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Allergies Health Center

Fragrance Allergies: A Sensory Assault

The use of fragrance in products is on the rise -- and so is the number of people affected by them. WebMD offers ways to protect yourself if you're sensitive to scents.
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Fragrances and Our World continued...

"From hair shampoos to carpet shampoos, from laundry detergent to shower gels, from home sprays to hair sprays to moisturizers, cosmetic, and personal care items, the scent industry has literally exploded. And for many people, it's a real sensory overload," says Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, an olfactory researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

We do have some control over what we allow into our homes and other personal spaces -- we can toss that magazine with the inserts or switch shampoo -- but it can really become an issue when our senses are assaulted in common areas, such as the workplace or a college classroom, places where we have to be.

"Being forced to breathe in others' fragrance choices is a lot like being forced to breathe in secondhand smoke," Dalton tells WebMD. "It's a loss of control over your personal environment, and for some it can have serious personal health consequences."

And that is precisely the logic behind several recent legal actions aimed at cleaning up our personal air space.

  • In July 2007, a government worker from Detroit sued her employers under the Americans With Disabilities Act for what her lawsuit claims is "fragrance toxicity" in the workplace. Her claim: Exposures to fragrances also means increased exposure to chemical neurotoxins that adversely impact brain function. The suit is pending.
  • In the fall of 2007, a group of students from California State University, Stanislaus, became so concerned about these same chemical exposures they asked campus officials to institute a fragrance-free policy. Their request cited headaches, nausea, and inability to concentrate, all caused by overpowering fragrance use among some students and faculty. The students are waiting for the administration's decision.
  • Workers in the Portland, Ore., Bureau of Emergency Communications were recently banned from wearing fragrances under what has become one of the nation's first government workplace "fragrance-free" policies. Portland State University followed suit, and now similar programs are in place at Cecil College in Maryland.

Fragrance Allergies: Nailing Down the Culprits

It can be hard to imagine that what smells divine to one person can cause a myriad of miserable symptoms in another, but experts say that how our bodies respond to a particular fragrance lies in our individual physiologic makeup.

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