Is your scent making you ill? Today’s obsession with perfuming everything from candles to bin liners could be to blame

By Victoria Lambert

PUBLISHED:16:34 EST, 17  September 2012| UPDATED:16:45 EST, 17 September 2012

Nearly a third of people may suffer adverse health effects from being exposed to scentsNearly a third of people may suffer adverse health  effects from being exposed to scents

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.

People with eczema are particularly vulnerable to perfumes and should wash with non-fragranced emollient products
People with eczema are particularly vulnerable to  perfumes and should wash with non-fragranced emollient products

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.

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