What To Know About Smell Sensitivities

For some people, scented products may trigger migraines, breathing problems, and even neurological effects.

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© 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:

  • Skin
  • Respiratory
  • Neurological
  • Nasal

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 migraines
  • 9.5% 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 products
  • Would not use or were not able to use a public restroom due to scented products in the restroom
  • Would 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:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Watery, itchy, burning, red eyes
  • Runny nose
  • Congestion
  • Asthma

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 pain
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Vomiting

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.

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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.
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  5. Steinemann A. National prevalence and effects of multiple chemical sensitivitiesJournal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine. 2018;60(3):e152-e156. doi:10.1097/JOM.0000000000001272

  6. U.S. Access Board. Fragrance-free environment.

  7. Caress SM, Steinemann AC. Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American populationJ Environ Health. 2009;71(7):46-50.PMID: 19452837 

  8. Steinemann A. Ten questions concerning fragrance-free policies and indoor environmentsBuilding and Environment. 2019;159:106054. doi:10.1016/j.buildenv.2019.03.052

  9. Klaschka U. Between attraction and avoidance: from perfume application to fragrance-free policiesEnviron Sci Eur. 2020;32(1):98. doi:10.1186/s12302-020-00377-8

  10. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Allergens in cosmetics.

  11. Job Accommodation Network. Fragrance sensitivity.

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