Your Perfume Is Making Them Sick : Overwhelmed by the Scents of Chemicals in Products and in the Air, Some Activists Are Leading the Push for a More Fragrance-Free Environment


Marie Schmidt of Arcadia cringes when she sees her monthly department store bills in the mailbox.

Schmidt isn’t worried about making payments. She is worried about getting sick from fragrance strips that some stores include with their bills.

“I start sneezing and my nose starts running the minute I smell them,” says Schmidt, whose respiratory system goes on red alert at the least whiff of scented products.


“It’s sort of like cigarette smoking,” she complains. “They are invading my privacy.”

Whether she realizes it or not, Schmidt is part of what could be the next big nationwide battle that pits individual rights against public health concerns: the push for fragrance-free environments.

“Ten years from now it will be politically incorrect to wear perfumes in public,” predicts Paul Imperiale, disability coordinator for the mayor’s office in San Francisco. That city’s fragrance-free plan, drafted in 1990, was never enacted.

With Americans now using perhaps a dozen scented personal-care products each day, fragrance foes’ basic argument is this: your right to wear these products ends where my chemical sensitivities begin.

Doctors say those sensitivities are heightened by chronic sinus problems (suffered by 33 million Americans, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America) or allergies (endured by more than 50 million of us).

Beyond perfume, activists for fragrance-free environments are targeting restaurant bathrooms with those pungent deodorizers, office buildings that use pesticides and astringent cleaning products, and the neighborhood mall, whose host of synthetic odors assault the nostrils, especially around the holidays.

“We are putting so much into our environment that people are getting sick. I don’t think it’s a matter of personal rights now, I think it’s a matter of everyone’s health,” says Joan Ripple, a consultant to state Sen. Milton Marks, who chaired a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the rights of the disabled.

Two years ago, Marks, a San Francisco Democrat whose district includes Marin County, sponsored a controversial bill to deal with environmental chemicals and fragrances.

The bill, which was opposed by the fragrance and cleaning industries, would have required the management of all public buildings to post when the last pesticide application was and the chemicals used. It also asked people to refrain voluntarily from wearing fragrances to public meetings and designated fragrance-free zones near window or doors.

But even though the bill failed last spring, the sentiment behind it appears to be growing. Consider these developments:

* On Tuesday, the City of Oakland approved a wide-ranging policy that accommodates those with chemical sensitivities. The policy requires the city to provide fragrance-free meeting areas for chemically sensitive individuals who need to meet with city employees. They will be asked to refrain from wearing scented products on that day. The policy still needs full council approval.

* Several months ago, the University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work banned students and faculty from using perfumes, colognes, shampoos and other products that might trigger allergic reactions.

* In Santa Cruz, officials have passed a resolution supporting the concept of smoke-free and fragrance-free environments as part of the city’s implementation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The city wants to “discourage the use of fragrances within city facilities and vehicles” and “provide information on alternative products which are fragrance-free.”

* Marin County has set up fragrance-free zones where those with chemical sensitivities can sit during the monthly public hearings on county parks.

* In Boise, Idaho, Pastor Jon K. Brown of the First United Methodist Church has launched a fragrance-free service each Sunday at 2 p.m. He says his wife has multiple chemical sensitivity.

“In public policy terms, this could be defined as an issue of handicapped access, just like having a wheelchair ramp into a church or public building,” Brown says. “To have services that aren’t fragrance-free is to deny services to a group of people whose population is growing every day.”


Multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS, has been hotly debated in recent years, mainly because no one can conclusively say whether it exists. Suffers describe MCS as a hypersensitivity to synthetic chemical compounds ranging from Lysol to L’Air du Temps. They complain of symptoms that include headaches, nausea, dizziness, respiratory difficulties, fatigue and fainting.

But while some doctors regularly treat patients with MCS, others challenge its very existence and suggest that MCS could be psychosomatic. The California Medical Assn. doesn’t recognize MCS; the American Medical Assn. does not list it on its roster of recognized diseases.

“MCS is not an accepted medical disorder,” says Irene Malbin, vice president of public affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn. “There’s no scientific or medical evidence that fragrances adversely affect public health. And it seems very unfair that people are now saying that you can’t use products that are safe and regulated by the FDA (and) which the vast majority of people enjoy.”

