No Scents, PLEASE!!!
By Ann Cheyne
UPdate Winter 1994-1995

     Well, I cannot count how many times I have requested that someone come to my home or meet me elsewhere without wearing scented products.  The request is usually met with an indignant reply such as “Well, I don’t wear scents or perfumes”.

      Generally, I am reluctant to then engage in interrogating them about every personal care product they use.  I am learning, however, that although I may run the risk of offending them, it is very necessary.  My hopeful demeanor turns to great disappointment when the person turns up at my door very scented despite denials of having put anything scented on.  And of course, they don’t smell any of the layers of scents that they are wearing, YET!!

      Being a person who always was concerned with not hurting someone else’s feelings, and having a hard time asking for what I needed form others, this has brought to focus some other issues in my life which I needed to deal with.  This is still not easy, but I am working on it.  However, clean air is a very basic right.  Ironically, if the proverbial shoe was on the other foot, I would have no problem, not using any product, if it made someone else ill.  However, not everybody feels that way, especially those most addicted to their scents!

     As most of us know, until we became hypersensitive, we did not smell many of the scents that we or others were emitting.  Although perhaps those scenting chemicals may have been causing minor symptoms, we were still “masked” and could not note cause and effect.  The effect on us at this time may also have been nothing more than an increased demand on our body to break down those airborne chemicals.  Then things suddenly changed!!

     Those pathways in our body that degraded those chemicals became overloaded, and in some cases permanently damaged (depending on the individual, their genetics, etc.).  The result being that then we could smell those chemicals/scents in much lower concentrations than we ever were aware of.  The back up in the blood stream of these unprocessed chemicals leads to a variety of symptoms depending on the individual’s inherent susceptibility, and resultant damage to ‘target’ organs.  The chemicals often used in scented products have an affinity for the central nervous system, (including BRAIN), and respiratory systems.

     We were not aware that chemically scented products such as laundry detergents, or fabric softeners-sheets or liquids- were causing us problems.  We could never smell the scents from soaps, hand creams, shampoos, conditioners, hair spray, skin cleansers, makeup, deodorants, sunscreens, hair gels, and mousses, bath oil, powder, etc. etc. etc., once we applied them.  So, it is understandable that many others still cannot.  Furthermore, people think that if a product says unscented it is necessarily fragrance-free, surprisingly, this is not necessarily true either.

     The problem lies in raising peoples’ awareness about how many products they are using are actually very scented, whether or not they can smell them, once they are applied.  Even a sweater which someone has worn previously while wearing scented products, but today has not applied any, usually still reeks, though the wearer is very unaware.  The result in a closed building or a crowded, underventilated room, church, hall is a myriad of airborne vapours given off profusely by heated human bodies which even the most sophisticated ventilation system cannot filter out.  We become human sponges, some people eliminate this pollution better than others.

     It was only when we gradually unloaded the “layers” of scents, that again we could detect an effect form being exposed to those things.  We were “unmasked”, in that we had them out of our own immediate environment/usage long enough to begin to notice the difference.

     So many of the general population are quite literally bathed in layers of chemical scents.  I can remember putting on my perfume, but never being able to smell it off myself.  I realize now that for most of the population this is the case, although more and more, I am hearing of growing numbers of people with new sensitivities to scented products.  Previously in my life, I had no problem with scented products, I liked them, but I could also go without them, it wasn’t a big deal to me, THEN.

     To me now, this whole issue is very serious, and also scary because now my eyes have been opened wide to how much politics, greed, and money play such a part in our society.  The welfare of the individual takes a backseat.  One only has to look at the tobacco industry and how long it has taken to raise the awareness of the real health risks of second hand smoke, to see that there is a long road ahead.  And, just like the smoker’s addiction to his cigarettes, and his denial to himself, and others that he is doing something harmful, so, too, often is the denial and addiction of the scent addict.

     The effects of these scents can be varied from such traditional effects as asthmatic attacks, migraines to nausea, muscle spasms, seizures, headaches, markedly reduced concentration, confusion, hyperactivity, irritability, mood swings, dizziness, profound fatigue, flushing, irregular or rapid heartbeat.  This list is endless, and individuals often experience more than one of these symptoms.  The effects can last for several days.

     One might argue that the solution should be for the person to develop a greater tolerance to the substances.  While this is desirable, it is not generally possible.  Even if one’s tolerance over all increases in increments, it is senseless to continually expose oneself not only to an allergen, but also a toxin.

     For example, propylene glycol, present in many products is considered an immumotoxic chemical., cyclohexanol has a depressive action on the central nervous system.  Linalool has been shown to provoke ataxic gait, depression and respiratory disturbances.  Musk ambrette can cause central and peripheral nervous system damage.  Methyl ethyl ketone can induce unconsciousness, emphysema, congestion if the liver and kidneys, eye, nose, and throat irritation, and numbness of the extremities.  Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, with many other damaging traits.  These are only a miniscule sampling of common chemicals found in scented products.  The combined and synergistic effects of all the products used together, no one knows.

     It was eye-opening to me to find out that there are over 4000 different chemicals used in the fragrance industry, many of the most commonly used chemicals are known neurotoxins, and also known sensitizers.  The fact that little research is done on the neurotoxic effects is shocking also.  

     After all, if our self-concept is such that we rely on those scents as part of our self-image, or simply to feel good, then for some it is a threat, probably on a subconscious level—to bare themselves and go scent-free.  I think that our society is in a pretty sad, materialistic, superficial state, and that Environmental Illness/Chemical Sensitivity will hopefully be a call to all to look deeper, and see what is really important.  

     It is typical of our death-defying, “it won’t happen to me” attitude, to think that we are “immune” to sensitivity to scents (chemicals).  It is easier to rationalize it as happening to a small group, a susceptible population, than to ourselves.  I would hope that if I still had my previous health, I would listen and prevent.  That is the message that I would like to send to so many.  Take your chemical load down now, while there is still time, unfortunately it does seem as if the majority of people will be destined to learn the hard way!! In the mean time, those of us so affected continue to try to educate others about what No Scents actually means!!


 Information used for this article was obtained from several of the same sources listed in R. Barrett’s article.

Effects of Scented Products
Fact Sheet
Source: Occupational Health, Camp Hill Medical Centre
· 15 – 25% of the population have some breathing problem such as hay fever or asthma that is adversely affected by strong odors from scented products such as perfumes and after shaves.

· Strongly scented products can trigger migraines; 17% of Canadians suffer from migraines.

· The incidence of environmental discomforts and illnesses is increasing.
· Scented products can cause a variety of health problems such as, but not limited to, sore throat, runny nose, sinus congestion, wheezing, shortness of breath, headache, mental confusion, inability to concentrate, irritability, seizures, nausea, and muscle pain.

· About 4,000 chemicals are used to make fragrances and several hundred can be used in a single product.

· Virtually no testing for neurotic effects is done on fragrance chemicals although research on animals has produced severe health problems.

· The ventilation systems of many buildings are not able to extract all chemicals from the air and instead, recirculate them.