Sunday, September 07, 2008

A rose by another other scent

For me, it began with a runny nose when I was a kid. My father ran a custom packaging plant, and from time to time he would bring home rejected cases of solid air freshener. He’d go from room to room, carefully placing an air freshener inside each floor vent. Within minutes, my sister and I would begin sneezing. As soon as the coast was clear, we would run around the house and remove all of the offending objects. When my dad figured out what we’d done, he’d load up the air vents again. Within minutes, my sister and I would resume sneezing and the game would start all over again.

What began as a game of smelly cat and mouse soon turned into a very real health issue. I got to the point where I was unable to use any perfumed products. Scented hand-soaps, shampoos and detergents would send me into a fit of sneezing. My sister, on the other hand, began reacting with migraines.

Perfume has historically been the stuff of romance, beauty and sensuality. Unfortunately, for individuals who are scent-sensitive, perfume can also mean headaches, nausea and dizziness.

It turns out we were not alone – just a little ahead of our time. Today we have a better understanding that the effects of chemical exposure are cumulative. As a result, in recent years many schools, workplaces and other public areas have declared themselves scent-free.

While this is great news for those who react to perfume, for the cosmetics industry, scent-free environments have the potential of impacting on the estimated $ 400 to 500 million spent annually on fine fragrance products in Canada. When you factor in such other scented consumer goods as candles, room deodorizers and air fresheners, creating scent-free environments can have significant economic impacts.

Part of the problem is that the perfume industry is a victim of its own success. In centuries past, perfumes were carefully hand-made from the natural extracts of flowers. A rose by any other name may still produces a lovely perfume, but today the majority of scents are derived from man-made chemicals that contain volatile organic compounds (or VOCs). Some perfumes contain as many as 600 different petrochemical derived compounds. Many of those – acetones, benzene, benzopyrene, formaldehyde, phenol and toluene – are the same chemicals found in tobacco smoke.

While it’s considered socially acceptable to ask people to butt-out, asking someone not to wear perfume can be viewed as an attempt to limit their right to express themselves. Selecting that special scent is a very personal expression of who we are.

For those who have allergic reactions to perfume, self-expression has to take a back seat to health and the ability to function normally. Headaches, dizziness, sneezing, wheezing and difficulty in concentrating and breathing are the most common reactions in chemically sensitive people. For the hypersensitive individual, reactions can be life threatening. In the most extreme cases, exposure can result in seizures or anaphylactic shock - a potentially fatal response.

I have to admit I’m a fan of perfume myself. Unfortunately it has to be all natural (translation: very expensive) for me to tolerate it. Cheaper colognes and perfumes immediately start me sneezing. Having an asthmatic daughter and a sister and a sister-in-law who react to perfume with migraine headaches has taught me that the entire issue is nothing to sniff at.


• Buy unscented products. The majority of manufacturers produce scent-free varieties of their most popular brands. Soaps, moisturizers, anti-perspirants, laundry detergents and dryer sheets are all available without added perfumes.

• If you really want your laundry to have that fresh, clean scent, use a clothesline and save a whole lot of energy in the process.

• Poor air quality means that many substances, including perfume, linger and accumulate in the air. Ensuring good air quality at home and in the workplace means having your central heating systems checked and ducts cleaned regularly.


The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers tips on how to develop a Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace.

For more information about perfume and other allergies, visit The site lacks a search engine, so look for the article about Allergy and Deodorant.

The Scented Products Education and Information Association of Canada is an industry association website with loads of common “scents” information about perfumes.


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