Health Break | Published September 5, 2005 | Written by Therese Weilacher, RN

Use Scents Sensibly

A spray of perfume behind your ears before leaving home; a brisk rub of cologne after shaving; a touch of hair spray before going out; all of these are scented messages of beauty, sensuality or good hygiene. These scents waft around you and beyond you to others. That is their purpose.

Perfumes, colognes and hair sprays aren’t the only products loaded with fragrances. Fragrances are used in detergents, air fresheners and lotions to name just a few others. They’re everywhere. In fact, in the past three decades, the use of scented products has soared.

In the past, perfumes and colognes were used only for special occasions. Today, they are daily wear.

Today’s scented products are often stronger and longer lasting than they were previously. Moods, blood pressure and restlessness can be altered by fragrances, such as lavender promoting relaxation. And while their purpose is to create a more pleasant atmosphere and environment, that is not always the result. In fact, some people fear scents because of the health risks they cause.

In its dress code policy for employees, Mount Nittany Medical Center includes a section on personal hygiene that states, “Perfume, cologne and aftershave lotion should be avoided, as some individuals may be sensitive to strong fragrances.” But, there is a general lack of awareness regarding the health risks caused by scented products, even among healthcare workers.

The most commonly diagnosed health problems due to fragrances are skin irritations and rashes, such as allergic contact eczema. Headaches and migraines are also frequent reactions of exposure to scents. More seriously, fragrances can also close a throat and aggravate asthma.

Respiratory ailments, such as asthma attacks, have been linked to fragrances in some studies. Asthma is a literal struggle for breath. Every asthma attack has the potential to suffocate. A 1986 survey of asthmatics found perfumes or colognes triggered attacks in 72 percent of them.

Asthma rates have soared since the 1970s, as fragrances are increasingly used in multiple-scented products on a daily basis. Almost every health organization concerned with respiratory health lists fragrances as a trigger for asthma.

It should also be noted that fragrances can be carried in breast milk to be ingested by the baby and are in the environment contaminating waterways and aquatic wildlife.

While their purpose is to create positive reactions, perfumes are complex mixtures of more than 4,000 vegetable and animal extracts and organic and nonorganic compounds, some of which can cause serious health problems to some individuals. This can include birth defects or even health risks that can lead to cancer.

Fragrances hit the olfactory pathways located in the nose and trigeminal receptors in the eyes, nose, mouth, face, scalp and airways. It is not surprising that our bodies absorb what we inhale. But, it is surprising what adverse effects our perfumes and colognes can have on others.

It’s hard to accept that a perfume you don’t feel dressed without wearing can close the throat of the person standing in the elevator with you. But, this being the case, the healthy choice is to use moderation when wearing fragrances. Be understanding if these scents bother your neighbor. And, restrict the use of fragrances in closed areas, such as hospitals, concerts, theaters or wherever others in close contact to you could suddenly start coughing, wheezing and struggling to breathe.

Therese Weilacher is a registered nurse on the Ambulatory Care Unit at Mount Nittany Medical Center.