Occupational Health & Safety

Scent Awareness FAQ's

If you are unfamiliar with scent-free programs, you probably have a number of questions. The following are some commonly asked questions that we have tried to answer about scents and scent-free campaigns. If you have others, please send them to valerie.wadman@smu.ca and we will try to answer them.

  1. What can I do to prevent harming people affected by scents?
  2. Is this a real problem? Perfumes and scents have been used by people since the dawn of time.
  3. I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever. But I don't know anyone who has a reaction from coming into contact with scented products. How real is this concern?
  4. What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)?
  5. What happens if I don't adopt scent-free practices?
  6. I would resent being told, or feel uncomfortable telling others, what kind of personal care product to use. Isn't the request to adopt scent-free practices intrusive on the individual's right to wear whatever he or she wants?
  7. Why should I adopt scent-free practices when there isn't anyone in my unit, classroom or residence who suffers from an allergy or sensitivity? The perfume I wear and the scented products I use aren't bothering anyone.
  8. If we ask people to avoid using scented products, perhaps they will stop using personal care products altogether. Poor hygiene and strong body odour might be the result. Surely we want to avoid this?
  9. What's the difference between products labelled 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented'?
  10. Another source of indoor air pollution is from exhaust fumes from idling truck and car engines near ventilation systems. What is Saint Mary's doing about that problem?
  11. What about the use of dangerous cleaning and maintenance chemicals in Saint Mary's buildings?
  12. What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity?

1) What can I do to prevent harming people affected by scents? 
You can adopt scent-free practices by avoiding perfumes, aftershaves, colognes and scented lotions, and opting for 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented' versions of such personal care products as hand and body lotions, soaps, hair products and deodorants. Many scent-free personal care products can be found at your local supermarket and pharmacy. As well, there are a variety of special stores throughout the area.

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2) Is this a real problem? 
Perfumes and scents have been used by people since the dawn of time. While there is much that we do not understand about scented products, there is no doubt that these materials make some people unwell.

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3) I know a few people who have allergies to certain foods or suffer from hay fever. But I don't know anyone who has a reaction from coming into contact with scented products. How real is this concern? 
It is very real. It's well documented that the incidence of asthma is on the increase, especially in young people. In fact, there are many environmental illnesses—illnesses that are triggered by things in our environment. Among the best known are spring and late summer allergies to the pollen from flowers, grasses or trees. Another is smog. Smog alerts have become common in many North American cities. It literally is not safe for some people to go outdoors on smoggy days.

It is also known that asthma and migraine headaches have multiple triggers, including chemical exposure. Asthma attacks can be set off by pollen, moulds, extreme cold, dust, and exposure to chemicals, including paint and perfume. Bright light, loud noise, foods such as chocolate, a change in barometric pressure, exposure to paint, and fragranced cleaning and personal care products can all trigger migraine attacks. So it is well known that exposure to materials in the environment can cause illness.

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4) What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)? 
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is an acquired illness characterized by severe reaction to exposures easily tolerated by most individuals. Common triggers include volatile organic compounds of the sort often found in paints, cleaning products, perfumes and fragranced personal care products, gasoline and similar products, as well as such naturally-occurring substances as citrus oils and turpenes in softwood. Reactions range from sinus congestion and watery eyes through more serious reactions such as temporary rashes, flu-like symptoms with headache, nausea, and muscle or joint pain, to debilitating reactions including migraine and asthma attack.

There are many theories about the cause of this illness, and at present there is much that we do not understand about the condition. But while the research continues, the only reliable way to avoid painful and dangerous reactions is for the MCS sufferer to avoid as many triggers as possible. While people with MCS are responsible for ensuring that their home environments are as free as possible from chemical triggers, they require the cooperation of others to make their classrooms, workplaces and recreational sites safe.

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5) What happens if I don't adopt scent-free practices? 

