It’s important to everyone’s health to have clean air in our homes, workplaces and businesses. Poor indoor air quality is linked to diseases such as asthma, pneumonia, respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, strokes and lung cancer. Pregnant women who are exposed to air pollution are more likely to give birth to children with weaker immune systems and lung disorders. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million deaths annually are linked to air pollution, calling it “the world’s largest single environmental health risk.”

Improving indoor air quality is why many public spaces have adopted smoke-free policies. Many states and the federal government have set up Indoor Air Quality Programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that clean indoor air laws have produced fewer smokers and higher quit rates.

The CDC Indoor Air Quality Policy includes other types of air pollution that are a hazard to safe inside air. These include mold, vehicle and equipment exhaust, construction projects and smoke from wildfires. Many of the biggest indoor air pollutants come from the chemicals we use for cleaning, pest control, painting and personal care.

Scented personal care products (such as cologne, perfume, soap, laundry products, skin lotion and hair products) cause health problems in some people. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that fragrances are the leading cause of skin rashes (contact dermatitis). AAD also notes that fragrance sensitivity affects more than 2 million people in the United States, and these sensitivities are on the rise.

Smell, like taste, is not the same for everyone, explains Pamela Dalton, PhD, an olfactory researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Each person has different receptors in their nose and what irritates one person may not bother another. As we age or encounter toxins in our environment, our sensitivities can change. The smells that trigger a migraine headache today may not have bothered you 20 years ago. The AAD explains, once a person has an allergy to a chemical, the symptoms are likely to be triggered by smaller and smaller amounts of exposure to that chemical.

While we have some control over what we allow into our homes and can toss a perfumed magazine insert or switch shampoos, public spaces are different. In shared areas such as the workplace, classrooms, businesses and other places we must be, fragrances can become a health issue for some people. Dalton says, “Being forced to breathe in others’ fragrance choices is a lot like being forced to breathe secondhand smoke.” Often, people may not realize that their health problems are from a fragrance because allergy reactions are different for everyone.

According to the Job Accommodation Network, fragrance sensitivity can be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Fragrances can cause mild to severe health problems. Some common symptoms of fragrance allergy can include one or more of the following:

  • Migraine or milder headaches
  • Watery, red or itchy eyes
  • Sneezing, coughing, runny nose or pneumonia
  • Sinus problems or chronic cough
  • Asthma, wheezing or other breathing problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Dizziness and fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Skin irritation, itching, rashes or hives
  • High blood pressure

The AAD says that fragrance allergies are increasing because of the large number of fragrance products and the number of chemicals used to produce them. According to the AAD, “Some 5,000 different fragrances—and countless other fragrance combinations—are used in products today, and they can be a powerful, toxic brew.”

Many hospitals, health care facilities and places where the public is served have enacted fragrance-free policies, similar to smoke-free policies. This helps prevent endangering employees as well as the public who may have multiple chemical sensitivities. These policies help make people more aware but are hard to enforce when it comes to personal fragrances. What bothers one person, pleases another. The CDC suggests businesses use common sense to minimize risk to employees:

  • Provide a five-day notice of renovations, demolitions, maintenance or operation activities so that fragrant-sensitive employees can reschedule work time
  • Schedule construction work for after-hours or weekends
  • Use nonchemical strategies for pest management for lawn and building care; when pesticides are needed, choose the least-toxic chemical controls
  • Use workplace products, including soaps, cleaning products, paints, etc., that are safe and odor-free
  • Vacuum frequently using vacuums with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters
  • Clean carpets with steam or the least toxic, fragrance-free cleaner

Employees should be sensitive to co-workers and the public when they choose personal care products. A person’s personal space is about three feet. If your perfume, lotion or other fragrance can be smelled by a co-worker further away than that, you’ve put on too much. Many scents linger in meeting rooms and elevators long after the person has left. For a person        trying to avoid fragrances, just stepping onto the elevator or in a meeting room can trigger an instant headache.

The CDC suggests encouraging employees to be as fragrance-free as possible when coming to work. Don’t apply fragrance products while in the workplace, especially when meeting with clients or teammates in close quarters. Remember, even a tiny bit of perfume can make people very ill after they become sensitive. For some highly sensitive people, this allergy prevents them from being employed and living what most of us consider a normal life.