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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.

Fragrance Allergies: Nailing Down the Culprits continued...

"Sensitivity is a general term under which you can have a true allergic reaction, but you can also have irritant reactions, meaning the problem with fragrance could be that it's an irritant. With others, it could be an allergic reaction. It's just not well known what actually is occurring when these reactions develop," says dermatologist Marjorie Slankard, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Columbia Eastside, a division of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

Some experts aren't even sure if it's the fragrance itself that is the real culprit, or just one part of a mix of chemicals -- as many as 200 or more -- that are used to create both fragrances we smell and the masking agents used in unscented products.

"Because the 'fragrance' is what we smell when we have an onset of symptoms, we blame the fragrance. But, in fact, it's possible that the reaction we are getting may instead be the result of the many chemicals used in the formulation of the fragrance," Dalton tells WebMD. This, she says, includes both products we can smell and those labeled as "unscented," which frequently rely on a whole host of chemicals to dampen the scent.

So what's someone who suspects a fragrance allergy to do when it comes to finding a product that won't cause a reaction? Ultimately, experts say, it's all about trial and error.

Slankard advises trying an unscented product first. If you don't have a reaction, then the scent most likely is the culprit. If you do have a reaction, then it is probably a chemical reaction, not a true fragrance reaction. At that point, it becomes like any other chemical reaction: You have to try to nail down the exact cause with the help of an allergist, but at least you know it's chemical in nature.

Single-note fragrances, like a rose scent or freesia scent, may be less likely to cause problems than a multicomponent scent -- unless, of course, it's the single note you are reacting to, she says.

Fragrance Sensitivities: What You Can Do

Regardless of what is behind your fragrance allergy, experts agree that reducing exposure is key.

"The most important thing you can do in that respect is to remove yourself from the offending fragrance." Avoidance is really the most effective treatment, Slankard tells WebMD.

But what if you can't? Experts say there are still ways to get control.

"One important thing you can do is get other people to recognize that it's a problem, not only for you, but for everyone who is exposed. And if you do it in a courteous way, you can sometimes get good results," says Saab.

This means simply asking the person whose fragrance is overbearing to tone it down -- or asking your employer to educate workers about fragrance allergies, including what each person can do on an individual level to help reduce the "fragrance overload" in a work or learning environment.

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