You are taking the risk of possibly causing harm, perhaps even severe pain and discomfort, to someone around you; harm that could easily be avoided. Second, when employees or students miss time from work or school because of illness—asthma, allergies, migraine, MCS—there is a cost. Illness means lost productivity and lost opportunities for learning. Finally, you undermine Saint Mary's efforts to meet its moral and legal obligations to provide an environment which supports all members of the University community.

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6) I would resent being told, or feel uncomfortable telling others, what kind of personal care product to use. Isn't the request to adopt scent-free practices intrusive on the individual's right to wear whatever he or she wants? 
It may at first seem that asking people to use scent-free personal care products touches on a personal and private matter. But when the scents from these products affect the health and well-being of other people, it then goes beyond just being a matter of private concerns. The goal of this awareness campaign is not to target people personally or to criticize people's preferences. Rather, it's to prevent real harm to real people.

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7) Why should I adopt scent-free practices when there isn't anyone in my unit, classroom or residence who suffers from an allergy or sensitivity? The perfume I wear and the scented products I use aren't bothering anyone. 
Do you know that for a fact? Perhaps someone is suffering in silence. Or maybe you will come in contact with someone with a chemical sensitivity during the day—in the cafeteria, at the gym, in a meeting, at a concert, in the classroom, or in the library. By putting all the responsibility for coming forward on the person who is at most risk of becoming ill, you increase their chances of having a reaction—they have to approach the person wearing a scent that triggers a reaction in them, in order to tell that person to refrain from wearing the scent.

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8) If we ask people to avoid using scented products, perhaps they will stop using personal care products altogether. Poor hygiene and strong body odour might be the result. Surely we want to avoid this? 
This is not the likely consequence of adopting scent-free practices. The products section offers more than 100 alternatives to scented personal care products, from the most essential (soap, shampoo, deodorant), to the additional products we rely on to make us look good and feel good (body wash, hand cream, body lotion, hairspray, gel and more).

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9) What's the difference between products labelled 'fragrance-free', 'scent-free' or 'unscented'? 

These terms are used in industry virtually without restrictions. They may only mean that the product has less scent than the scented version of the same product from that manufacturer. Therefore, these labels can offer no guarantee that a product won't trigger a reaction in someone who is chemically sensitive. Nonetheless, choosing products with these labels is still safer than choosing the scented versions. While it is possible that somebody could have a reaction to your personal care product even if you've taken all precautions to avoid this outcome, the important thing is that you realize this and are prepared to react in a positive way, should this situation ever arise. For more on this, see How to Handle 'Scent-Sensitive Situations'.

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10) Another source of indoor air pollution is from exhaust fumes from idling truck and car engines near ventilation systems. What is Saint Mary's doing about that problem? 
To protect air quality, notices have been posed asking motorists to shut off their engines. The University also works with firms that provide services to the University, Metro Transit, and drivers of University vehicles, to try to prevent exhaust of large vehicles from entering Saint Mary's buildings.

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11) What about the use of dangerous cleaning and maintenance chemicals in Saint Mary's buildings? 
The University has dramatically altered its use of custodial and maintenance chemicals. As a matter of routine, it only uses environmentally-friendly paints and adhesives. On the custodial side, the University has systematically replaced problematic chemicals with less scented and generally safer products. In areas where more environmentally friendly products are required, every effort is made to use an appropriate product. If you have concerns about any particular product, contact Facilities Management or the safety Coordinator.

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12) What is the difference between an allergy and a sensitivity? 
Physicians and the general public often use these words differently. An allergy is a condition in which exposure to material prompts the body's immune system to respond inappropriately. One can have a skin or a respiratory system allergy. For many people, the workings of the human immune system are a mystery and they sometimes report that they are “allergic to” something when they are adversely affected by something in their environment.

The situation regarding sensitivities is even more complicated. Some people have been coming forward to report that they are adversely affected by chemical exposures in their environment. There is much we do not understand about the problems that these people experience. Because they report a wide range of adverse impacts — often following exposures that most people tolerate without difficulty — many of the suggested names have included the terms “sensitivity” or “hypersensitivity”.

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