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How to Tell if You Have a Chemical Sensitivity

Chemical sensitivities won't go away on their own. You have to make them go away.

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Mar 5 2018, 6:00pm

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Mornings would start out fine. I'd wake up at about sunrise, stumble around my apartment for 15 minutes. As consciousness lumbered into me, I'd talk with editors and sources. My voice was loose, easy, and deep. Shit, I'd even sing as I got my day rolling. But then an invisible hand would tighten over my throat. Tense, painful, and squeezing away my ability to talk, it felt like a ghost choking me, only I know it wasn't a ghost because my apartment complex isn't that interesting.

By lunchtime, I'd switch over to writing because it was too much of a pain in the ass to wheeze words into a phone. Last November, it got bad enough that I decided I had to nail down what was wrong with me. Raleigh being a good place to be sick, with all its world-class doctors, I'd signed up for an allergy test at the University of North Carolina Allergy & Immunology Clinic. They drew a grid on my back and pricked me with 46 needles of dog dander, dust mite waste, and various pollens to see if I'd turn a pretty shade of red. Turns out I'm allergic to basically nothing, but the doc suggested my allergy-like symptoms were actually chemical sensitivity to artificial fragrances.

I wasn't like this, say, four years ago. “You can develop sensitivities at any age,” says Neil Kao, a Greenville, South Carolina allergist and immunologist. “Most of the time, fragrances occur in stronger, higher concentrations than in nature. You are asking a lot of the body to recognize these foreign molecules and then just ignore them.”

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Allergies are overreactions by the immune system against organic substances. Chemical sensitivities are not allergies because it's not the immune system attacking anything; it's foreign synthetic particles irritating the airways. Artificial fragrances bother so many people because the particles in, say, an artificial perfume are strange shapes unfamiliar to the body. "Over millions of years, [organic] sequences of proteins and carbohydrates are what the [human body] has evolved to identify," Kao says. "Man-made chemicals in high concentrations in airtight buildings are an extremely recent development." These oddly shaped synthetic particles stick into and inflame sinuses and airways to a degree that organic particles—at least, to a person non-allergic—do not.

A 2009 University of West Georgia study says 30 percent of us show some level of sensitivity to artificial fragrances, though not everyone knows it. A few years later, an Australian study showed that reactions to everyday chemicals and artificial fragrances can be more severe than we once thought—migraines, breathing problems, and even neurological effects. “We're not sure why artificial fragrances affect so many people,” Kao says. “If there were a list of common causes of sensitivities, I think it would be topped with products and foods we are exposed to frequently and over long periods of time.”


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By December, I was starting to notice that everything in the world has its own competing scent. Shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, body soap, laundry detergent, hair gel, even trash bags. I don't expect other people to tone down what they use for my sake. If it's your house or a public space, it's your business, and if I'm only passing by in a big, airy space, then I'm probably fine.

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Chemical sensitivities are tricky to pin down. For one, it could be no specific fragrance that sets you off—only a large volume of it. Or it could be chemicals that aren't fragrances at all. There's no skin test at an allergy doc to narrow it down, either, so I had to be my own detective. That was the hard part, figuring out what sets me off and ridding it from the apartment that I share with my wife. But it was worth regaining my senses of taste and smell, of not being dizzy and tired by 3 pm every day, and of not sneezing blood in the mornings.

First I ditched the easy things like scented laundry detergent, hand soap, and trash bags, and then one-by-one switched out my run-of-the-mill toiletries—all made of common irritants such as glycerin, sulfates, and formaldehyde. From talking with my allergist and lurking online, other fragrance-sensitive people recommended all-natural or artificial-fragrance-free hair products and bar soap. What I hardly ever saw mentioned was deodorant. It didn't make sense to me: Your armpits hang out relatively close to your face all day, and antiperspirant has all kinds of artificial chemicals. Antiperspirants are regulated by the FDA as drugs, while deodorants are less regulated as cosmetics.

After I switched to an all-natural deodorant made of aloe and hops extract (yeah, beer hops), I felt significantly better. The nasty thing about antiperspirant is that it tends to stick in your clothes even after you wash them normally, so everything in the closet had to be heavily washed again after the switch.

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None of my guy products were hard to find or particularly expensive. Whole Foods, Amazon, and The Vitamin Shoppe were all regular haunts for us anyway, and even if the price tag of, say, a pine tar soap bar was higher than Irish Spring, it ended up cheaper in the long run because it lasted longer. It was tougher to figure out cleaning products. There are “green” floor and bathroom cleaners made of environmentally friendly, less stinky chemicals, but they don't sanitize the way those caustic concoctions Ajax and Clorox do. I settled on using gentler stuff three weeks in a row and then blasting the apartment with the heavy-duty shit every fourth week, and it gave me an excuse to get out of the apartment as I let it air out.

My wife begrudged me to switch out her artificially scented products too, but I'd danced around her huge list of allergies—almonds, bananas, cats, avocados, artificial vanilla, anything that photosynthesizes—for so long that I didn't feel bad asking for what's essentially the same courtesy.

Since I started my fragrance purge, I've seen how obfuscated and contorted the law can be about disclosing the stuff we spread over ourselves and breathe every day. An ingredient label can list “artificial fragrance” without any elaboration, and that “one” ingredient can be a cocktail of more than a hundred chemicals. Sometimes, my wife would swap out something like a hair gel and I'd feel better the next day. Other times, changing a different product had no effect. It was hard to isolate chemicals when they always come mixed together, and impossible to discern one artificial fragrance from another.

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After weeding out a lot of artificial fragrances over the past few months, I've gotten a lot better but am still affected—just to a lesser degree. My voice is 90 percent fine most days, and almost completely fine when I'm not in my apartment. Two or three days a week, I'm exposed to something in my home after my wife gets ready in the morning or if I go into her closet, and my throat tightens up, so I suspect that even though her four metric tons of personal products are artificial-fragrance-free now, there's some non-scented chemical that still bothers me. Only now I can leave and I'll improve within 30 minutes or so, whereas in the past the invisible hand on my throat would follow me anywhere.

If you're walking around thinking you've got year-round allergies, like I used to, have a general-practice doctor test you for nutrient deficiencies like anemia, and take an allergy test at an immunologist. If you come up blank in those, start paying attention to fragrances and synthetic chemicals by writing down symptoms, where you were when you came down with them, and any products that were used when it happened.

Over time, you might find out you get a headache every time you do the laundry or after a partner takes a shower. For everything you care little about, swap it out for fragrance-free alternatives all at once. For favorite products, like my wife's, read ingredient labels and try to eliminate chemicals one at a time. You may as well, because chemical sensitivities won't go away on their own. You have to make them go away.

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