Dear manabon and perfume gal

DR. Melina Bell

Imagine this. It’s Monday morning in the fitness center and leg day begins with barbell squats. On your third set, you’re attempt- ing your heaviest weight ever at this rep range, and though you’re breathing heavy, you know you have two more reps in you. But NO! – now you’re dizzy. What the hell? Stumbling toward the uprights, you rack it. Your throat closes up and you cough uncontrollably. You rush to your backpack to use your rescue inhaler, then wait before resuming your workout with lighter weight. Your workout is ruined, and so is your day. What happened? Body Spray Guy! Or “Manabon,” because he smells like a chemically version of Cinnabon.

It’s just like last Thursday on the Expresso bike, as you climbed Outlaw Rock in the highest gear, beating your ghost by 15 seconds as you summited, poised to set a personal record. Then Perfume Gal came and sat on the bike right next you, and your throat closed up, etc. Workout ruined, day ruined. Of course, Perfume Gal and Manabon have no idea they’re in the gym diffusing phthalates, which can temporarily or permanently damage people’s lungs. They just want to smell good, not sweaty. They’re trying to be courteous.

Synthetic fragrances have been around since before indoor plumbing for showers, or washing machines. People smelled horrible all the time then and wanted to cover it up. Now synthetic fragrance is marketed relentlessly by companies that make a lot of money by convincing you to buy their product. But here’s what you may not know about synthetic fragrances.

A National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health study of synthetic fragrances found 900 toxic chemicals, including petrochemicals and phthalates, which have been linked to cancer. Because fragrance formulas are regarded as trade secrets, companies aren’t required to disclose ingredients on their labels. Moreover, the FDA does not regulate the contents of fragrances (except for prohibiting a few potent poisons, such as chloroform and mercury). Many studies have found accumulated residues of phthalates in the bodies of fragrance users. Phthalates have been linked to several cancers, including breast cancer, and to sperm damage. (See, for example, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s “Not So Sexy” Report featured in the Scientific American’s Health section, which can be found on the web.)

Asthma attacks and sensitivity reactions to fragrances can permanently damages people’s lungs through a process called “air- way remodeling,” which structurally changes lungs so breathing is more difficult. Airway remodeling can aggravate respiratory conditions to the point where they become life- threatening. My doctor says that my airways have been remodeling in recent years be- cause of exposure to toxins such as synthetic fragrance. I haven’t always had this reaction to fragrances. Someday it could happen to you, too.

Much of the exposure that harms me probably occurs in the fitness center. When people are exercising, compared to breathing at rest, larger particles can adhere deeper in the lungs, where they cannot be breathed or coughed out. (See, for example, Christopher C. Daigle et al., “Ultrafine Particle Deposition in Humans During Rest and Exercise,” Inhalation Toxicology 15:6 (2003)).

Working out and sweating don’t make you smell bad! Sweat itself doesn’t produce that foul odor that you get on backpacking trips. Bacteria that grow in sweat cause the odor, and if you don’t give them time to grow be- cause you immediately shower and put your clothes in the wash, then you won’t smell. So you don’t need to wear fragrance and diffuse

harmful substances into the air. Are you thinking: I wear fragrance, but

not enough to bother you? Perhaps, but you can’t know that. You stop perceiving scents you’re exposed to daily. Your brain automatically adjusts without you realizing it. Can I politely approach you, and ask you not to wear so much fragrance? I’d like to, awkward though it is. But I can’t get near you without my throat closing up and taking away my ability to speak. Instead, I’ll cough and be forced to move to another part of the fitness center where hopefully there won’t be another Overly Fragrant Person. I may shoot you a dirty look or mutter through my coughing. Sorry, I can’t help it. You didn’t mean to, but you ruined my day.

I hope the toxic chemicals in the fragrances you apply every day aren’t harming you, though that risk is yours to take. But I implore you, please don’t wear fragrances to the fitness center, or to crowded lectures where people may be unable to avoid sitting next to you. If people wear fragrance as rule, “fragrance bombs” can become unavoidable. Scents diffuse and clash, polluting the room’s air. Maybe fragrance doesn’t bother you now. But if someday it does, you’ll appreciate others’ restraint in not wearing fragrance where people exercise or breathe in a crowded room. Kindly keep your phthalates to yourself. Thank you!