Perfume Allergy

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.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018

Susha Cheriyedath

Written by

Susha Cheriyedath

Susha has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Chemistry and Master of Science (M.Sc) degree in Biochemistry from the University of Calicut, India. She always had a keen interest in medical and health science. As part of her masters degree, she specialized in Biochemistry, with an emphasis on Microbiology, Physiology, Biotechnology, and Nutrition. In her spare time, she loves to cook up a storm in the kitchen with her super-messy baking experiments.


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  1. Anthony Flora Anthony Flora United States says:

    So livid with every resource telling me the treatment is to "avoid" these fragrances, thats the whole problem, WE CAN'T. I would love to get out of my customer service job, but I have to go to school for that, WHICH I AM. Take a wild guess where im being exposed to these perfumes/fragrances, AT work and At school. The Symptoms impair our ability to succeed, i get off work and am COMPLETELY wiped out because immune system has been over-active all day just so some un-educated person can have their luxury of scent. The only treatment we have for our skin rashes are extremely powerful, steroid creams which are extremely expensive and un-healthy. Trust me suffers like me, are not having problems at home, its when we go out and try to live our lives. We have a right to breath, and eventually the world will catch on, because our numbers are growing.

  2. Maryanne O'neill Maryanne O'neill Australia says:

    I have the same issue. " Avoidance" is really old school. It doesn't apply to us who cannot simply avoid other people who wear ridiculous amounts of perfume which can hospitalize someone so quickly. The right to breathe is just plain difficult and I believe workplace laws need to change to accommodate not only persons who are intolerant to perfumes but for the people that will develop it as well as the general population. I believe " perfume/ fragrance" is the New silent killer that tobacco had on lung health many decades ago. Just trying to breathe each day .

  3. Karen Dean Karen Dean United Kingdom says:

    I have the same problem.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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