Colognes, Chemicals, Compassion and the Church

by Don Hooser

January 2002

Allergies, allergies! It seems almost everyone these days has some sort of allergy, intolerance or high sensitivity to something in his or her environment.

An increasing number of people are "allergic" to colognes. Most of these adverse reactions are not true allergies, so antihistamines donít help. They are physiological "sensitivities" to commercial colognes. Perhaps everyone has some sensitivity to colognes, but "sensitivity" in this article means noticeable or hypersensitivity that can result in traumatic reactions.

For the sake of simplicity, "cologne" will refer to perfumes, colognes and aftershave lotions, all of which are designed to have a far-reaching and lingering smell. Some people are also sensitive to scented personal care products, such as shampoos, body washes, soaps, hair sprays and sunscreens. But most of those people are not bothered by the tiny bit of smell when other people use them and the products have dried.

Everything a person inhales (breathes), ingests (swallows) or absorbs (through the skin or membranes) has an effect on him. Today toxic chemicals are flooding our environment. As a person accumulates these chemicals in his body, his immune system can become so overwhelmed that he increasingly has adverse reactions to the chemicals, and sometimes even to natural substances. When people become highly sensitive to many chemicals, they have "multiple chemical sensitivity" (MCS). Many people who are sensitive to colognes have MCS.

"Ointment and perfume delight the heart" (Proverbs 27:9). Historically "ointment" and "perfume" were made with natural and harmless ingredients, such as myrrh, frankincense, aloes and cinnamon (Song of Solomon 3:6; Proverbs 7:17).

Colognes arenít needed to cover up foul body odors like they were in ages past when people didnít bathe regularly. Todayís popularity is akin to cosmetics, a customary part of dressing up. Advertising and imagery certainly play major roles in boosting sales and usage. This may seem harmless, but the fly in "the perfumerís ointment" (Ecclesiastes 10:1) is the increasing use of chemicals in fragrances to make the scents travel farther, increase the time they linger in the air, cut costs and boost profits.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences in 1986 stated that "95 percent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum," and then listed numerous diseases and central nervous system disorders caused by strong exposure to these compounds.

Only a small percent of those petrochemicals are used in colognes, but when a cologne has any toxic ingredients, everyone who smells it is adversely affected. Most people donít notice the effects because the toxicity is minor and God designed us to have incredible immune systems to deal with foreign substances.

The people who suffer most from colognes are those with MCS and those with chronic respiratory problems, such as asthma or emphysema, or with acute conditions, such as influenza or a bad cold. The effects can be immediate or delayed.

One helpful Web site on these subjects is http://4allergies.com, where one article addresses medical expertsí concerns for children. It explains that early exposure to chemicals often causes allergies that would have been avoided if exposure was delayed until adulthood. "Neurotoxics that may have only a temporary ill effect on an adult brain can cause enduring damage to a childís developing brain. The immaturity of childrenís internal systems, especially in the first few months of life, affects their ability to neutralize and rid their bodies of certain toxins."

Jay S. Gartner, an allergy and asthma specialist in Duncanville, Texas, said, "If everyone quit wearing perfumes and colognes, I wouldnít have enough patients to continue my practice." An interview with Dr. Gartner was a source for this article.

What Those With MCS Experience

Adverse reactions vary widely, depending on the cologne, the concentration in the air and the duration of exposure. The reactions may be mild, such as congestion, a mild headache or flushed face. Sometimes they are severe, such as asthmatic reactions with difficulty in breathing, severe headaches, other pains, coughing, uncontrollable shaking, irregular and speeded up heartbeat, dizziness, panic attacks, etc. Sometimes the person remains sick for a week or more.

Church members with MCS commonly feel sick during and after services, which detracts from the desire to go to services. When exposed to a strong whiff of cologne, they may immediately get very sick, requiring them to leave the service. They donít feel free to attend socials or visit other congregations during travels. They have to explain to people why they canít stand or sit close to them. They often avoid or have to leave restaurants and stores. However, in some public places, high ceilings, spaciousness and good ventilation reduce the problem.

How people are affected by colognes does not remain constant. Standard medical advice is for people to avoid putting additional strains on their immune systems during their allergy seasons, or else their symptoms will be magnified. In an article on "Seasonal Allergies," the 1998 New York Public Library Desk Reference states, "Donít smoke or wear cologne, and avoid others who do." The body can cope with only so many "enemies" at any one time.

