Is your signature scent secretly sinister?

March 28, 2017

I have a confession to make. My first year of university, I missed a lot of class.

Thing is, I didn’t miss class for the reasons that you might be thinking. During my first week of classes, I quickly discovered that in some of the particularly massive lecture halls, it was impossible for me to find a place to sit where I wasn’t overwhelmed by perfume drifting my way.

Student feeling ill

By overwhelmed, I mean that I would develop an instant headache and after a short while, I’d become nauseous. I couldn’t concentrate, I was miserable and I felt enormous relief as soon as I got outside. So, I started skipping class and learning from the textbook. Self‑directed learning is definitely not a strength of mine, but I felt like I had no choice.

I’ve often had trouble explaining this sensitivity to other people. It’s not that the perfume smells bad to me, it’s just something in the perfume that instantly triggers an awful tingling in my sinuses and then I’m bowled over by a headache, which immediately disappears when I leave that space. I’ve discovered over the years that whatever it is that I react to is not in all fragrances, as there are some products that don’t bother me at all, and then there are other products to which I have a really severe reaction. 

According to the Lung Association, scented products can cause health problems for some people, especially for those with lung diseases such as asthma. Surveys also suggest that sensitivities to fragrances amongst the general population are not uncommon. Unfortunately, this is an area that isn’t well understood. This is partly because scents or perfumes are usually made from a mixture of chemicals, both natural and man-made, and may contain hundreds of ingredients. So, when a product has “perfume” as an ingredient, this in fact means there is a long list of chemicals that are not specifically listed. Trying to pin down and identify culprit ingredients is not a simple task.  

woman sneezing

Public Health wants everyone to feel welcome and able to access our services, and that’s one reason why we, like hospitals and other health care facilities, have a scent-free policy at all of our locations. This extends from using scent-free cleaning products to asking employees and visitors in Public Health buildings to avoid the use of scented products. When you visit us, please consider leaving your wrists and neck “naked” by going perfume- and cologne-free, and cutting back on (or using scent-free versions of) products like shampoo/conditioner, lotion, deodorant, aftershave and hairspray. 

This will help keep our health facilities safe and welcoming spaces for everyone. Visit the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety for more information on developing a scent-free workplace policy.

Thank you!

Bo Cheyne
Environmental Health Specialist