The smell of fresh air is becoming something of a distant memory, thanks to our increasing use of fragrance. From air fresheners to scented candles, perfumed loo roll and bin liners, in-car scents and even scented socks, we live in a miasma of scent.
Share a lift or train carriage and the aroma of spray deodorant and perfume can be overwhelming. Recent figures show seven in ten use air fresheners or scented candles to keep our homes smelling sweet.
Yet recent reports suggest that perfumed products could affect our health, causing problems including allergies, asthma and migraine, and even interfere with sexual desire.
One leading expert suggests nearly a third of people suffer adverse health effects from being exposed to scents. A major problem is so-called ‘contact’ allergy – where perfumes and scented products trigger eczema and dermatitis when they come into contact with skin.
Molecules in the product trigger an immune response, causing itchiness and even scaly, cracked skin.
About one in 20 is thought to be affected by fragrance allergy – though this number may be growing.
‘Allergies are on the increase, and the amount of perfumed products is also on the rise,’ says Dr Susannah Baron, consultant dermatologist at Kent & Canterbury hospital, and BMI Chaucer Hospital.
‘Fragrance allergy can show up as contact dermatitis in the site a perfumed product is applied, or as a flare-up of existing eczema. It can be a real problem.’
In July, the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety asked perfume manufacturers to list potential allergens in their product after reports that they triggered skin reactions.
Earlier this year, the U.S. state of New Hampshire banned workers from wearing scents to protect their co-workers.
Often it may not be immediately obvious that you’ve developed a fragrance allergy, says Dr Baron.
‘You don’t react immediately; the body notes that it does not like the chemical and develops “memory cells”, which cause inflammation when the body is next exposed to this chemical.
‘Gradually, as you are exposed more and more, the body ramps up its reaction, until it becomes more noticeable to you.’
People with pre-existing eczema are particularly vulnerable. ‘The eczema worsens in areas in contact with perfumes or perfume- containing shampoos, conditioners and shower gels,’ says Dr Baron.
But even those without allergies can be at risk of fragrance allergy.
‘You can become suddenly allergic to perfumes and personal care products that you have been using for years.
‘You can also have problems with unexpected products such as scented toilet roll and scented wipes which can cause irritation.’
And strong scents can also cause headaches.
According to Dr Vincent Martin, a headache specialist at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, fragrances activate the nose’s nerve cells, stimulating the nerve system associated with head pain.
UK charity Migraine Action warns that intense or penetrating smells can even trigger migraine for the same reason.
To minimise risks, migraine sufferers are advised to keep diaries of all triggers including scent, so they can minimise contact.
Meanwhile, products such as plug-in deodorisers and even mild air fresheners contain chemicals that could trigger asthma attacks, experts have warned.
Charity Asthma UK says that perfumes can irritate the airways in those with asthma, causing breathing problems.
Dr Stanley Fineman, of the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic in the U.S., says those with asthma are especially sensitive, and that his research indicates a change in lung function when exposed to certain chemical fragrances.
The fashion for scented intimate products can be linked to health issues, too, says Dr Sovra Whitcroft, a gynaecologist at the Surrey Park Clinic, Guildford.
‘The problem with perfumed products is that they change the natural pH or acidity of the vagina.