By Hannah Bullock
I frequently encounter individuals who hold the following belief: my personal health is a direct outcome of my genetic characteristics, lifestyle, and immediate environment. This statement represents the ideological belief that individuals are largely accountable for their own health. The failure to consider the vast implications and potential lifelong consequences of external environmental factors, such as frequent exposures to fragranced products, on individual and community health effectively removes topics such as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a medical condition characterized by an increased sensitivity to chemicals as a result of acute or chronic exposures, from public discourse (“What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?” 2018). These introductory statements may lead you to expect me to discuss the ideologies behind our love for fragranced products, the importance of my research, and reasons why the most logical and humanitarian decision is to abandon your use of fragranced products altogether. Although I am a strong advocate for fragrance-free university policies, this blog post is not intended to cultivate complete political and moral support for a fragrance-free movement. Rather, I want to delve into my own struggle with “divorcing” from fragranced products, provide insight into ways in which a research survey project has encouraged me to gradually modify my lifestyle, highlight how individual health is an indicator of community health, and provide readers with feasible goals that will help them reduce the frequency of chemical exposures.
From Individual Perspectives to Community Interventions
My perspective has been largely influenced by my personal use of fragranced products. Prior to my work with the UCLA Center for the Study of Women Chemical Entanglements Project, I had no personal connection to the fragrance-free movement. I dismissed the physical discomfort that I experienced following exposures to fragranced products and decided that they were not a significant threat to my health and academic success. Further, as a female athlete, I understand the pressure and tendency to use fragranced products as an expression of femininity, an association that has been reinforced by consumer culture and normative gendered expectations. My perspective was drastically altered after conducting a small pilot study during the fall of 2017 as an undergraduate researcher at CSW. This brief survey was used as a preliminary method of determining the extent to which undergraduate students experience health consequences associated with the use of fragranced products on the UCLA campus. One of the most influential findings was derived from responses to a component of the survey that asked respondents to indicate when fragrance-free policies should be implemented. Individuals were able to choose between “during exams, during lectures/discussions, during both exams and lectures/discussions, or during neither;” or were able to abstain from answering the prompt. Of those who did choose to respond, the largest proportion of responses indicated that individuals believed neither exams nor lectures/discussions should adhere to a fragrance-free policy. This led me to recognize that individual reactions to fragranced products lie on a spectrum. This “severity spectrum” can also influence beliefs related to who is accountable for the health of individuals and whether the imposition of community-level policies would actually affect the health of individuals.
The results of our pilot study, and the realization that many individuals do not perceive sensitivities to fragranced products as a community-level issue, inspired me to design a more robust study titled “Fragranced Products on the UCLA Campus.” The goals of the survey were 1) to establish a need for a fragrance-free policy, 2) serve as an educational campaign and 3) to develop an accurate understanding of individuals’ experiences with fragranced products in order to create a safe, healthy, and productive academic environment.
Before obtaining Institutional Review Board approval and expanding the study with the goal of implementing fragrance-free policies on the UCLA campus, it was essential to obtain a comprehensive understanding of the fundamental challenges associated with implementation of a fragrance-free lifestyle. During the development of the current research study, I eliminated my use of some fragranced products by gradually incorporating fragrance-free products, such as body wash, face soap, and deodorant, into my daily routine. However, based on my experiences, it would be dishonest to claim that divorcing from fragranced products is easy. I am highly aware of the ways in which my actions affect the health of those around me as well as the potentially harmful health consequences related to the frequent use of fragrances, yet cannot extinguish the desire to quickly spray myself with body mist before I walk out of my apartment each day. Using my own personal experiences and knowledge to inform my work, I designed the current research to better understand the needs and opinions of the population of individuals attending UCLA, including myself, who would be impacted by the implementation of a fragrance-free policy.
The Challenge of Changing Perspectives
A powerful component of the survey is the section that allows respondents to share any additional comments after completing the survey. Some responses include personal anecdotes, and many comments mention the existing challenges in divorcing fragranced products. The comments represented the individual opinions located on either side of the argument (for or against the implementation and effectiveness of fragrance-free policies). For example, one respondent indicated that they were diagnosed with fragrance-triggered asthma at a young age; however, when they shared their health status with their teachers and peers, their physical reaction to fragranced products was disregarded and they were told that they were personally responsible for avoiding fragranced products to prevent adverse reactions. This is an indication that this study is meaningful and has provided students with a platform for sharing their experiences. However, another respondent had a very different perspective, stating that they do not believe fragranced products need to be eliminated on the UCLA campus, as such an attempt would be highly impractical and result in low rates of student compliance. These comments clearly demonstrate the many differing perspectives related to the use of fragranced products. Opposing opinions suggest that there are obstacles that must be overcome to effectively implement environmental health initiatives that increase students’ access to comfortable and productive academic spaces. Opinions cannot be changed overnight; however, continual reinforcement and an increase in awareness of the potential consequences of fragranced products can create enough momentum to make significant changes within the UCLA community that assure access to a safe, healthy, and productive campus environment.
Finally, I’ve implemented the following strategies in order to contribute to the cultivation of community health and wellness. Self-education regarding the chemical composition and potential consequences of frequent use of fragranced products is a critical initial step going fragrance-free. It is important to learn about the diverse effects fragranced products can produce (i.e. fatigue, dizziness, headaches, skin irritation, nausea, etc.) in order to better understand the possible precautions for minimizing these health risks. Additionally, it is important to recognize that fragranced products impact people differently and that, regardless of the extent of the physical response, no response should be dismissed as “unimportant” or “minor.” Next, one can evaluate one’s current use of fragranced products to determine which products can be easily substituted with fragrance-free alternatives. Finally, it is crucial to share your knowledge and experiences with others by talking to friends and family members. Discussing the topic with those you have close relationships with is likely a more effective approach than interactions with strangers. If they are unsure, a little encouragement could provide them with a feeling of support and convince them to take the first step in moving toward a fragrance-free lifestyle.
My experiences may not be completely analogous to your own. However, many of us are exposed to sociocultural expectations and consumer marketing strategies that normalize the use of fragranced products and minimize the experiences of people with chemical sensitivities. I encourage you to make a positive impact at the individual and community levels by becoming cognizant of these issues, and reconsidering your own use of fragranced products.
Hannah Bullock is a UCLA Undergraduate Student in Human Biology and Society. She is a member of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Student Group.
“What Is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?” Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.org, 2018, www.multiplechemicalsensitivity.org/.