If folding load after load of clean laundry tends to give you a headache, you might not just be stressed from your busy to-do list — especially if that chore session comes along with a sneezing fit, too. In fact, you might be experiencing the side effects of a fragrance sensitivity to your detergent or fabric softener.
According to Dr. Denisa E. Ferastraoaru, M.D., an allergy specialist at Montefiore Health System, some common symptoms of fragrance sensitivity include headaches; respiratory symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, difficulty breathing, or cough; and itchy eyes, watery eyes, skin rashes, and itching. "Sometimes you may also experience dizziness or nausea when you are exposed to certain smells," Dr. Ferastraoaru says.
While these ailments might seem to be representative of allergy symptoms, it's important to understand that an allergy to a fragrance and a sensitivity to a fragrance are two different things.
For example, Dr. Ferastraoaru says that when you are allergic to a fragrance, one of the fragrance ingredients stimulates your immune system to fight the substance, possibly leading to upper and lower respiratory symptoms and skin rashes. "On the other hand, sensitivity to a fragrance does not necessarily trigger the immune system response, but may produce a certain type of irritation. Therefore, to be very precise, only an allergen can cause a true allergy, while irritants cause sensitivities. You may experience symptoms with fragrances when your skin comes in contact with a chemical product, or when you inhale it."
And just because you're sensitive to an ingredient in, say, the candle burning on your tabletop, it doesn't mean you'll also develop itchy eyes or headaches from your partner's perfume.
"The symptoms you experience are directly related to the fragrance ingredient you have symptoms with," Dr. Ferastraoaru says.
"In some individuals, all scents are bothersome, while in others only strong smells are irritating. Finding the culprit ingredient is not easy. Depending on your symptoms (allergic versus sensitivity), your allergist or dermatologist may decide if they need to perform specialized allergy skin tests to help you identify which ingredient triggers your fragrance allergy symptoms."
When it comes to fragrance sensitivities, though, there isn't a diagnostic test — so, what's typically recommended is to avoid products containing fragrance.
Dr. Purvi S. Parikh, MD, an allergist/immunologist with the Allergy and Asthma Network, agrees that if you react to fragrance, fragrance- and dye-free products are "highly recommended."
So, where to start? First, don't hesitate to reach out to your doctor with any medical concerns or questions — it's always better to play it safe and get personalized advice.
Dr. Parikh says that fabric softener, detergent, candles, diffusers, and air fresheners are some of the most common culprits in people's homes, but you'll need to be cognizant of your personal symptoms and when they develop. "You only need to go fragrance-free if they cause symptoms for you, but I would because over time these symptoms can worsen," Dr. Parikh adds.
Dr. Ferastraoaru adds that you can also find fragrance in cosmetics and cleaning products, and if you develop symptoms when exposed to different fragrances, opt for fragrance-free to reduce your chances of triggering symptoms.