avoid products containing that ingredient in the future. This is not easy though, as labels on fragranced products normally don’t reveal every single ingredient.

Fragrance sensitivity at the workplace

Employers are becoming increasingly accommodative of fragrance-sensitive individuals these days. Some companies have stopped the usage of air fresheners and use fragrance-free cleaning products in order to minimize fragrance chemicals in indoor environments. Companies are also educating employees about this issue and implementing a voluntary fragrance-free policy to the extent possible.

References

Further Reading

Last Updated: Apr 24, 2016

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