While we are urged to douse ourselves in our favourite perfumes for National Fragrance Day, for allergy sufferers like Louise Cahill there’s nothing sweeter than unscented products…
Today is National Fragrance Day – a chance to celebrate fruity florals and super-sweet scents – but for me and my perfume allergy, it’s cause enough to hide myself away under the covers for a day.
In fact, encouraging more scent in an increasingly overdosed world is anathema to me and other allergy sufferers, including those with eczema, asthma and hay fever.
For many years, I’ve suffered in the face of others dousing themselves with scent. My contact allergic dermatitis leads to itching and rash, while my irritant reactions to airborne fragrances, causing severe headaches and nausea, have escalated.
Almost as bad, the allergy can cause offence, social exclusion and embarrassment. It makes me worried and anxious, and impacts on my life and that of others.
Imagine having to ask your future daughter-in-law and her mother to refrain from using perfume under the chuppah?
Weddings are full of joy, but also fraught with emotion, and as mother-of-the-groom, I was a tad anxious that if exposed to perfume doses, bright lights, heat and hugs, it would potentially mar what should be a joyous simcha.
Thankfully, my prospective relatives co-operated, sparing me the indignity of furtive scratching under my beaded cape.
Seven years later, I still think about that request and another to Shelley, my perfume-loving daughter-in-law to lay off the fragrance in their home when I visit.
Shelley says: “I was taken aback at the request for my wedding – my biggest day – when I wanted to smell beautiful. But now I understand.’
I recently visited Dr Alexander Marsland, consultant dermatologist, who arranged tests at Salford Royal Hospital.
He explains: “Contact dermatitis to fragrance can be confirmed, if suspected, by a rather laborious process called patch testing.
“This usually takes an entire working week, during which a patient cannot wash their back as they have many small testing wells taped to their backs with various substances, including, of course, fragrance.
“An experienced dermatologist then observes the back halfway through and at the end of a week for a reaction, and interprets the results.”
Patch testing was uncomfortable and rigorous and included the many toiletries I had been regularly using.
An extra blow was the nurse’s warning to never use hair dye. My red henna was ok, but giving it up meant grey hair.
And so I entered a boring world of predominate blandness. Prescribed moisturiser, skin cleanser and creams dominated. Previously beloved scented candles, diffusers, plant essential oils and perfumes were prohibited.
The Body Shop’s coconut perfume oil remains a distant, sensory memory.
Dr Marsland adds: “Shampoos, moisturiser creams, hairspray, sunscreens, shower gels and soaps may all contain fragrance, even if labelled “hypoallergenic” or ‘dermatologist tested’.
“‘I have even seen products labelled ‘fragrance free’ that list ‘parfum’ in the ingredients within the small print on the box.
“Allergy sufferers unfortunately have to scrutinise these ingredient lists.
“In some sensitised individuals, application of perfume just once a fortnight may be enough for them to have a perpetual rash.”
I feel sorry for my family and friends. It must be difficult to cope with my requests to leave off fragrance – it’s often put on automatically when dressing.
One perfume-free visitor arrived with her husband drenched in aftershave. And bizarrely, some knowledgeable guests continue to bring me gifts of fragranced products.
“Going on holiday brings its own problems and begins with hoofing it through the airport’s perfume-laden, duty-free shop to reach the gates.”
My grandchildren’s hairdresser unknowingly deprived me of closeness with them, by freely using scented products on their hair.
Subsequent open windows meant a chilly play date.
Fragranced household products are equally problematic. Our vacuum cleaner returned from its pre-Pesach service, secreting a synthetic freshener.
Despite removal, it was weeks before I could befriend the machine.
Going on holiday brings its own problems and begins with hoofing it through the airport’s perfume-laden, duty-free shop to reach the gates.
On our recent cruise, fragrance lovers would have been in scent heaven – our stateroom was down the corridor from the spa. And I needed to detour around the ship to avoid users and a desktop machine churning out artificial scent.
There’s not even a break when I go to synagogue, as congregants love to dress up and douse. Kiddush kisses and embraces are certainly a no-no.
Although, there are over 2,000 named skin conditions and most problems are not
associated with allergy, for at least 1 per cent of adults, who do suffer from contact allergic dermatitis to fragrance, life means avoidance awareness, reading labels and possible rescue cortisone creams.
Desensitisation is not currently possible. Your dermatologist will consider testing if you get dermatitis from fragrance.
So, if someone moves away from you, socially or at work, or opens a window, please don’t take offence. To you, your spritz of perfume/after shave may be insignificant and pleasurable – but for someone else it could cause a significant problem.
Dr Marsland is an experienced consultant dermatologist and honorary senior lecturer at the University of Manchester. He practices at the Spire Manchester Hospital, www.theskindoctor.co.uk