Fragrance sensitivity

People with fragrance sensitivity can sense as many scents and smells as healthy people. However, if a person has fragrance sensitivity, their body reacts to scents and the amount of scent differently.

Research shows that approximately 10–40% of the adult population develops fragrance sensitivity. In Finland, fragrance sensitivity has a significant impact on the lives of approximately 500,000 people.

If a person has developed fragrance sensitivity, their sense of smell will not become accustomed to scents over time. The reasons behind fragrance sensitivity are not fully understood. Since the mechanism of fragrance sensitivity is not properly known, no effective treatment exists.

Fragrance sensitivity literally means sensitisation to different smells and fragrances. Some people’s bodies have a reaction to one or a few smells, whereas others react to a large number of different smells and fragrances.

Most of those with fragrance sensitivity are women. The likelihood of fragrance sensitivity increases with age. Fragrance sensitivity is most common in people aged between 60 and 69 and least common in people aged 18 to 29. The symptoms usually begin by the age of 30.  

Fragrance sensitivity usually develops gradually. For some, fragrance sensitivity is linked to respiratory diseases, such as asthma or COPD. Fragrance sensitivity may also be linked to a significant exposure to mould or chemicals.

The intensity of symptoms varies. Some may get an intense headache from a couple of minutes of exposure, whereas others just sneeze a few times. Symptoms occur all year round. Continuous and repeated exposure increases the symptoms.

People with asthma may find smells irritating, particularly if they are still going through the diagnostic phase when no suitable medication has been found yet. People who are going through an exacerbation of asthma also find fragrances irritating.

Fragrance sensitivity causes various physical symptoms in the central nervous system and respiratory system.

The symptoms include: 

  • rhinitis
  • itchy nose
  • asthma
  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • hoarseness
  • eye symptoms
  • headache
  • nausea
  • palpitations
  • dizziness. 

Fragrance sensitivity and fragrance allergy are not the same thing. Fragrance allergy can be identified by conducting an allergy test. Respiratory symptoms alone are not enough to diagnose allergy. A distinctive sign of fragrance allergy is contact eczema, which is triggered by cosmetics or detergents.

Fragrances can cause symptoms even if you do not breathe them in. Rubbing a fragranced product onto your skin can push the fragrance directly into the skin cells.

German researchers have found that skin cells have smell receptors that react to odour molecules. While skin cells are incapable of smelling, fragrances can still affect skin cell growth through the smell receptors, leading to skin allergies.

Learn about the Finnish fragrance and chemical sensitivity association (Suomen Hajuste- ja Kemikaaliyliherkät ry)

More information on fragrance sensitivity in English can be found from the following links:

Odors and Health

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

The best way to prevent symptoms is to avoid strong odours.

You can avoid strong odours by, for example, eliminating all unnecessary chemical fragrances from your home. Talk to your family members, friends, and colleagues about your fragrance sensitivity.

For some, antihistamines, nasal corticosteroids, and mild local anaesthetic products may alleviate the symptoms. If you have asthma, keeping it under control usually alleviates the symptoms of fragrance sensitivity as well.

In the long run, gradual exposure to scents may alleviate symptoms more than avoiding fragrances altogether.

Most people with fragrance sensitivity tolerate natural scents quite well, so you should try to desensitise yourself with them.

Please note, however, that the results of desensitisation vary from person to person.

Recommendations for the manufacture and sale of fragrance-free products.

We recommend avoiding the use of unnecessary chemicals with no evident benefit in consumer products. Fragrances are added not only to cosmetics, detergents, and air fresheners, but also to cleaning and hygiene products, such as handkerchiefs, garbage bags, and sanitary towels. Artificial fragrances are also added to household supplies, such as room scents, candles, and shoe insoles. Fragrance-free products are just as effective.

Download the #tuoksutON campaign poster to encourage your employees and customers to reduce their use of fragrances.

We recommend product manufacturers and service providers to reduce and avoid the use of artificial fragrances in their products and facilities.

We recommend that fragrance-free products should be made easily available and kept separate from other products on sale. Such small things have a huge impact on how people with fragrance sensitivity can shop and use services.