Have you ever gotten into someone else’s car, or into a cab and the air freshener was so intense that you felt nauseous or started to get a headache? Maybe you went to a friend’s house and they had scented candles burning in every room. At first, you might think it smells nice, but then you get hit with a clammy feeling and brain fog. If you’re an asthmatic, you might feel your lungs begin to constrict.
Perhaps you’ve sat next to someone at work, on a train or in an airplane and the smell of their perfume, aftershave or shampoo made you feel sick. If this has happened to you, you might count yourself among a growing number of people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).
A recent experience I had while teaching a yoga class at a local business prompted me to write about MCS. When I walked in to teach the class, the smell of a plug-in air freshener was so overpowering that I began to feel nauseous and clammy. By the time I left the class I had a headache and felt overall like crap.
What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
With the rise in companies that market scented products and the deluge of fragrance chemicals in the marketplace, more and more people are having negative reactions to these products. It’s happening so much that it has become known and is being diagnosed as multiple chemical sensitivity.
In an article titled National Prevalence and Effects of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in March 2018, the author Anne Steinemann, published findings from a study of 1137 randomly selected individuals. This study found a national prevalence in the United States of more than 12% of individuals who have been medically diagnosed with MCS, which is a three fold increase over similar studies’ findings in the past ten years.
The study also revealed a national prevalence of more than 25% self-reported chemical sensitivity, which is a two time increase in the past ten years.
If you are one of those individuals who starts to feel crappy just walking down the household cleanser aisle in the grocery store, like I do, you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. According to Johns Hopkins some of the symptoms reported by individuals who experience MCS include:
- Muscle and joint aches
- Memory loss
These symptoms range in severity and can be so debilitating that some people have had to quit their jobs because of the effect of fragrance or other chemicals in the workplace.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is such a growing issue that even the American Lung Association encourages fragrance free workplaces and schools in an attempt to avoid the respiratory difficulty that chemical fragrances can cause. You can find a sample policy for implementing a fragrance free workplace on their website.
Steinemann’s study found that more than 50% of people with MCS experienced respiratory distress when they were exposed to fragranced consumer products, nearly 50% also experienced migraine headaches, 38% experienced skin problems, and nearly 32% had asthma attacks.
So what is causing this trend and why are hearing about it now?
Walter J. Crinnion ND, a professor at the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and the author of Clean, Green and Lean says that our bodies accumulate toxic loads in our day to day lives as we are exposed to chemicals everywhere from our carpet to our personal care products. That toxic load would include exposure to radiation, chemotherapy and prescription drugs.
Consider the findings from a study published by the National Academy of Sciences titled Considerations for the Diagnosis of Chemical Sensitivity. This study suggests that a person’s total pollutant load must be evaluated, including physical and emotional factors, toxic exposures and any biological issues that the person may be dealing with such as infections, parasites or disease.
This study states that the total pollutant load combined with an individual’s diet and unique biochemistry will determine their body’s ability to detoxify pollutants, and therefore how intense their reaction to chemical exposures will be. It goes on to say that not only do your genetics play a part in this biochemical sensitivity, but your unique reaction is influenced by the toxic body burden you experienced as a fetus, and your present toxic body burden and nutrition whenever you are exposed to chemicals.
This supports never underestimating the power of good nutrition and the importance of keeping processed foods out of your diet to lessen your chemical burden. More importantly though, this reinforces the Ayurvedic concept that your body’s energy is influenced by the state of your parent’s bodies at the point of conception. It always fascinates me when western science validates what has been known for thousands of years in Ayurveda.
What you can do if you suffer from MCS
If you’re someone who suffers with MCS, you don’t have to avoid the scent of night blooming jasmine or chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven. MCS doesn’t mean that you don’t like pleasant scents, it means that you are having a reaction to the chemicals that produce artificial scents. Things such as such as phthalates, styrene and resorcinol, commonly used chemicals in fragrances that are known to disrupt human hormones.
It’s important to have a basic understanding of the impact these chemicals can have on your health. Some tools you can use as a reference to the nearly 3000 different chemicals used commonly in the fragrance industry are the transparency in chemicals list published by International Fragrance Association (IFRA), and Unpacking the Fragrance industry, a 13 page downloadable safety report on the fragrance industry published by Women’s Voices for the Earth, an organization dedicated to reducing toxins in our environment.
