09/19/2012 09:06 am ET

Perfume Health Risks: Fragrances Can Contribute To Health Problems Like Allergies And Rashes

That favorite fragrance may be the one thing ladies must put on before leaving the house, but it may also contribute to a number of health problems.

Fragrances and perfumes have often contributed to mild allergies, like sneezing or watery eyes, but the chemical scents may also bring on bouts of contact dermatitis (a condition in which the skin becomes red, sore, or inflamed after direct contact with a substance) or, in the worst cases, depression.

"Scent sells. So not only are there definitely more fragranced products in the world, the fragrances themselves are also more complex. And for many people, repeated exposures can bring about a constellation of symptoms," Tracie DeFreitas Saab, a human factors consultant with the Job Accommodation Network at West Virginia University, told WebMD.

About one in 10 people are estimated to have ongoing allergic reactions to chemical elements in fragrances, but with the increased use of scents -- whether it's an air freshener or scented candle -- allergies are on the rise with 55 percent of Americans testing positive for at least one allergen.

Aside from general irritation, contact dermatitis, which presents as inflamed skin, may also result from an allergy or irritant brought on by perfume. In more severe cases, cosmetic contact dermatitis can trigger eczema, a chronic skin disorder marked by itchy rashes.

But the heaviest health burden falls on the 2 percent of the population who are chemically intolerant. This heightened chemical sensitivity can be incapacitating in the most extreme cases, rendering sufferers unable to leave the house because they are so bothered by certain synthetic molecules in scents. Chemically intolerant people are also more likely to experience panic attacks or develop major depressive disorder, according to a recent study conducted at two Texas family medicine practices.

"We don't know why this association exists," lead researcher Dr. David A. Katerndahl of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio told Reuters. While Katerndahl found chemical intolerance is linked to mental health problems, the study does not prove cause and effect.

Though the vast majority of the population is not effected by such severe side effects, people who wear perfume should still be cautious of the chemicals in the bottle. In a 2010 report from the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in partnership with the Environmental Working Group, researchers found 14 potentially harmful chemicals that were not listed on fragrance product labels.

"'The fragrance mixture itself can be comprised of dozens, even hundreds, of individual chemicals, and those don't have to be listed on the label," Jane Houlihan, co-author of the report and EWG senior vice president for research, told WebMD.



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