Are you sensitive to scents?

Tips for dealing with scent sensitivity.

Perfumes and scented products can be found just about everywhere – from beauty products to cleaning supplies. These scents can make us feel cleaner, more attractive or trigger happy memories, but for many Canadians who have allergies, asthma and scent sensitivities, these scent products can make them downright miserable and even have adverse health effects. In fact, about one-third of Canadians experience symptoms when exposed to perfumes and other scented products.

About 72% of people with asthma have adverse reactions to perfumes and, according to the Canadian Lung Association, people with asthma and other lung diseases can have severe reactions to scents, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Cold-like symptoms
  • Worsening asthma symptoms

These symptoms not only affect their quality of life but their very health. That’s why many workplaces, hospitals and schools have policies banning or limiting the use of scented products to protect the health of their employees and the public. The Canada Human Rights Act protects people with environmental sensitivity.

"A few years ago, I was diagnosed with an allergy to fragrance which has made life a bit more difficult for me," says Tammy Cutler, a graphic designer in Toronto. “I suffer from skin rashes, migraines and nausea when I come into contact with perfumes, body and hair care products or cleaners containing fragrance. Since my employer instituted a scent-sensitive policy, I am able to feel safe from experiencing reactions in my workplace. Scents can be hard to avoid on public transit, in restaurants and other public places. That's why I'm glad to know I'm at least more protected at work."

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what might trigger reactions in scent-sensitive people. They might not react to all chemicals, just some, which can make it hard to avoid them.

Tips for dealing with scent sensitivity

  • Keep a journal to record whenever you seem to have a reaction – perhaps you get a headache after seeing a certain friend wearing a specific perfume or get itchy after trying a new laundry soap. You don’t need to stop seeing your friend but can ask they forgo the scent when they’re around you.
  • Look for natural cleaning or personal care products or make your own with such items as vinegar and baking soda.
  • When planning group gatherings, such as parties, try to move them outdoors rather than having cocktails in a cramped living room.
  • Avoid stores that have heavy odours, such as department stores with perfume counters.
  • Keep your immune system up with a healthy diet and exercise.
  • See your doctor about doing a patch test for allergies and ask about action plans for treatment.

If you have a friend or family member with scent sensitivity, get to know what might trigger them and avoid using or wearing those products around them.

It’s important to note that a product can be labelled unscented but might have chemicals that are just masking the smell of the product – and it’s not the actual smell people with sensitivities have reactions to, it’s the chemicals in the product.

How can you avoid scents at home?

  • Keep your home well-ventilated, which help to improve air quality, by opening doors and windows, and installing vents and fans to circulate the air.
  • Try an air purifier, which can help clean your home’s air.
  • Use scent-free personal care products (this website compares safety brands of many products)
  •  Always read ingredient labels and avoid products that say perfume or fragrance on the label. Here are just some of the chemicals you should avoid:
    • Acetone
    • Benzene
    • Benzyl acetate
    • Bisphenol A
    • Camphor
    • Ethanol
    • Formaldehyde
    • Parabens
    • Phthalates
      (A good tip is if you find an ingredient very difficult to pronounce, you might want to avoid it!)

Even if you or your family members don’t think you are sensitive to scents, it might be a good policy to limit the use of scented products in your home and on your person. Look for products that are guaranteed to be less toxic for you and your family, especially if you have very young children, as well as those you come into contact with.