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Image of perfume bottle being sprayed by a finger to illustrate sensitivity to fragrance.

Image of perfume bottle being sprayed by a finger to illustrate sensitivity to fragrance.
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Perfume stinks: how fragrances can affect your health

Blog post | 30 Aug 2018

If you avoid the perfume counter in department stores or wear a mask while cleaning your home, you’re not alone. They may smell sweet, but fragrances can make a person feel sick.

About 1 in 3 people report having health problems when exposed to fragranced products. Those problems include asthma attacks, hay fever, headache, migraine, dizziness, breathing problems, rashes, congestion, nausea and seizures.

According to research by the University of Melbourne, some people have even lost work days or a job because of illness caused by fragranced goods such as air fresheners, cleaning supplies, laundry products and personal care items.

Why fragrance is on the nose 

Scientists aren’t sure how fragrances cause symptoms, but they can be hazardous because they’re everywhere. Fragranced products contain chemicals — including pollutants — that become airborne and this can be a concern for some people, particularly if they’re indoors.

You might be able to avoid spraying deodorant or burning candles in your own home, but exposure to scent in the workplace, shops and on public transport can cause havoc if you’re sensitive to fragrances.

And fragranced products aren’t as heavily regulated in Australia as food or pharmaceutical products. Manufacturers can put the words ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ on a list of ingredients rather than the specific chemicals used. This makes it more difficult for people to identify the substances they know may affect them.

Tips for a fragrance-free life 

If you experience symptoms when exposed to fragranced products, there are still a few things you can do to make life easier.  

  • When buying products (for example, soap, moisturiser, dishwashing liquid or baby wipes), look for products labelled ‘fragrance free’.  

  • Even naturally fragrant plants and flowers can affect a person with asthma. Avoid planting jasmine or gardenia in a high-traffic area of your garden. Asthma Australia has more information about this.

  • Ask colleagues or family members to be less heavy-handed with perfumes and deodorants. If possible, consider moving work stations or sometimes working from home if a colleague can't part with their potent cologne.

  • Talk to your employer about implementing a ‘no fragrance policy’. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did this, banning all scented products, such as reed diffusers, potpourri and toilet deodorant blocks, from its buildings.

Where to seek help

  • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist.
  • The 1800 ASTHMA Helpline (1800 278 462) is a free information and support telephone service for anyone with queries about asthma.  
  • Visit the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at allergy.org.au for resources and to find a specialist.
  • If fragrances in your workplace are making you feel unwell and your employer is not taking action, you can contact the work, health and safety authority in your state or territory. See safeworkaustralia.gov.au for details.

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