Fragranced Products on the UCLA Campus: A Snapshot of Preliminary Data

By Xiaohan Aria Wang

I knew little about the adverse health effects from fragranced products before I joined the Chemical Entanglements undergraduate research team at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women in Spring Quarter of 2018. A “nice smell” has always been one of the most important criteria when my friends and I were selecting personal care products. I exposed myself to such an unhealthy environment without the knowledge that fragranced products may contain hazardous chemicals, some of which can cause physical reactions like fatigue and asthma, as well as disrupt the endocrine system (Environmental Working Group and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, 2010). Even the fragranced products labelled as “organic” may contain more detrimental chemicals than the unscented products in regular versions (Steinemann 2017). I was shocked to learn that this problem is widespread, and people are unknowingly getting sick from fragranced products. To help more students recognize this problem and create a safe and productive campus environment, I joined the CSW research study “Fragranced Products on the UCLA Campus.” During the Spring Quarter, one of my primary tasks was to analyze the preliminary data we obtained from the survey. In this blog post, I will discuss our findings regarding different students’ experiences with fragranced products across campus, as well as the various attitudes of undergraduate students towards a fragrance-free policy on campus.

UCLA student responses to the following question: Have you ever had a physical reaction after smelling a fragranced/scented product? Yes: 59.64%, No: 31.81%, Not sure: 8.55%

Adverse Physical Reactions

By the end of May 2018, we collected 465 undergraduate student survey responses across race, gender and year in school at UCLA. Among the respondents, about 58.5% have experienced adverse physical reactions from fragranced products. On average, all of the students who reported a reaction had at least one type of the reactions listed on the survey (including headache, skin irritation and fatigue), and approximately 82.4% of students who have been through a reaction have experienced headaches when they are exposed to some fragranced products. Further, more than half of all respondents reported trouble concentrating on homework or during exams because of scented products. The survey data indicates the seriousness of this health issue and the necessity of raising awareness on the use of fragranced products on campus.

North and South Campus Differences

After analyzing the data, I found that students in various fields of study have different experiences with scented products. I stratified the students by field of study, with art and social sciences students in a north campus division, and students with life, physical, health, and engineering science related majors into a south campus division. In general, there are significantly more students from north campus who have experienced adverse health effects from fragranced products than the students from south campus, although students across different majors all reported similar slight levels of negative reactions. The likelihood of having a negative reaction is about 62.6% for students from north campus, and around 54.3% for students from south campus. According to our survey data, north campus students are more likely to experience headache and fatigue, and to have trouble concentrating during studying because of fragranced products. Approximately 47.3% of students from north campus reported that they have had trouble concentrating in their daily life due to scented products, compared to 42.7% of students from south campus. Although, according to our survey data, the number of daily used fragranced products is similar for students across the campus, we do not have much information so far about the exact amount of fragrance across campus. However, we do know that fragranced products have led to health and productivity issues across the UCLA campus, and all students, perhaps particularly students in north campus majors, should be aware of this health issue.

Gender-Associated Differences

One of our initial hypotheses was that we would see an association between gender and physical reactions to fragrance. The results of the study supported this hypothesis, indicating that female students on the campus experience a greater degree of negative physical reactions to fragranced products than male students. About 62.5% female participants reported that they have had adverse reactions to fragranced products, in contrast to only 43% of male participants. Surprisingly, there is no significant difference in the number of fragranced products used daily by men and women, but since participants were only asked about the number, and not type of product, it is challenging to quantify the actual amount of fragrance worn by individuals on a daily basis. These differing experiences across gender suggest that the fragrance-free campaign may require more outreach toward female students on campus.

Attitudes Towards Fragrance-Free Policies

The main objective of this research was to ascertain whether there is a need for a fragrance-free policy on UCLA’s campus; thus, other than determining which students are more likely to experience adverse physical reactions from scented products, we are also interested in determining which students, and how many, will be supportive of the policy. According to the survey responses, students who have experienced adverse physical effects (especially headaches and skin irritations) and encounter more trouble concentrating in their daily lives because of fragranced products are more willing to reconsider their daily use of fragranced products. The survey also shows that students with prior knowledge of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) are 25.5% more likely to reconsider their future use of fragranced products.

When participants were asked about their opinions on whether classrooms should be fragrance free during both lectures and exams, about 66.5% responded in support of some sort of fragrance-free policy. 70.2% out of these supporters think that it is necessary for exams alone to be fragrance free, whereas only 29.7% think that lectures should always be fragrance free. As in the question about whether they reconsider the daily use of fragranced products, female students and students with prior knowledge of MCS were significantly more supportive of the fragrance-free policy than their peers. North and south campus students have similar opinions on this policy.

In conclusion, students with various characteristics and educational backgrounds have different experiences with fragranced products. In general, students who have suffered from experiences with fragrances and have knowledge about the hazardous effects of scented chemicals are more willing to change their use of fragranced products. However, when it comes to the fragrance-free campaign, students are hesitant to stop using scented products. According to the comments at the end of the survey, some students would rather encounter the adverse physical effects than stay next to someone with awful body odor. In order to implement a fragrance-free policy, it is crucial to raise students’ awareness of MCS on campus. It is essential that students stop ignoring the detrimental effects of synthetic fragrances and begin to realize that a scented product is more than just a nuisance. Before I became a member of this research team, I did not realize how severe the adverse effects are. It was this research that reminded me that some scent has brought me sickness and dizziness, but I have never taken my physical reactions towards those fragrances seriously. It is important for us to pay attention to those physical effects, even if they are subtle and not immediate, before it is too late.

Xiaohan Aria Wang is a UCLA Undergraduate Student in Statistics. She as a member of CSW’s Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Research Group in Spring 2018.

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