Air Supply

Wearing perfume is not just about personal hygiene but is a public issue too.

Fragrances significantly contribute to our individuality, self-esteem and personal hygiene. Today they have become an indispensable part of our lives. The fascination with scents has resulted in a multitude of scented personal products in the market like cosmetics, lotions, soaps, oils and perfumes. Scents are now often added to commercial products ranging from tissues, candles to diapers.

Homes today have become havens of artificial reek. Air fresheners, plug-in air purifiers, chemically-enhanced pot-pourri, lime-scented soaps, pine-scented fabric softeners – the list of artificially-scented household items is endless. When did we discover the need for coat hangers filled with lavender? Like music, fragrances do enhance our lives. But taste in music varies -what is music to one may be noise to another. Also, when noise is too much or too loud, health problems occur. In our increasingly scented culture, agrowing number of people are forced to choose between becoming ill or withdrawing from friends and events. They can’t shop at malls or even grocery stores, go to movies or dinner, participate in sport or family get-togethers. Perfume is everywhere and overwhelming.

Anju Sharma, an Ajman-based home-maker, suffers from a phobia. She is petrified to step out of her home, for she never knows when and where she may get an attack of asthma. Her sensitivity to chemicals has forced her to refrain from social life. People who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), (a health condition in which exposure to one chemical leads to adverse reactions to other chemicals), not only need to avoid personal use of scented products but also need to avoid other people who use such products and places that have picked up their smells.
Simply touching a surface that someone else wearing fragrance has touched can cause allergic reactions. For Anju, entering an elevator with somebody wearing a perfume can cause heavy breathing and wheezing.

Other symptoms provoked by fragrances can include “eczema, rash, watery/dry eyes, sneezing, nasal congestion, sinusitis, ear pain, dizziness, coughing, bronchitis, headaches, fatigue, disorientation, memory loss, nausea, lethargy, irritability, depression, mood swings, hypertension and more.”
The American Lung Association, the American Medical Association, Johns Hopkins University and the Mayo Clinic all recognise that fra-granced products are asthma triggers. Even those with no asthmatic history may begin to have attacks after becoming ‘sensitised’ to the chemicals in fragranced products.

Anju was a perfectly healthy and hygiene-obsessed lady till the age of 35, when she got her first attack. So just because you are not allergic to fragrance right now, is no guarantee of a healthy future. The air freshener that smells great today can make you nauseous tomorrow. And the perfume that makes you feel good may be giving the person next to you a migraine.

Do you like scents so much that you’re willing to risk your health and of those around you? Since people have been using perfumes for centuries, it’s reasonable to wonder why the issue has surfaced only recently. Until the 20th century, perfumes were made from ingredients derived from plants and animals. However, owing to the variability in quality, increased cost and unreliable supply of natural resources, their use became less frequent. There are over 5,000 ingredients used in creating fragranced products.

Of these safety testing has been done on less than 1,500 ingredients only. The ‘trade-secret’ status of fragrances makes it difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint substances that cause problems. Aromatic ingredients, are only a small portion of the final product. The remainder of the product is made of fixatives, which preserve the fragrance and prevent evaporation. The problem with scented products is not the smell but the chemicals that produce the smell.

According to Dr Minal Patwardhan, a Sharjah-based dermatologist, there are two major ways in which chemical constituents can affect the body. One is through direct contact. Brian Gamree, a fitness instructor in Sharjah, develops a rash on parts of the body that come into contact with perfume. Luckily for him the rash subsides within a few days. “But very often there is no cure for pigmentation caused by chemicals,” said Dr Patwardhan.
Inhalation is the other major route for the chemicals to enter the blood stream. Many organisations are taking the fragrance issue seriously. At an American Chemical Society meeting held in 1998 in Boston, attendees were asked not to wear fragrances. The U.S. Postal Service passed a regulation in April 1990 stating that “a fragrance advertising sample is non-mailable unless it is sealed, wrapped, treated, or prepared in a manner to prevent individuals from being unknowingly exposed to the sample.”

Being a perfume lover myself, I sadly wondered whether I would have to remove those fancy bottles from my dressing table. Dr Patwardhan explained, “If you use the right kind of perfume and use it sensibly, you can reduce the side-effects. There are a host of good products on the shelf. I would encourage people to spend money on reputed, quality products. This way they’ll save on the medical costs.”

She also spoke favourably of ittars, anti-perspirants and hypo allergenic products for sensitive skin. But she does not approve of wearing too much perfume. “Don’t bathe in perfume.” In fact, she urges people to use as little fragrance as possible in enclosed public areas such as in airplanes, buses and theatres.

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