THE BLOG

Scents and Sensitivity

03/08/2013 03:49 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2013

2013-03-07-sophie_heather2580x532.jpg

Before Heather Collins enrolled her five-year-old daughter, Sophie, in ballet classes at the local recreation center in Boulder, Colorado, she went to the ballet studio to sniff around. Literally.

That's because Sophie is one of an estimated 2 percent to 11 percent of Americans with fragrance allergy. For some, the symptoms of a fragrance allergy involve skin irritation. For Sophie, the symptoms are a little more serious. An encounter with perfumes, a laundry vent wafting scented detergent, most cleaning products, or air fresheners, not to mention shampoos, moisturizers, or sunscreens, can send her to the emergency room with respiratory problems.

When Heather walked into the ballet studio, she could smell right away that there was artificial fragrance in the air. She spoke with the staff about the cleaning regime, and learned that the floor was routinely washed with a scented product. After some discussions, the rec center staff agreed to wash the floors of the ballet studio with water on the morning of Sophie's class, which seemed to remove the fragrance from the studio's air. Heather also asked the teacher if she would refrain from wearing scented products on the class day. So far, Sophie has been able to participate without any adverse reactions.

It takes a lot of work for Heather to keep Sophie safe. One thing standing in her way is the fact that most manufacturers don't disclose the ingredients that make up their fragrances. Fragrance ingredient disclosure is not required, so very few manufacturers actually do it.

A new report from Women's Voices for the Earth, a Moms Clean Air Force partner, highlights the extent of this ingredient secrecy. While manufacturers disclose the presence of 26 common fragrance allergens in products sold in the European Union, many of these companies make the same products in the U.S., but don't disclose the allergens because it's not required by law.

Allergic reactions to fragrance are common, and appear to be on the rise. Many fragrances are factory-made from petroleum. Some are engineered to grow stronger over time (such as some laundry detergent fragrances, designed to fight the smell of dirty clothes). Fragrance allergens commonly used in cleaning products include limonene, Hexyl cinnamal, citronellol, butylphenyl methylpropional, linalool, geraniol, and benzyl Salicylate.

The problem is, you can't make informed decisions about whether you want to avoid these ingredients because manufacturers keep the ingredients secret.

Heather, for one, thinks we have the right to know what's in our products. She says,

I want fragrance clearly labeled on products so that people are aware of what they are purchasing, and those with allergies can make better decisions on what products are safe... We have the right to know which products contain artificial fragrance. It is something that all consumers have the right to know.

Sophie is home-schooled. She can't go to Target, Walmart, or Marshalls, because of the fragrances there. The family can't travel by airplane or stay in hotels, so they go car camping to get away. Even having relatives visit is difficult, as many hotels use plug-in air fresheners that linger on clothes and trigger reactions in Sophie. And every time Sophie goes to the hospital for breathing problems, there are a myriad of other artificial fragrances in hand sanitizer and other products that can trigger Sophie's allergies.

"Our normal is not like other families," Heather says.

Fragrance allergy of this severity are not common. But doesn't it make you wonder what's in that bathroom cleaner? Or room spray? Or laundry detergent?

The Safe Chemicals Act would require better ingredient transparency. Tell Congress to keep toxic chemicals out of consumer products.