Eliminating as many toxins from your environment as possible is a great next step. You can check the labels on products, however, many chemicals that are used to create fragrance are not required to be listed on the labels. Most of the time you’ll just see “fragrance”listed because companies can use this labeling loophole to protect their proprietary formulas. I can certainly understand the importance of keeping trade secrets, however, if you have a potential toxin in your formula, I think that ingredient should be required to be listed. (If only I ran the world…sigh)
What you can do is look for products that do list all of the ingredients. These are generally going to be safer for you (aka they have nothing to hide) A good resource for non-toxic home cleaning supplies is ThriveMarket.com There’s also Methodhome.com which has product lines for home and body. The website has a comprehensive list of the ingredients in each product, including what’s used for fragrance.
There’s also Mrs Meyers Clean Day which offers quality cleaning products filled with essential oils and again gives a comprehensive list of each ingredient used in their product line, with an explanation for why its in there.
Essential oils are also a great resource. Floracopiea, my go to essential oil company, has a beautiful line of oils and serums for skin care, along with valuable free resources on using essential oils to care for your body. Beautycounter is a tremendous resource for safer and effective skin care, and especially safer sunscreens, with a focus on not adding synthetic fragrances. (Full disclosure, I am an independent consultant for Beautycounter)
A natural alternative
If you’ve never used essential oils as cleaning agents, you should know that they don’t leave oil everywhere. The name itself is a little misleading. Essential oils have powerful antibacterial, antimicrobial and antifungal properties. Remember they are the immune system of the aromatic plants they are extracted from so their job is to kill outside invaders and to keep the plant healthy. They are called essential because they are the very essence of the plant.
Essential oils are also wonderful to use for home fragrance. You can blend many different oils to create scents that you enjoy. As an added bonus, while you diffuse them your home and your respiratory system are also getting the health benefits of these oils.
Contrary to other home fragrances that can trigger respiratory distress, I keep essential oil diffusers running in my house to support my asthmatic kid’s respiratory health. Diffusing oils like tulsi/also known as holy basil, eucalyptus, cypress and peppermint can actually be improve respiratory health.
You can have fragrance both in your home and on your body without the use of harmful chemicals. You do need to educate yourself though. Essential oils are very powerful and most of them should only be applied to the skin with a base oil to prevent irritation. Make sure you read up on what you’re using, or you refer to the expertise of someone who works with essential oils. You also want to be sure to use a reputable resource when purchasing essential oils, especially if you’re going to put them on your skin.
These oils can often be expensive to produce so, to keep the price point low enough to sell a high volume of product, sometimes manufactures will adulterate the oils by adding, lower quality oils, alcohols or even solvents which is exactly what we’re trying to eliminate from our environment.
Some of the most commonly adulterated oils are sandalwood and rose because of their high price for purity. Rose essential oil can cost up to $250 a dram which is less than a quarter of an ounce. It can take up to 60 roses to produce one drop of this oil through steam distillation, and you can imagine how much work and cost goes into growing that many roses. Also, popular oils like lavender, peppermint, thyme and oregano are commonly adulterated. If you’ve tried using essential oils and you had a reaction to them, you may want to double check to see if your oil was adulterated.
Looking to the future
I can remember a time when organic produce wasn’t a thing. You just never heard that term or had that option, but as the awareness of harmful pesticides grew, the demand for organic foods also grew. At first you would need to seek a “health food store” in order to find organic products. Fortunately, now you can find organic selections in nearly every grocery store. Some main stream grocers have even developed their own line of organic products. Hopefully, as we support natural products and the use of essential oils for home and body care, we’ll also see an increase in the availability of safer products. I’m sure we all know that the almighty dollar drives business trends and each time we make a decision as consumers we influence that trend.
If you experience multiple chemical sensitivity or if you have resources for safer more natural products to help detoxify our environments, I’d love to hear about it. You can find me on Facebook and twitter @Laura_Lummer and on Instagram @breastcancerrecoverycoach. So please look for me and become a part of our community of thriving breast cancer survivors..