ABC Post 9: The Problem With Fragrance

Recently, Matt and I have been looking for a house to buy. An unexpected wrinkle in this process is the popularity of using scented oil plug-ins and other artificial fragrances to scent homes that are being shown. Our realtor has told us that adding a fragrance is a common recommendation realtors make to clients who are trying to sell their homes. 

The problem is, I’m extremely sensitive to artificial fragrances. When I am exposed to scented oil plug-ins, I get a migraine. There have been times when we’ve been in a fragranced house for maybe 10 minutes, and I end up with nausea and an intense headache for the rest of the day, and sometimes even the next day. When we leave a heavily scented house, I can taste the scent, sometimes for hours afterward, despite drinking water, eating, etc. This can happen even if I’ve been wearing a filtering mask. 

Wearing a carbon-filtering mask from iCanBreathe at my office job in Washington D.C. There was some extremely potent perfume there. The giant scarf is because of the frigid air-conditioning.

The prevalence of artificial fragrances and my high sensitivity to them has left us scouring photos of houses we’re thinking of touring, trying to spot potential fragrance sources. It’s also difficult to know what to do when we like a house but there is a fragrance, because we can’t be certain it will be possible to remove. People we know who are also highly fragrance-sensitive have advised we avoid fragranced houses completely; many fragrance sources are oil-based, and can be difficult or impossible to remove with standard cleaning measures (or so I hear.)

The internet is also full of horror-stories from people who have bought fragranced houses and ended up having to take drastic measures, including replacing dry-wall, in order tolerate the home environment. Others suggest getting the house cleaned and airing it out. That might work, but it’s a big risk.

Searching for a house is just one area in which fragrances are a problem for me. Another is using public or shared buildings. For instance, the RV park where we are staying has a community building which includes the management office, a gym, laundry room, seating area, and some games. The building also has several scented-oil plug-ins. 

I’ve mostly been avoiding using that building. When I have, it’s only been for a few minutes, and when I come out, I can still smell the fragrance on my clothes and body. Matt has been doing the laundry so I don’t have to go in the laundry room, but the smell of the scented laundry products comes back with him. It would be nice to be able to use the gym, but I know it wouldn’t be worth it. I have also experienced fragrance-induced symptoms in airports, airplanes, at work, and at church. In airplanes and church there’s a high likelihood that I end up sitting near someone with some kind of fragrance on them.

Fragrance sensitivity is not an uncommon problem. Two surveys conducted in the U.S. in the early 2000s found that 20% of survey participants reported adverse health effects from air-fresheners. The survey also asked participants about scented products on other people, and scented laundry products vented outside. 30.5% of participants found scented products on others irritating, and 10.9% were irritated by laundry products vented outside.

Matt is not sensitive like me, but he used to get a terribly congested nose at his office because of the perfume his cubicle neighbors wore. This went on for months before he realized, because he was so stuffed up he couldn’t smell anything. He realized there was perfume when one of his coworkers walked by and said “What is all this perfume over here!?!?” When he went home, he was better, and it never happened again once he switched jobs and moved to a different cubicle.

It’s difficult, if not impossible to pinpoint what causes people to have symptoms around fragrances. One complication is that any combination of hundreds of ingredients can be listed on a label as “Fragrance.” Fragrances are considered trade secrets, so the specific ingredients used to create fragrances are not required to be disclosed. Scientists have demonstrated that some chemicals used to produce fragrances can mimic the effects of hormones in the body, and some are known to be irritants and even carcinogens. 

A 2012 study analyzed samples of common household and cosmetic products to see what they contain. They found 55 ingredients known to have negative health impacts such as the ones I mentioned above.

An additional finding of this study was that many of the chemicals detected were not listed on product labels. This means that chemicals of concern were likely included in product labels under catch-all terms like “fragrance,” or aren’t required to be listed (this seems to be the case with cleaning products more often than cosmetics.) This is why I am wary of anything labeled as “Fragrance”—I just can’t know if it is something that will affect me.

What do I do to decrease the effects of fragrances in my life?

Mostly, I avoid areas that are scented. When we are looking at a house and it is very scented, we look quickly, and then we talk things over outdoors. I also wear a mask with a charcoal filter made by iCanBreathe. I highly recommend this mask to people with fragrance sensitivities as well as environmental allergies (such as to pollen, smoke, etc.)

What can you do to help people with fragrance sensitivities?

I’ll preface this by acknowledging that some of these are big changes, and I understand that for people who don’t notice the effects of fragrances, they can seem inconvenient. 

  • Choose unscented laundry products
  • Avoid scented-oil plug-ins, wax melts, and candles scented with fragrance oils (this is the vast majority of candles—unscented beeswax candles are a great alternative)
  • Avoid using perfume/cologne/scented lotion/scented hair-styling products
  • If you must scent an area, consider using plant or food-based methods like simmering a pot of water with herbs or spices in it, simmering a spiced beverage like apple cider, or diffusing essential oils. 
  • If you are in charge of a building in which people congregate, try to encourage all of the above
  • If you are in charge of a communal laundry facility, consider setting aside one washer and dryer for use with fragrance-free products only
    • I would appreciate it tremendously if the entire facility would be fragrance free, but if there is one washer/dryer set aside, at least sensitive people can avoid having their laundry smell like products they didn’t use.
    • If anyone has the power to do this and wants ideas on how/signage to use, I would be thrilled to help!

I would add that essential oils probably don’t work for everyone with fragrance sensitivities, but I do find them to be less irritating, partially because they don’t linger as long as artificial fragrance oils.

If you’re also fragrance-sensitive, I’d be curious to hear about your experiences.


This is a post for my part of the April Blogging Challenge with Dorcas and Emily. Emily posted yesterday about how she squandered her tax refund, and Dorcas will be posting tomorrow.