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(Lighting the Way to Less Toxic Living)




First it was smoking, now US cities are banning artificial fragrances in public places. But, as Kate Hilpern discovers, our love of perfumes really could be making us sick


November 9, 2004


Perfume is the new tobacco. The effects of fragrance chemicals have become the focus of a new health scare, with campaigns against "passive smelling" becoming increasingly common. For some people, second-hand scent is more serious than second-hand smoke, says to Lindsay McManus of Allergy UK.  The onset of symptoms is quicker and can be debilitating, she explains.  "Whilst some people might get a mild headache from getting a whiff of perfume from someone walking down the street, others may be very ill for several days."


She reports that a growing number of helpline calls are from sufferers of "fragrance sensitivity", with symptoms including dizziness, fatigue, rashes, hives, watery eyes, sore throat and chest tightness.  Fragrance sensitivity has even been blamed for learning disabilities and depression.  "Normally the blood expels anything toxic," explains McManus. "With fragrance-sensitive people this may not happen and it can affect the nervous system."


Like many sufferers, Josh Devonshire, 32, believes his condition becomes worse with continued exposure.  "I used to enjoy wearing aftershave in my early 20s," he says, "but now I can't even tolerate others around me wearing perfumes, colognes or soap.  It's particularly bad in the winter, when the cold weather dries out my nasal membranes and the chemicals seem to get into my system even quicker."  Department stores, theatres and even aeroplanes have become no-go areas, he explains.   "At work, I've asked everyone to make my desk a scent-free zone, but that hasn't worked and, on a few occasions, I've had to go home because my chest feels so tight and I can't concentrate," he says.   Medications aiming to deal with allergies don't work, he claims.


The US, as well as Canada, takes the problem far more seriously than Britain does.  In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a policy of "no scents makes good sense" discourages the wearing of cosmetic fragrances in municipal offices, libraries, schools, hospitals, courts and public transport.  Santa Cruz in California has banned fragrances from public meetings, whilst neighbouring Marin County boasts a growing number of restaurants with fragrance-free sections.  Throughout America, the fragrance-free office has become prevalent.  In the past three years, a growing number of fragrant-sensitive employees have claimed protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  It's not just your sexy new eau de toilette that you may find being blamed for causing fragrance sensitivity.  Some experts say the condition can be brought on by other products with manufactured scents, ranging from laundry aids through to household cleaners. More than 5,000 different fragrances are in products that are used on a daily basis and they can enter the body through the nose, mouth or skin.


Last month, research found that mothers and their babies are being made ill by products including air fresheners, polish, deodorants and hair sprays.  Dr Alex Farrow of Brunel University, who led a study of 10,000 women, found that frequent use appeared to increase the risk of diarrhea, earache and other symptoms in infants, as well as headaches and even depression in mothers.  "What the study doesn't tell us is why and how the fragrances of these products cause these symptoms," she says.  "But what it does suggest is that there is an effect. Since more than 40 per cent of families use air fresheners regularly, this is a significant finding."


Betty Bridges, who runs the Fragranced Products Information Network, says the problem has become worse than ever.  "Historically, fragrance has been for luxury and special-occasion use," she explains.  "But since the 1970s, it has become a part of daily life.  The use of fragrance has increased tenfold since the 1950s."  A further reason for the increase in cases, she says, is indoor air quality.  "Homes are much tighter when it comes to insulation and we use many more synthetic fragranced products than we used to."   She believes many people suffer the effects of fragrances but haven't yet made the link. 


Helen Lynn, the health coordinator at the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) agrees.  "People see a bottle with nice pictures of flowers or ferns on the front," she says, "but what they are actually getting is a bottle of chemicals - some of which may be toxic."  Since WEN implemented its fragrance-free office-policy a year ago, she says, staff have reported an absence of headaches, streaming eyes and tightness of the chest, as well as having a clearer head.


But not everyone believes fragrance sensitivity is a problem. In fact, it is not accepted as a medical condition by the NHS and many allergists doubt its existence.  Dr Adrian Morris, an allergist from the Surrey Allergy Clinic, explains: "You can generally only have a 'type one' allergic reaction to something which contains a protein component, such as house dust, peanuts or pollen.  A fragrance chemical doesn't contain protein and can, therefore, only cause an irritant reaction."


Andrew Wardlaw, the president of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, isn't quite so dismissive.  "Fragrances can... cause irritation in someone who has an underlying allergy," he says. "Someone with asthma could have an attack triggered by a fragrance."


June Harris, a 47-year-old asthmatic, says the fumes of some products - notably air fresheners and perfumes - are enough to make her start wheezing and, in a handful of cases, have brought on an attack.  "I wish we could follow in America's footsteps by taking this issue seriously," she says.


Many believe this will soon be the case.  Anja Leetz of the European Environmental Bureau explains that much of the skepticism around fragrance sensitivity in UK medical circles is due to lack of public information about fragrance chemicals and their effects - something that is set to change with forthcoming European legislation.  Fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets, she explains.  Manufacturers only have to print "fragrance" or "parfum" on the label - a term that can hide up to 200 different chemicals.  "For 86 per cent of these chemicals, there isn't sufficient data," says Ms Leetz.  "Without this, we can't do safety assessments and suggest how the chemical industry should be controlled. The new legislation will change this."  The chemical and fragrance industries claim their products are safe, she says, "but at the moment they don't provide proof.  Now they will have to".  The problem is that it will be at least two years until the legislation comes in and a further 11 years before all the data is provided, Ms Leetz claims.  "In the meantime, we advise people to limit exposure by opening a window instead of using an air freshener and think about what fragranced products are really necessary in their lives."


Betty Bridges seconds this advice. "Economics is a lot quicker than legislation," she says. "If people start demanding products that don't contain fragrances, this will be a far more effective and faster solution than waiting for new laws to come in."


But be wary of products that are labelled "fragrance-free" or "unscented", as these may still contain fragrance chemicals.  They may contain a fragrance that is used to cover up the odour of ingredients. The safest bet is to go for the label "without perfume".




These are some common allergy-causing fragrances used in perfumes and cosmetics.  If its label says "parfum", a product could contain any of these


Cinnamic alcohol

Hyacinth fragrance found in natural fragrances such as hyacinth oil, cinnamon leaves and balsam of Peru.  Used in: perfumes, cosmetics, deodorants, laundry products, soap, toothpastes and mouthwashes, and also colas, vermouths and bitters.



Spicy clove odour founds in oils of clove and cinnamon leaf and also in roses, carnations, hyacinths and violets, with antiseptic and fungicidal properties.  Used in: perfumes, cosmetics, hair products, toothpastes and pharmaceutical creams.


Rose fragrance present in more than 250 essential oils, including rose oil and lavender oil.  Used in: the most widely used fragrance in perfumes and make-up.


Alpha amyl cinnamic alcohol

Synthetic essential oil with intense jasmine odour.

Used in: perfumes, soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste.



Synthetic fragrance of lily of the valley.  Used in: perfumes, aftershaves, soaps, cosmetics & eye creams.


Oakmoss absolute

Earthy, woody odour, an essential oil made from tree lichen.  Used in: very common, inexpensive ingredient in perfumes and aftershaves.