From air fresheners and cleaning products to the body wash your teen just has to have, fragrances are everywhere. Although the goal is to make things smell better, all those smells can also result in headaches, rashes, and other unwanted side effects.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), about 2.5 million Americans have fragrance allergies. Fragrances don't just affect the nose -- when you use a scented product on your skin, some of the chemicals in it are absorbed. The AAD reports that allergies to fragrances are the main cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis -- a condition that can range from skin itching and redness to blisters and swelling.
But even if they don’t show classic signs of fragrance allergies, many people are bothered by smells all the same. In several recent studies, nearly one-third of people polled said that they were irritated by scented products worn by other people. Nineteen percent said they got headaches, breathing difficulties, or other problems from air fresheners or deodorizers.
The Chemicals in Fragrances
It’s not surprising that fragrances might trigger reactions in so many people. It’s estimated that more than 3,000 chemicals are used to make up the fragrances that are found in everyday personal products, cosmetics, and cleaning items.
Some of those chemicals have been linked to health issues, including reproductive problems and asthma. Phthalates, for example, are a controversial family of chemicals that can mimic the effects of hormones in the body. They are often added to fragrances to help smells last longer.
But it’s not easy to know what’s in the products you put on your body and use to make your home and clothes smell better. The FDA does not require manufacturers to disclose the specific ingredients in a fragrance. They use the all-encompassing term “fragrance” on a label, which can include essential oils, synthetics, solvents, and fixatives.
The FDA doesn’t routinely test fragrances unless there has been some consumer or health concern about particular ingredients. Instead, the responsibility is on the product manufacturer to use ingredients that are safe.
Is “Unscented” Really Fragrance-Free?
But chemicals aren’t the only culprits. Even strong natural smells -- such as aromatic flowers, for example -- can trigger migraine headaches or asthma attacks in some people. Unfortunately, if you know that you or someone in your family has a negative reaction to smells, it isn’t as simple as looking for a product that is labeled as fragrance-free.
Unscented or fragrance-free products still may contain a small amount of added fragrance to cover up unpleasant smells, but not enough to have a strong scent.
Some Smell Solutions
So what if you want to avoid problems from synthetic or other strong fragrance? There are several ways to eliminate smells in a healthier fashion. You may want to start with some products that can be heavily scented, like laundry detergents and air fresheners. Here are some more natural, possibly less-irritating methods to rid the air of unwanted odors: