I used to use a lot of perfume; it was one of my most favourite things. Ever. Before I became sensitised to the chemical ingredients in fragrances, I liked nothing better than to not only spritz on my darling L’Air du Temps (a fragrance by Nina Ricci), but also bathe in it, using the matching scented soap, then finish off with the L’Air du Temps talcum powder, and then, in the same luxurious, self-pampering vein of things, I’d lavishly apply the moisturiser as well. I would also use other designer perfumes: one named, ludicrously enough, ‘Poison’, which I didn’t wear much—not that that makes a difference to my situation now; Chanel no.5, for special occasions; Gucci Rush, another favourite (it’s weird, but I miss being able to enjoy the scent of this one—I especially remember the heady, intoxicating bouquet of musky-jasmine, hidden amongst top notes of orange, and how I used to delight in surrounding myself in clouds of it. Adored it!), I used to wear this one so much, and I’d spray it on everything: my books, my bookmarks, my bags, scarves, even in my car!
When I was younger, for everyday use, I’d use Impulse deodorant; I can also just about still recall that scent too, it was called Inspiration—it had a cheap fragranty-chemical aroma, but still, I loved it. It made me feel fresh. It was in an aqua blue spray can, and I’d carried one of many that I’d purchased throughout my lifetime, in my handbag since the age of fifteen.
At the age of 34, I was surprised to find myself experiencing symptoms bought on when applying my perfumes; it was one of the first chemicals that I reacted to, and the most troublesome: my eyelids would swell up, my eyes would dry out and everything—cleaning products, car fumes, fresh newspaper ink—would either sting or itch them. There was no escape. On hot windy days, the air touching my eyeballs was pure agony. At night, I’d wake up with my eyelids stuck to my eyes, and I’d scatter and grope for my Bion Tears: my eye drops. After extensive testing with an immunologist, using sublingual drops, I was diagnosed as sensitive to various chemicals. Because of the amount of perfume, I used to use, I had to throw out, give away or sell most of my possessions, all of my clothing, and a hell of a lot of my books… Heartbreaking is the only way I can describe it.
Although I never tried Opium–the fragrance that is–a while ago I came across this study, where an analysis was done on this particular fragrance’s chemicals.
(For anyone who has just landed on this page, and does not follow my blog, or have any understanding of chemical sensitivities, know this: perfumes and aftershaves are made up of mostly synthetic (and some natural) chemicals that make people, like myself, ill. Yes, people who are not wearing it, can become ill just from breathing in a fragrance that another person wears into a room or public space. It’s not the smell; it’s the chemicals used to make it, and it’s the chemical ingredients used to disperse and atomise the product as well: these make it linger and hang about in the air, around the person wearing it. There are even people who can’t go out to public places where others might be wearing it. Can’t go out. At all. Ever. And then there are people, like myself, who have to take precautions such as wearing a mask, showering straight after exposures, and asking others to please, please not wear it. And even then, after going to outlandish lengths to avoid them, I can experience symptoms bought on by exposure to these abominable products because they get on my hair, skin and clothes just from being in a room with people wearing them. Products I used to use; products I can no longer use because they make me ill… Think about that for a second… For your own sake, and if not your own (because, perhaps you think this will never happen to you), then for people like me. Please…)
The perfume used for this study was ‘Opium®’, (Yves Saint Laurent, Paris France).The designer scent has been on the market since 1977 and it is in the top ten of the most sold perfumes in Europe. An Analysis of the chemicals has shown that the fragrance chemicals in this perfume are also used in other brands. The following is part of an extract of the study:
“Summary: Background Environmental perfume exposure may cause respiratory symptoms. Individuals with asthma and perfume contact allergy report such symptoms more frequently than others. However, immunologic mechanisms have not been demonstrated and the symptoms are not associated with IgE-mediated allergy. The study aimed to investigate whether basophils from patients with respiratory symptoms related to perfume released more histamine in the presence of perfume as compared with healthy volunteers.
Methods: Histamine release was measured by the glass fibre method. Blood was obtained from healthy volunteers (n=20) and patients with respiratory symptoms related to perfume (n=17) attending a dermatological outpatient clinic for patch testing. The effect of an international brand perfume was investigated using the basophil histamine release test with perfume. Furthermore, basophils from a healthy non-atopic donor were incubated with participant’s sera and histamine release induced by perfume was measured.
Results: In both groups incremental perfume concentrations showed a positive and significant (P<0.001) dose-response effect on the release of histamine. At the highest perfume concentration, the basophils released significantly (P<0.05) more histamine in patients as compared with healthy volunteers. No difference was found between the groups when sera were incubated with basophils from a healthy non-atopic donor.
Conclusion: Perfume induces a dose-dependent non-IgE-mediated release of histamine from human peripheral blood basophils. Increased basophil reactivity to perfume was found in patients with respiratory symptoms related to perfume.”
Basically, from what I can gather here, this study is telling us that people who experience either a skin reaction or respiratory reaction are having an allergic reaction where the body is releasing histamine… Um, I kind of figured that:
What I find weird is this: I wasn’t born with an allergy to fragrance chemicals, it developed, or showed itself, 25 years after I’d been using them. There was no warning; it just happened to me. Of all the chemicals that make me ill, fragrance, solvents and hydrocarbons produce the worst affects. Isn’t there something strange about that? Is it me? Am I the strange one here, or is there something ‘not right’ going on with the companies who make these products? That question is rhetorical, but the this one is not: If some people are becoming ill after using these products, who, exactly, carries the burden of proof here? You see, when a product causes harm, it’s the consumer who bears the burden of proof (to prove that the products is safe). When enough people are made ill, and health care professionals and the public make complaints about ill health effects, the product is then proven to be unsafe, therefore it’s taken of the market.
The true cost to our environment:
“Of the more than 75,000 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency, only a fraction have gone through complete testing to find out whether they might cause problems for human health. Many that are produced in enormous quantities have never been tested at all. Usually, it takes dramatic episodes of workplace injuries or wildlife poisonings, combined with rigorous scientific proof of harm and public outcry, before the government will act to restrict or ban any chemical. And that is no accident. The current regulatory system allows synthetic chemicals into our lives unless proven beyond doubt to be dangerous.”
If the laws where changed to reflect the principles of the Precautionary Principle instead, the world would be a better, fairer place for people affected by these types of products because before a product could be sold, the manufactures would have to err on the side of caution…
What exactly is the Precautionary Principle?
“The precautionary principle (United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992) holds forth that a point can presumably be reached when human well-being and environmental health are put at risk by a large-scale human activity or man-made system over which humans have control. At such a point the problem could be identified, a course charted, and precautionary actions taken to ameliorate or prevent a potential threat to human and environmental health on behalf of current and future generations.”
Many fragrance ingredients are respiratory irritants and sensitizers, which can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate sinus conditions, so it makes sense to apply the principle rather than make the public carry the burden of proof. More about the Precautionary principle from The Ecology Centre:
“The majority of the more than 2,000 chemicals that come onto the market every year are not subjected to even the simplest tests to determine toxicity. In addition, the ways that these chemicals react with each other and with our bodies is even less studied. A better way to create public policy is by using the Precautionary Principle as a guide to protect us and the environment from harm:
When an activity (or product) raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context, the proponents of an activity (the product manufacturer), rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof (to prove that the product is safe). The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties (the public and consumers).”
You can find the rest of the study here
Clinical & Experimental Allergy, Volume 37, Issue 11, Page 1676-1680, November 2007
Sources / Resources
Environmental Health Perspectives, http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/
Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org
Health Care Without Harm, www.hcwh.org
Home Safe Home, Debra Lynn Dadd, (Penguin Putnam, 1997)
www.mindfully.org (extensive information on health and toxics)