GrapevineDec/Jan 2010 Issue

Scent Sensitive - Fragrance Free

A window to fragrance free

My husband and I recently had a rare dinner out—just the two of us—when a couple sat down behind us in the restaurant. Within seconds, the blinding pain of a migraine struck, sending me rushing to the bathroom with nausea. Our big night out was ruined. The culprit? Perfume.

It’s estimated that 20 percent of us have some sort of sensitivity to fragrance. If you have allergies or asthma, your chances are higher than most of developing a reaction to certain scents. For me, perfumes bring on a migraine—but I’m one of the lucky ones. My sister is so sensitive that a simple change in hairspray landed her in the emergency room.

The world of artificial aromas has grown to encompass much more than perfumes and colognes. Just about every product we use today contains some sort of fragrance. From laundry detergents, dryer sheets and cleaning supplies to shampoos, cosmetics, tissues and magazine inserts, we are bombarded with items sporting their own smell. Ironically, the so-called air fresheners—fragranced aerosols, scented candles, incense, plug-ins—may be among the worst offenders for sensitive sniffers.

More than 3,000 different chemicals create fragrance and it can take combinations of over 200 of these to make favorites. Purported “clean” scents—those with names like sea breeze, morning rain or fresh air—are chemically derived. The Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to list these ingredients; they’re collectively termed “fragrance” on product labels.

Classic signs of fragrance sensitivity are sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes, as well as skin reactions like rashes, hives and itching. Other responses include headaches (migraines), nausea, dizziness, fatigue and decreased concentration. For some, symptoms can be severe—breathing difficulties, asthma, seizures and even anaphylaxis.

What can be done to reduce the risk? Since the restaurant episode, my husband and I look for eateries that offer outdoor seating. Here are other suggestions.

Sensitive to Scents

Choose safer brands. Avoidance is key. Use scent-free soap, deodorant, laundry detergent, cleaning items and cosmetics. For a product listing, visit

Consult your doctor. A health care expert may prescribe medication to control symptoms or reduce sensitivity. Nutrient supplements can boost your immune system.

Purify the air. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters capture airborne particles. HEGA (High Efficiency Gas Absorption) filters are geared toward odor control to reduce fragrances, smoke and other indoor pollutants.

Freshen naturally. Proper ventilation, such as an open window, can help clear your personal space and keep irritants from wafting your way. Use baking soda and oranges or lemons to help neutralize bothersome scents. 

Bathe at bedtime. Take a shower before you sleep to keep smells that may have accumulated on your hair or skin during the day from troubling you during the night.

Speak up. Talk with repeat perfume offenders in a courteous way and ask for cooperation. Consider instituting a fragrance-free work zone under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For information, visit LW

Sandee Koehler lives in Glendora, New Jersey. 


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