Have you ever switched laundry detergent only to develop a red rash all over your body? You’re not alone. Food, cleaning products, and cosmetics are loaded with increasingly sophisticated chemical cocktails these days, and it’s not uncommon for people to react to these chemicals with hives, headaches, wheezing, sneezing, watery eyes or a runny nose.
The challenge is figuring out what you are allergic to so that you don’t have an uncomfortable encounter again. And that’s not always easy.
Sensitivity or Allergy?
For starters, it’s important to understand the difference between frequently used terms. Sensitivity is a general term that can be used to describe the body’s adverse reaction to something like a food item, fragrance or dye. This sensitivity may include a reaction triggered by chemical irritants or a bona fide allergic response stemming from the immune system.
It is not always easy to tell if someone is having an allergic reaction to something or if they are simply experiencing an irritation, but strictly speaking, the major difference is the role of the immune system in the reaction. Some scientists are even at odds over the line between irritant reaction and allergy when it comes to chemical sensitivities, such as to fragrance and dye.
There are said to be roughly 5,000 different fragrances used in products today. These can be combined in countless ways in air fresheners, shampoos, candles, detergent, fabric softener, deodorant, and more.
Fragrance allergies are somewhat controversial. Some experts think that people are not having an immune response to fragrances but are simply having a non-allergic response to the chemical irritants in the fragrance.
Fragrances are tricky because as much as you try to keep your area free of them, others may not feel the need to do the same. Your co-worker may have an air freshener that sends you into a sneezing frenzy or your friend, who frequently invites you to dinner, may fill her house with more candles than a Catholic shrine—all emanating different scents that make your head throb. If you have a fragrance allergy, you could end up suffering at the hands of other people’s preferences.
Fragrance allergy affects more than 2 million people, and that number is said to be growing as fragrances become more chemically complex and more widely used. Fragrance allergy includes respiratory symptoms (wheezing, coughing), allergic rhinitis (runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes), rashes and headaches.
For many people, the allergic reaction will subside once you are no longer exposed to the fragrance. But for a small percentage of people, the more they are exposed to a fragrance, the more severe and long-lasting their symptoms will be.
So what do you do if you have a fragrance allergy? Avoidance is your best option. If there is a product, such as deodorant or face lotion, that is producing a reaction, try using an unscented version of that product. If the unscented alternative doesn’t cause a reaction, you are likely reacting to the fragrance, not some other ingredient in the product.
If you want to continue using scented products, you can try opting for single-note fragrances—not combinations. So a rose-scented lotion, for example, might be more tolerable than a “summer bloom” scent that includes a whole brew of different fragrances.
If you are surrounded by people at work who expose you to fragrances that compromise your health, consider these tips:
- Educate/advocate. It’s important to let people know how the fragrances in your environment are affecting you. Otherwise, they may have no idea that their perfume or air freshener or scented candle is making you feel badly. If they have never heard of fragrance allergies, you can share some information with them so that they understand what you are dealing with. Often, you can work out a solution if both parties are willing to hear each other out and be courteous.
- Change your work area or schedule. If communication doesn’t improve things, you may need to find ways to distance yourself from your usual work environment. Talk to your boss about adjusting your hours or working from home.
Dyes can be found in food, cosmetics, cleaning products, textiles, and more. They can lead to:
- Skin rashes such as hives, eczema, etc. (common with textile and cosmetic dyes)
- Swelling of the face
- Chest tightness
Common dyes include:
- Red 40: This is the granddaddy of red dyes and found in many products, including cereal, drinks, cosmetics, and candy. It has been linked to hives and facial swelling.
- Carmine/Natural Red 4: Though lest common than Red 40, you can find this dye in cosmetics, food and drinks. It causes facial swelling, rashes, and difficulty breathing.
- Yellow 5 and 6: Both of these yellow dyes are found in food and beverages. Yellow 6 can also be found in certain drugs and cosmetics. These dyes have been linked to hives and facial swelling and, in rare cases, anaphylactic shock.
- Blue 1: Found in cereal, beverages, drugs and cosmetics (especially those used around the eyes), this dye has been associated with headache and stomach aches.
There are no tests approved for detecting a dye allergy, so if you think you have one, you may need to conduct some trial and error tests. If you think the problem is coming from dye in your cosmetics or detergent, you could avoid these products and look for dye-free alternatives.
If you suspect a food dye allergy, try keeping a journal of the foods that you eat. If you have an allergic reaction, this will help you detect which foods may have caused it. You can try omitting certain foods that contain dye from your diet. (This will force you to become really good at reading food labels.) All manufacturers should list the dyes that they use on their product packaging, but if you don’t see the information, call the manufacturer to find out more.
If you think your allergies go beyond fragrances and dyes to food or pollen allergies, talk to your doctor about a natural allergy treatment known as sublingual immunotherapy. It works like shots, desensitizing you to allergens in the environment, but it doesn’t involve needles. In fact, it’s safer than allergy shots, so it can be taken at home.
Allergies rarely compromise quantity of life, but they can sure undercut quality. Talk to your allergy doctor to find out what might be causing your allergy symptoms.