The smell of fresh air is becoming something of a distant memory, thanks to our increasing use of fragrance. From air fresheners to scented candles, perfumed loo roll and bin liners, in-car scents and even scented socks, we live in a miasma of scent.
Share a lift or train carriage and the aroma of spray deodorant and perfume can be overwhelming. Recent figures show seven in ten use air fresheners or scented candles to keep our homes smelling sweet. Yet recent reports suggest that perfumed products could affect our health, causing problems including allergies, asthma and migraine, and even interfere with sexual desire. One leading expert suggests nearly a third of people suffer adverse health effects from being exposed to scents. A major problem is so-called ‘contact’ allergy — where perfumes and scented products trigger eczema and dermatitis when they come into contact with skin.
Molecules in the product trigger an immune response, causing itchiness and even scaly, cracked skin.
About one in 20 is thought to be affected by fragrance allergy — though this number may be growing.
‘Allergies are on the increase, and the amount of perfumed products is also on the rise,’ says Dr Susannah Baron, consultant dermatologist at Kent & Canterbury hospital, and BMI Chaucer Hospital.
‘Fragrance allergy can show up as contact dermatitis in the site a perfumed product is applied, or as a flare-up of existing eczema. It can be a real problem.’ In July, the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety asked perfume manufacturers to list potential allergens in their product after reports that they triggered skin reactions.
Earlier this year, the U.S. state of New Hampshire banned workers from wearing scents to protect their co-workers.
Often it may not be immediately obvious that you’ve developed a fragrance allergy, says Dr Baron. ‘You don’t react immediately; the body notes that it does not like the chemical and develops “memory cells”, which cause inflammation when the body is next exposed to this chemical. ‘Gradually, as you are exposed more and more, the body ramps up its reaction, until it becomes more noticeable to you.’ People with pre-existing eczema are particularly vulnerable. ‘The eczema worsens in areas in contact with perfumes or perfume- containing shampoos, conditioners and shower gels,’ says Dr Baron.
But even those without allergies can be at risk of fragrance allergy. ‘You can become suddenly allergic to perfumes and personal care products that you have been using for years. ‘You can also have problems with unexpected products such as scented toilet roll and scented wipes which can cause irritation.’ And strong scents can also cause headaches. According to Dr Vincent Martin, a headache specialist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, fragrances activate the nose’s nerve cells, stimulating the nerve system associated with head pain. UK charity Migraine Action warns that intense or penetrating smells can even trigger migraine for the same reason. To minimise risks, migraine sufferers are advised to keep diaries of all triggers including scent, so they can minimise contact.
Meanwhile, products such as plug-in deodorisers and even mild air fresheners contain chemicals that could trigger asthma attacks, experts have warned. Charity Asthma UK says that perfumes can irritate the airways in those with asthma, causing breathing problems. Dr Stanley Fineman, of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic in the U.S., says those with asthma are especially sensitive, and that his research indicates a change in lung function when exposed to certain chemical fragrances.
The fashion for scented intimate products can be linked to health issues, too, says Dr Sovra Whitcroft, a gynaecologist at the Surrey Park Clinic, Guildford. ‘The problem with perfumed products is that they change the natural pH or acidity of the vagina. ‘The normal pH is four to five. If this is altered and made less acidic, it loses its natural protection and bacteria are allowed to thrive and multiply. The very product designed to improve body odour can, in a short space of time, do the opposite by contributing to an overgrowth of odour-producing bacteria. ‘And many strong chemicals and perfumes can have a direct irritant effect on the sensitive mucosal lining of the vagina as well as the relatively thin and delicate skin, causing contact dermatitis or inflammation. This can make the area more prone to harbouring bacteria, causing secondary infections. ‘In the longer term, if products containing talcum powder are sprayed around the vaginal area, the tiny particles can be driven up into the female reproductive system.
‘There have been many studies suggesting a link between these talcum particles and ovarian cancer and while it is difficult to know whether these results are true, it is important to steer clear from anything which can cause such potential harm. ‘The truth is as long as a woman is healthy, washes thoroughly with soap and water frequently and changes her underwear every day there should be no need for cover-up deodorants. Using a chemical perfume to cover potential odours may mask an underlying infection or even cause one.’ Commonly used chemicals in fragrances include synthetic musk, linked to hormone disruption.
A 2009 study of Austrian college students published in the journal Science of the Total Environment found that those who used the most perfume and scented lotion also had the highest levels of synthetic musks, including Galaxolide and Tonalide, in their blood. These can bind to and stimulate human oestrogen receptors; they have also been shown to affect male hormone receptors. ‘Fragrance suggests cleanliness — yet people are smelling a potentially hazardous chemical mixture,’ says Anne Steinemann, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington, who has investigated the effects of scents on public health for more than a decade. ‘We often use them to mask one problem — as with air fresheners — but create a greater one — adding toxic chemicals to the air.’
Two surveys she did found more than 30 per cent of the public report adverse health effects from being exposed to scents in ordinary life. ‘Since then, I have received thousands of messages from people all over the world saying they get sick around fragranced products. ‘They are suffering seizures, losing consciousness, can’t concentrate on work, as well as suffering rashes, migraine headaches and asthma attacks.’ Longer term, our obsession with artificial scent may even affect sexual desire, suggest Mel Rosenberg, professor of microbiology at Tel Aviv University. ‘For thousands of years, we’ve been applying the natural scents of flowers and animals to attract people and to appear more sexually attractive,’ he says. ‘Now we have learned how to replicate natural smells identically and to create chemical fragrances much more cheaply. ‘We fragrance our world so much that if odour recognition is important in sexual biology, and I believe it is vital, we are falling for the wrong people.
‘You could fall in love with a girl because of the scent of her hair conditioner, not her natural hormones.
‘We should pick a mate by natural odour. That’s why we traditionally go dancing and play sports — where we get natural odours.’ The biggest problem is detecting the substance to blame. Since the body reacts slowly, an affected part of skin could have been touched by fragranced soap or deodorant, or clothes washed in fragranced powder as much as perfume applied directly. So finding a culprit is hard.
Lindsey McManus of charity Allergy UK warns: ‘Many chemicals have the potential to irritate skin, including rubber or formaldehyde, which is added to preserve the fragrance. People have to be their own detectives.’ But it is not just chemicals we have to watch out for: Dr Baron cites a natural ingredient — balsam of Peru (a sticky aromatic liquid that comes from cutting the bark of the tree Myroxyolon balsamum,) which is common in fragrances — as a trigger for fragrance allergy. Would reducing the number of scents surrounding us help? Dr Baron does not think it is the number of fragrances around us that may be responsible for rising numbers of cases, ‘but there are more cases of eczema so that increases the chance of contact allergies developing’.
She recommends that if you do have sensitive or eczema-prone skin, use non-fragranced products if possible in order to prevent an allergic reaction. Eczema sufferers should limit their use of soap and instead wash with non-fragranced emollient products. But avoiding all perfume is not an easy task. Though you can have allergy testing for the constituents in fragrances and other common allergens at your local dermatology department, we are surrounded by scented products. ‘Even if you know which fragrance causes a problem, it can be difficult to avoid as most personal care products — soap, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, sun cream, shaving gel and washing powder — contain fragrances,’ says Dr Baron.