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One in fifty people

Ever walked into a lift where someone’s been wearing perfume, and started sneezing? That’s your body’s way of trying to get rid of the chemicals that have just gone up your nose.

Some people suffer specific and immediate effects if they smell fragrance. These are people who have become “sensitized” to the chemicals in it, for whom even a tiny amount will set off symptoms. This might be an “allergic” reaction or it might be a “sensitivity” reaction, but the results are similar – immediate and sometimes disabling symptoms.

Even the fragrance industry is prepared to accept that at least 2% of the population is sensitive or allergic to fragrance. (source: This translates to around 500,000 people in Australia. This is probably an estimate on the low side, given that the source of the figure is the fragrance industry. Other figures put the number at something like 6%. Because many people don’t realize that their health problems are to do with fragrance, it’s difficult to put an exact number on it. But even if it’s only one out of every fifty people, that’s a significant number.

Most of these are women. Three times as many women as men suffer from migraines and auto-immune disease. This might be because women are exposed to fragrance in personal products and cleaning products more than men. It might also be that women' s bodies are more sensitive to toxic substances as a way of encouraging the woman to avoid them, thereby protecting the unborn children she may be carrying.

The symptoms that people suffer range from quite mild (sneezing, headache, sore eyes, a general feeling of not being well) to severe (asthma attacks, migraines, disabling fatigue). Plus, long-term effects such as cancer may not produce immediate symptoms but will gradually grow over time. 

A person working in an air-conditioned office, with colleagues who wear fragrance, has no choice but to spend much of each day with these symptoms. A student in a lecture room surrounded by fellow-students giving out fragrance is not going to be able to concentrate or learn properly. Life is miserable for such people and their ability to fully be the person they are, is compromised.

People who are allergic or sensitive to fragrance find it difficult to approach people whose fragrance is causing them problems. The way we smell is a very personal thing. Many people don’t like to have the way they smell (even when they consider it a nice smell) mentioned as a problem for others. The reaction is often defensive and somewhat offended. Individual rights are often mentioned.

Wearing fragrance is indeed a right – just as smoking in offices and lecture-halls was a right until recently. Most people who wear fragrance don’t realize the effect it might be having on their own health, and they certainly don’t think that it might be causing health problems for others. But once we’re aware of that, it becomes a choice we can make, for our own sake and for the sake of the people around us. Our own individual right to wear fragrance can be set alongside someone else’s right not to suffer asthma or headaches.

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