Even so, support groups are springing up across the nation to lobby for legislative changes, and Congress has appropriated $250,000 to study the issue.

Orlando Caprari, 34, of Pasadena, says he has no doubt about the reality of MCS. If he uses commercial shampoo, he has trouble breathing. If he slathers on scented deodorants, he breaks out in a rash under his arms. Caprari can’t even wear clothes that have been washed in regular detergent.

“It is a concern,” Caprari says. “I go to great lengths to be unscented.”

Dr. Stuart Epstein, an allergist who practices in Beverly Hills, treats many patients with chemical sensitivities and says those who have never experienced them may find it hard to believe that the problem exists.

Symptoms can be fleeting and depend on the type of chemical exposure, proximity and length of exposure, and other environmental factors, such as ventilation, Epstein says. Most people with chemical sensitivities also have a history of allergies, he adds. Some may have had their immune system affected by previous exposure to environmental chemicals such as pesticides.

Experts say there is confusion about how fragrances and cleaning products affect these people.

“Technically it’s not an allergy, it’s an irritant, but people get mixed up because the symptoms are the same, the lungs constrict and air passages narrow,” says Dawn Marvin, director of communications for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.


Most perfumes on the market today are mainly synthetic, containing on average only 5% natural oils. Likewise, products labeled “fragrance-free” often contain fragrances that mask the stinky raw materials to create a neutral scent.

“Especially in detergents, there are chemicals that don’t smell particularly good, so you want to add a fragrance to neutralize them so people can use the product,” says Malbin, of the fragrance industry association.

Public agencies that attempt to regulate the use of scented products--cleaning, personal care and environmental--are learning that the industry has a lot of clout. Two years ago, the city of Oakland drafted a policy requiring public meeting notices to include the statement: “In consideration of persons with disabilities, we ask people to voluntarily refrain from wearing perfumed personal care products to this event.”

Peter Margen, equal opportunity specialist with the Oakland city manager’s office, says the city was “hammered” by industry lobbyists and representatives, some of whom flew in from the East Coast to organize local opposition.

“They had a lawyer in a wheelchair and Avon Ladies saying this was going to cut into their market,” Margen recalls.

Despite the brouhaha, fragrance advertising in magazines is still big business, exceeding $93 million last year, according to Leading National Advertisers, a New York firm. Yet a survey by Bruskin Goldring Research Firm in Edison, N.Y., found that 29% of 1,000 people surveyed disliked fragrance strip advertising.

Michael Pashby, senior vice president for Magazine Publishers of America, an industry group, says most magazines have the capability to offer fragrance-free editions but that few subscribers request it.

Jeannette Chang, publisher of Harper’s Bazaar--which gets three-quarters of its advertising revenue from beauty, cosmetics and fragrance companies--says most of her customers relish the ads.

“It’s like shopping as you go through the magazine.”

The New Yorker provides several hundred of its 816,000-strong circulation with scent-free copies, says Maurie Perl, vice president for public relations.

Technology has also improved, making scents less invasive.

“They used to basically soak the paper in fragrance and send it out to consumers,” Pashby says. Now, the fragrance is encapsulated in bubbles or “scratch and sniff” type formats.

Just in time too. A 1992 California law requires magazine distributors to keep scents from escaping the ads before the strips are opened. Violators can be fined only $100 for each mass mailing, however.


For those with fragrance sensitivities, this remains the grueling season. Half of all annual perfume sales occur between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But department stores, at least, have become more cautious since a Bloomingdale’s patron received a $75,000 out-of-court settlement after being hospitalized for 11 days in critical condition in 1989, after having been sprayed with unwanted perfume.

These days most “fragrance models” in department stores ask first, then spray or offer a fragrance strip you can hold to your nose as you mull over that perfect present for Aunt Bee.

Michelle Destito, a fragrance model at the Broadway in Arcadia, uses scented silk roses to introduce customers to Byblos and Cabotine perfumes.

“Some people say they can’t smell the roses because they’re allergic to perfume, but not very often,” Destito says. “If I notice them shying away, I’ll be more careful about how I approach them.”

Which is just fine with Melinda Wright of Monrovia.

While she doesn’t break out in a rash or get a headache from perfumes, Wright sees it as an issue of personal choice.

“If I wanted to try some perfume on,” Wright says, “I would do it myself.”