Peopleís sensitivities often become increasingly worse. The more they are exposed to colognes and chemicals, the more their immune systems become exhausted.

What can members with MCS do? (Quit breathing is not an option.) They move to another part of the church hall to get away from cologne concentrations. Some have worn masks. Some have hauled portable air purifiers to services or even worn little air cleaners around their necks that blow clean air toward the face.

What Can We Do?

Most members and Church leaders have been very sympathetic to those with such sensitivities. Some congregations and Feast sites have provided a "fragrance-free room (FFR)," "environmental room" or "clean room." This accommodation is much appreciated by those needing it. However, even if an extra room is available and affordable, it is not an ideal solution. It often is difficult to keep a room fragrance-free, and those with MCS desire to be among the brethren, fellowship and serve as much as anyone else.

One of the saddest experiences for those with MCS is when other people (including some Church members) react skeptically and unsympathetically, and view them as weird or crybabies who like to exaggerate problems and complain. They may think "itís all in their heads." This adds insult to injury.

Negative impressions of those with MCS can quickly be made worse if the sufferers lose their cool and are impatient, discourteous, demanding or resentful. But letís be patient and big-minded and remember it is hard to be in the best emotional state when one feels bad, is panicking over getting sick or has suffered for years with MCS.

We must all strive wholeheartedly not to let any issue become divisive. The goal of everyone should be to patiently work together for mutual respect and better understanding, not only of the chemical and biological factors, but also of the needs and viewpoints of others.

Many chemically "handicapped" people would rather suffer silently than reveal their suffering, for several reasons: kind consideration toward others in not wanting to restrict anyoneís pleasure in wearing cologne, not wanting anyone to feel uncomfortable in their presence, fear of being thought weird, fear of less fellowship and fear of alienating close relationships (friends avoiding them rather than discontinuing wearing cologne). Because some chemically-sensitive members and elders have kept quiet about their sensitivities to colognes, the extent of the problem is underreported in the Church.

Letís be sure to pray for healing for those with MCS and also think about what else we can do. We are to be our "brotherís keeper."

The apostle Paul pointed out that it is easy for people with differing viewpoints, experiences and weaknesses to "judge" and "despise" one another rather than "receive" and "edify" each other and "pursue peace" (Romans 14). But he said he would gladly give up meat or wineóin fact "anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak" (Romans 14:21; 1 Corinthians 8:13). "And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it" (1 Corinthians 12:26).

This is not a suggestion for making rules or "banning" cologne from church activities. The world has millions of laws because people donít love one another. By comparison, God has only a few laws, and those can all be "summed up in this saying, namely, ĎYou shall love your neighbor as yourselfí" (Romans 13:9). But each of us can ask himself this question: "If I was highly sensitive to colognes, what action would I appreciate for others to take?"

One congregation with members who had MCS included the following announcement in its weekly bulletin:

"Please take note: There are a few members in the congregation that are severely allergic to the smell of most colognes, perfumes, aftershave lotions and certain other scented products. Their ability to attend services and fellowship depends on our abstinence from wearing these scented products. If you have worn a fragrance today, please refrain from going into the Fragrance-Free Room."

Most members in that congregation willingly gave up wearing colognes to services once they understood the reasons for doing so. When someone forgot and wore cologne, or a new person or visitor came in wearing cologne, the chemically-sensitive members moved to another part of the room. If the fragrances pervaded the room, creating a high concentration in the air, those with the sensitivities had to retreat to the fragrance-free room. But most of the time those with MCS were able to mix with the other members and fellowship.

The abundant information available on this subject should cause us to consider the following: That we pursue further and ongoing education on this subject. That we try our best to consider everyone with any handicap or sensitivity. That we consider refraining from wearing colognes at gatherings where others are directly affected.

"Bear one anotherís burdens, and so fulfill the law of ChristÖ. Therefore as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:2, 10).

To pursue further understanding of these subjects, a good place to start is Victor Kubikís Web site. Go to www.kubik.org and click on "Environmental Illnesses." Articles include: The Bible and colognes, the marvelous sense of smell, interview with Dr. Jay S. Gartner, chemicals around us and in us, multiple chemical sensitivity, members of UCGIA with MCS and their experiences, our immune systems, accommodating the handicapped and a holistic approach to good health. UN