Perfume Allergy

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

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

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Symptoms of fragrance allergy

Sensitivities to perfumes or fragrances, in general, can trigger various unpleasant reactions in those affected. Some common symptoms of perfume allergy include:

  • 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 (angioedema)
  • Nausea and vomiting

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

Can smells make you sick? Scent sensitivity could be dangerous

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 chemical ingredients that are capable of triggering mild to severe allergic reactions in fragrance-sensitive individuals.

Individuals with 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 as a result of their 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. Limonene can not only break down and form potent sensitizers but also has the potential to react with ozone generating hazardous pollutants such as acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, which pose a serious risk of various health concerns. Another commonly used fragrance chemical is linalool, which is a component of lavender oil.

The derivatives of linalool, which include linalyl acetate and linalyl anthranilate, generate contact allergens upon exposure to air. In addition to fragrance ingredients, perfumes, and body sprays also contain stabilizers, solvents, preservatives, ultraviolet (UV0 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(s). 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 that may induce a reaction.

In addition to this guidance, it is also recommended that individuals with these fragrance allergies limit their exposure to perfumes or scents worn by others at public places or workplaces. Fragrance-sensitive people should ensure that their 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 is used for testing. A positive patch-test for a particular ingredient would indicate that 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. Some companies have stopped the usage of air fresheners and use fragrance-free cleaning products in order to minimize the use of fragrant 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: Nov 21, 2022

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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