Recipes & Features

Fragrance Allergy: A Lesson in Resilience

Su Zafar, @freefromproducts

Posted 24th September 2021

Fragrance Allergy: A Lesson in Resilience

When life throws you a curveball, how do you deal with it?

I got a life-changing lesson in resilience.  Over a decade ago I became allergic to fragrances and perfumes.  So what’s the big dealio? Well, it means I’m unable to wear perfumes, scented products containing synthetic fragrances as well as various essential oils. 

…or be around people with strong perfumes.

Or go to places with air fresheners, plug-ins, sprays or candles. Sucks huh?

Fast forward to today, after years of suffering with it, I actually feel grateful for the allergy.  Why? Because I have learned a lot, grown, adapted and become a cleaner version of myself. Cleaner as in perfume-free and toxin-free. I always had showers :) 

How did I get the allergy?

Well, I was working (as a waitress in a cocktail bar, no just kidding) as a makeup artist/consultant in a luxury beauty store. I had worked in the advertising and digital industry for over a decade and I always had a passion for working in the beauty industry so I trained and qualified as a makeup artist at evening college. 

Yup, a big, bold life-changing career move.

I got a part-time job in my favourite shop, I also started a side hustle in the beauty business doing wedding makeup and makeup lessons, promos, beauty blog, collaborations and also did little pop-up makeup events at craft fairs.

Awesome, happy days, living the dream. Well, I thought so anyway.

In the retail store, all the beauty consultants would get samples to try and test and customers would get complimentary samples too. So one night after a late shift, I decided to try an overnight hair mask sample. 

How did I get the allergy?

Drove home, heated up a soup and made a gluten-free sandwich (I wasn't much of a cook back then), applied the overnight hair mask, put a towel over my pillow and went to bed. 

During the early hours, my scalp felt incredibly itchy, my thoughts were racing, my face felt really hot and looking in the mirror I looked a teeny bit like Deadpool - all blotchy and gross. (sorry Ryan!). My neck and throat started swelling up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe and that night I ended up in A&E. The next day I was still feeling quite ill and I couldn’t go to work. 

The hospital gave me medication, I was prescribed an EpiPen and I had to get 'patch tested' to identify what caused the allergic reaction.

I still had one pre-booked wedding makeover 3 hours away from my home. Even though I felt rubbish I couldn’t let the bride down - she was a good friend and stylist I’d been collaborating with and we’d been planning this look for months. Fortunately, my brother drove me down, I did the wedding makeup, the bride looked stunning but little did I know it was one of my last bridal makeups I'd do following that traumatic night. 

My Patch Test

The dermatologist pin pricked my back with extracts of various allergens and then covered it over. I was worried that I'd have an allergic reaction overnight as I had to sleep on my side with this massive test on my back for 24 hours - so I stayed over at a friends house. 

The following day at the dermatology clinic the consultant diagnosed me with an allergy to perfumes and fragrances. Those were the areas that had gone all red and blotchy from the patch test.

In the ingredients list of the hair mask used, there must have been a high concentration of perfume, they wondered if I had an underlying dormant issue, so the hair mask could have been a catalyst. Made no scents really. (Sorry, I've literally been waiting years to use that line.)

It didn’t really sink in at the hospital that I'd also have to quit my job. 

I went back to work thinking my perfume allergy would be fine. But I kept feeling nauseous and ill because of the constant smell of perfume in the shop.  It was impossible to do makeovers as they involved touching makeup, applying makeup, testing makeup on my hands or applying a moisturiser to someone’s face and there were no fragrance-free cosmetics in the shop.

Sadly I handed in my notice and all the girls were as gutted as I was. I'd made great friends, had good banter with everyone and loved seeing my regular customers. Life changes when you get any kind of allergy.

The fragrances have now left the building

The skincare I used to use now caused skin irritations like contact dermatitis so I stopped using everything I had been using for years. 

I couldn't hug my family or friends because of their perfume. This allergy affected everyone and my sense of smell became incredibly sharp.

My entire makeup kit had to go. The makeup brushes stayed, but I couldn’t really give away my used makeup because… eww gross. Until I found some fragrance-free makeup, I couldn’t wear any makeup at all. (!)

I gave my beautiful scented candles and perfumes away to friends and family. And as a person that loved perfumes and high-performance skincare - losing my favourite brands felt like FOMO. 

I kept thinking why did I get this allergy?

On the upside, I had a great work network and managed to find freelance contract work in digital again. 

I spent the next few years gathering knowledge, doing research, testing products, going to events and exhibitions, talking to organic food and beauty business owners, learning about free-from organic and natural beauty. I also found fragrance-free and organic makeup, skincare, body care, dental care, nail, hair and household products. 

I wanted to share my journey with other people with a fragrance allergy so I started posting regularly on Instagram and writing a blog.

Netflix might be able to create a short comedy from all the embarrassing situations and scenarios that I’ve experienced since my allergy started. At least I know what to do before I travel or work anywhere. 

Since the Pandemic, wearing a mask everywhere has been super helpful for me when I am around people, in shops or on a train or tube for example. 

On the downside, it’s triggered other intolerances and sensitivities. I’m now intolerant to dairy, wheat, gluten, aspartame, sugar, yeast, monosodium glutamate, beer and coffee. 

Being free-from is the only way I can stay symptom-free. 

It’s not exactly a rock n roll lifestyle and I am a nightmare dinner guest, (especially if the host loves scents, perfumes, candles, diffusers, plugins and scented kitchen stuff) but I’m here to share the story.

What I have learned

Even though I’d spent a fortune on getting qualifications, buying the makeup and kit, setting up the business and bringing in new customers - at a time when I felt I’d let everyone down – I’ve now got all that knowledge and experience which I can share with others on their journey.

I've learnt so much and believe that things happen for a reason. 

I'm now ahead of the curve on the organic and free-from fragrance niche, which 10 years ago wasn't heard of that much. 

Free-from, organic and natural is big business - plus there's more media coverage about how toxic synthetic perfumes can be.

Health, wellness and beauty and living a free-from lifestyle is one of my passions.

I was looking to pursue a passion for makeup but it turned into an even better one. 

Change can happen overnight. Ideally have a Plan B and some savings.

Even while you’re on the right path - anything can happen and I've certainly learnt to be more resilient. 



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