For some, the fresh aroma of a fragrance may be the sweetest and freshest of scents. For an unfortunate number of others, it may mean only misery.
Respiratory problems, rashes, watery eyes and migraines are some of the effects when something just doesn't smell right. With the post-holiday return to school and the workplace, there's a growing chance of exposure to such situations – and a growing trend from the likes of ecostore NZ to provide non-allergenic solutions.
Fragrance sensitivity is probably more common than people think in New Zealand, says Letitia O'Dwyer, chief executive of the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation of New Zealand. Citing a US environmental health study which noted 30 per cent of the general population reported fragrances as irritants and 19 per cent reported adverse health effects, O'Dwyer believes the numbers could be reflected here.
Closer to home, Dr Anne Steinemann, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Melbourne School of Engineering, has conducted research into fragrance sensitivity – finding that one third of the 1,100 people surveyed reported one or more health issues in relation to scented products.
The most common of these was respiratory problems, (17 per cent), says Steinemann. "Based on my findings it's clear that the health effects of fragrance sensitivities can be immediate, severe and potentially disabling," she told the website netdoctor.
O'Dwyer notes some 5000 different fragrances are in everyday use. They're everywhere we look: in our cleaning products, both household and personal. There are products to mask other odours. In addition, 100 new fragrances in the form of perfumes are introduced each year.
"It's the components of the fragrance mix which cause sensitivity," says O'Dwyer.
Sarah Davis (not her real name) knows all too well what it's like. The 21-year-old student from Wellington has always had eczema, but two years ago her symptoms became a lot worse: "I would wake up with allergic conjunctivitis: my eyes would be puffy, I'd have sores all over my face. I'd have to peel my eyes open. It hurt to smile and it hurt to speak."
She was also experiencing debilitating headaches. Repeated trips to the doctor and two dermatologists saw prescriptions for steroids and immune suppressants, which did little to alleviate the problem long-term. Her grades and self-confidence were dropping. She had to give up her part-time job as a retail assistant.
Then Sarah started acting on her dermatologist's suggestion she had a fragrance allergy, and found the answer lay right under her nose - literally.
"I was so desperate to stop feeling so sore, I went round the house and removed all the fragrant products we had. These included candles, shampoo and conditioner, dishwashing liquid and soap powder."
Within days her symptoms had all but disappeared. "The next day I woke up and I was already so much better. My dermatologist was amazed at my swift turnaround."
Davis now lives in a fragrance-free household. Her face is clear, her studies are going well, she no longer wakes with puffy eyes and her headaches have gone. "Life is good. I have a lot more clarity," she says.
By controlling her environment, which has included doing some long-distance classes as well as avoiding things such as heavy spices if she's feeling reactive, she is learning how to manage her situation. Davis has also turned to ecostore products to help keep her symptoms at bay.
With its Ultra-Sensitive range of products, there are options available for those affected by asthma or allergies - estimated at half a million with asthma and one in three with allergies - as well as those simply seeking a fragrance-free option.
Huia Iti, research and development manager at ecostore, says the company has always used the mildest, most efficacious and renewable materials - those safest for the environment.
"But over time, with the trends and the prevalence of skin conditions and respiratory problems, it became evident there was a lot of need to provide fragrance-free material. We thought 'how can we make this even safer?'"
Ecostore has made a concerted effort to provide a full household solution, Iti says. These include body lotion, dish liquid, laundry powder and handwash. The products have Sensitive Choice approval of its range (just look for the blue butterfly). Plus the core range has been dermatologically tested by an expert organisation in Australia, passing with "flying colours," he says.
It's not just people with allergies who are reaching for the fragrance-free option, he adds. Likening heavy scents to second-hand smoke, Iti says people are really focusing on their health and wellbeing - for their sake as well as those around them: "There's much more awareness of one's personal space and how that encroaches on others."
Sarah Davis relishes her new fragrance-free lifestyle and she knows she's not alone. "Every second or third person I meet identifies with my situation. It's actually quite a prominent thing."
Fortunately, the answer may be within our own hands.