Fragrance allergies, it’s not all in your head!

For many people, typical holiday scents bring back cherished memories. But for others, they can bring migraines, itching or respiratory problems.


Sonia Chartier

03 December 2015

Not just an excuse…

As the holiday season approaches, your sense of smell will be bombarded by a huge cocktail of intense odours, scents and fragrances. Whether a cinnamon-scented candle, Christmas potpourri or the perfumes your Aunt Milly and co-workers wear at holiday gatherings, supposedly pleasant scents can become an assault to people who suffer from fragrance allergies or sensitivities.

Scent allergies and sensitivities fall under the umbrella term “environmental sensitivities” (ES). They can develop following a massive or chronic exposure to toxic products such as solvents, pesticides and mildew. People affected by ES react to substances in the environment that the average person would find perfectly tolerable. An ES can be set off by any number of substances encountered on a daily basis: paint, cigarette smoke, animals, mildew, petroleum products and even electromagnetic radiation.

Scents are an especially common trigger for two main reasons: they’re made up of large numbers of chemicals (anywhere from 100 to 350) and they are everywhere, not just in perfumes, but in soap, shampoo, sanitary napkins and tampons, hair spray, creams, deodorants, makeup and detergents, to name just a few.

Scents are the primary cause of contact dermatitis, and can also cause headaches, migraines, dizziness, runny nose, itchy eyes and fatigue. The Canadian Lung Association states that scents can aggravate symptoms for people who suffer from asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The severity of symptoms can vary enormously, from mild to acute, even to the point where those affected are unable to work in a normal office environment.

A growing trend

While virtually unheard of not so long ago, scent sensitivities are becoming increasingly common. An estimated one million Canadians suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), which includes sensitivity to scents. In addition to these scent allergy and sensitivity sufferers, there are 3.5 million Canadians with COPD and 2.4 million with asthma. Simply put, scents are a potent problem.

And in response, more and more establishments are banning scents, including a number of Ontario hospitals, as well as schools, libraries and universities across Canada. Even some events, like the Salon Manger Santé, are “fragrance-free” zones.

Scent alert!

Some so-called “unscented” products actually contain substances to mask their odour, while some “natural” products are not necessarily scent-free. In fact, labels such as “green,” “eco-responsible” and “hypoallergenic” aren’t regulated for scents. That’s why it’s always a good idea to read product labels carefully to identify and avoid offending ingredients. In Canada, ingredients are listed in decreasing order of quantity but even ingredients at the very end of the list can cause reactions. Unfortunately, manufacturers of cleaning products are under no obligation to declare ingredients on their labels.

Although they’re natural, essential oils are still powerful chemical compounds that can provoke reactions, especially when they’re not used correctly—they need to be diluted in a base oil, salts or alcohol before use.

Solutions and resources

Unfortunately, there’s no miracle cure. Naturopathy recommends reducing the body’s toxic load to decrease the intensity of reactions. If you’ve been exposed to pollutants that put your body into reactive mode, you can do a cleansing cure to eliminate toxins from your body. But don’t worry, it won’t hurt a bit! In fact, it’s really easy! Just check out the following recipe. Stinging nettle and Molkosan, which are part of the cleanse, have the benefit of minimizing allergic reactions in general.

Because toxins are eliminated in feces, it’s important to avoid constipation. Eating fibre helps promote regularity—ground flax seed is a good source. The Molkosan in the cleanse feeds intestinal flora and promotes elimination. However, if you pass stool only every three days or less frequently, the first thing you need to do is eliminate the stool that has accumulated by using a flaxseed laxative.

Of course, the best protection is to avoid exposure to scents in the first place. Talk to your employer about it. Some companies have already adopted a “scent-free building” policy, and maybe yours could too! Keep your home and workplace aired out and avoid overly heated spaces where the intensity of scents can easily increase tenfold.

The Guide to Less Toxic Products can help you identify the right products for you: detergents, diapers, makeup or hair .

Allergy tests can help you determine what causes your sensitivities. Sometimes, they’re not caused by the scent itself, but rather, by a substance such as diethyl phthalate, which is added to make the scent last longer.

The Association pour la santé environnementale du Québec (ASEQ) and a range of other provincial health associations offer help and services to people with ES.

The holidays are just around the corner, so why not talk to your family and employer to help raise awareness of the cause? After all, frivolity shouldn’t trump your health!