Health Conditions A-Z Allergies What To Know About Smell Sensitivities For some people, scented products may trigger migraines, breathing problems, and even neurological effects. By Anthea Levi Anthea Levi Instagram Website Anthea Levi is a registered dietitian (RD) and freelance reporter with more than 6 years of experience writing for major health outlets including Health magazine, BuzzFeed, Eat This, Not That!, and Livestrong. health's editorial guidelines Updated on June 9, 2022 Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Molina Ortiz, MD Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Molina Ortiz, MD Elizabeth I. Molina Ortiz, MD, MPH, is a board-certified family medicine and primary care physician with Atrius Health. learn more Share Tweet Pin Email © 2007 Christine Glade. Getty Images You may not love the scent of your coworker's hand cream or the perfume wafting across the aisle on the train. It could be simply because you don't like the smells. But if the smells really bother you, you might have a smell sensitivity—also called fragrance sensitivity. For people with smell sensitivities, fragrances can trigger a range of symptoms from migraines to difficulties with breathing. Here's what you should know about these types of sensitivities, including how to avoid their effects when possible. What Has Research Said About Smell Sensitivity? There's not a lot of solid data about fragrance sensitivity. However, research has suggested that fragrance sensitivity is a common issue and can be quite severe. Prevalence of Smell Sensitivity Anne Steinemann, PhD, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering, has researched fragrance sensitivities on several occasions. Steinemann asked nearly 1,100 people to complete questionnaires about their exposure to fragranced products—like personal care products, air fresheners, cleaning solutions, and laundry supplies—and any reactions those products may have triggered. One-third of the study participants reported experiencing one or more health issues from scented products (whether they used the items themselves or were exposed to them in public places). Steinemann had similar findings in a larger study. Across four countries—including the United States—an average of 32.2% of adults said that they experienced health issues from consumer products with fragrances. Other research indicated that almost 20% of people—out of 1,102—reported being sensitive to fragrances. Smell Sensitivity Reactions In general, people commonly report the following reactions to fragrances: SkinRespiratoryNeurologicalNasal At the top of the list for most common reactions to fragrances were respiratory difficulties, including coughing and shortness of breath. Almost 17% of participants reported this effect in one study, while 55.3% reported respiratory issues in another study. There were additional respiratory effects reported in Steinemann's study as well, including: 14% reported mucosal symptoms (such as congestion and watery eyes)10% experienced migraines9.5% developed skin problems (like rashes, hives, tingling skin, and dermatitis)7.6% reported asthma attacks Other non-respiratory symptoms reported by participants have included: Gastrointestinal problems (3.3%)Neurological symptoms, like dizziness or fainting (4.5%)Cognitive problems, such as trouble with their memory and difficulty concentrating (4.1%) Fragrance sensitivities can also happen with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). MCS is a health condition where chemical and pollutant exposure from different products results in some of the same adverse reactions from a smell sensitivity (e.g., headaches, dizziness). Smell Sensitivity's Effects on Behavior The effects of smell sensitivity go beyond bodily reactions. "Based on my findings, it's clear that the health effects of fragrance sensitivities can be immediate, severe, and potentially disabling," said Steinemann. For example, nearly 8% of the respondents in Steinemann's study said they had missed work or lost a job due to feeling ill from exposure to fragrances in the workplace. And in some countries, the health outcomes due to smell sensitivity have been so impactful that the condition is covered by laws as a disability. Research also found that 51.5% of people who were sensitive to fragrances reported they would not go to certain places because they knew exposure to fragrances would make them sick. Additionally, people with smell sensitivities also reported that they: Would prefer to limit their time in a business with air fresheners or fragranced productsWould not use or were not able to use a public restroom due to scented products in the restroomWould not wash or were hesitant to wash their hands in public areas because the soap was scented or potentially scented "Some people feel like they can't enter public restrooms or walk inside shops because they don't want to risk an asthma attack," said Steinemann. "This loss of functionality makes a fragrance sensitivity not just a health issue, but a societal and economic one too." What To Know About Fragrance Allergies For some people, the fragrances added to soaps, lotions, face and eye makeup, perfumes, and colognes can cause an overreaction by the immune system. The fragrance triggers the immune system to release chemicals that cause allergy symptoms. The most common symptom is itchy, red rashes on the skin called contact dermatitis. Other symptoms are similar to fragrance sensitivity symptoms, such as: HeadacheNauseaWatery, itchy, burning, red eyesRunny noseCongestionAsthma Other reactions caused by smelling fragrances may include wheezing, chest tightness, and the sensation of being suffocated. If you think you have smell sensitivities or allergies, consult a healthcare provider. Seek immediate emergency care if you have signs of anaphylaxis or a serious allergic reaction. A person might be experiencing anaphylaxis if they have: Chest painLightheadednessNauseaRapid, weak pulseShortness of breathTrouble swallowingVomiting Simple Ways To Protect Yourself For anyone who reacts to fragrances, there are a few simple things you can do to protect yourself: Get rid of air fresheners: These don't actually improve air quality. Open windows for ventilation instead.Avoid fragranced cleaning products: Old-school cleaning solutions like baking soda and vinegar are more smell-friendly than many pre-packaged products. As a bonus, they're cheaper, too!Use scent-free body care products: Many brands make soaps and shampoos without fragrances. Check the ingredients label to see if fragrances have been added.Speak up for yourself: Don't be afraid to let colleagues know a second-hand scent (from a candle, for example, or an odor-eliminating spray) is making you feel unwell. A Quick Review Whether you're sensitive to or allergic to fragrances, the symptoms are uncomfortable at best and debilitating at worst. Figuring out what products and fragrances your body reacts to can help you take steps to remove them from your environment at home and other places. If symptoms are keeping you from working or completing daily activities, talk with a healthcare provider who can help you figure out the cause of your symptoms and get the relief you need. Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! Tell us why! Other Submit Sources Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Steinemann A. Health and societal effects from exposure to fragranced consumer products. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2017;5:45-47.doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.011 Steinemann A. International prevalence of fragrance sensitivity. Air Qual Atmos Health. 2019;12(8):891-897. doi:10.1007/s11869-019-00699-4 Klaschka U. “This perfume makes me sick, but I like it.” Representative survey on health effects associated with fragrances. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2020;32(1):30. doi:10.1186/s12302-020-00311-y Alrasheed M, Albalawi O, Aljallal M, Alqahtani AS. Prevalence and risk factors of self-reported perfume sensitivity in Saudi Arabia. Healthcare. 2021;9(10):1248. doi:10.3390/healthcare9101248 Steinemann A. National prevalence and effects of multiple chemical sensitivities. Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. 2018;60(3):e152-e156. doi:10.1097/JOM.0000000000001272 U.S. Access Board. Fragrance-free environment. Caress SM, Steinemann AC. Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population. J Environ Health. 2009;71(7):46-50.PMID: 19452837 Steinemann A. Ten questions concerning fragrance-free policies and indoor environments. Building and Environment. 2019;159:106054. doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2019.03.052 Klaschka U. Between attraction and avoidance: from perfume application to fragrance-free policies. 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