Disability Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church

Chemical Sensitivities and Fragrance Reduction

It has been determined that six percent of the population experiences medically diagnosed chemical sensitivity, also called "environmental illness." Another 15 percent of the population self-reports this sensitivity.

Fragrances (as defined in one hospital policy manual) include "any product which produces a scent, strong enough to be perceived by others" such as colognes, perfumes, after shave and hair care products, lotions, powders, some detergents and fabric softeners and other personal and clothing-care products.

Ninety-five percent of the fragrances in these products are synthetic petrochemicals, and it has been well established that many of these chemicals are toxic. (National Academy of Sciences, 1986). They can induce rhinitis (runny nose) and asthma attacks, and even cause permanent respiratory damage. Worshippers sensitive to these chemicals "get trapped" in a pew when someone wearing fragrance sits in front, in back or to the side of them.

We truly don't know how many people may have left our congregations in the past because of fragrance sensitivity. UMC clergy person, the Rev. Nancy Firestone, a national leader in this area, has noted that, "Many people slip away unnoticed because they can no longer tolerate fragrances." Fragrance-free, or at least fragrance-reduction, policies and areas have been implemented in many workplaces throughout the nation and increasingly in churches across the different denominations. Has your congregation considered such steps?

—Charlotte Hawkins Shepard, Ph.D., October 2009

Additional Resources

  • Dear Elders, a letter about accommodating chemical sensitivities and other conditions (CRC network, February 2016)
  • Churches need to address allergies and sensitivities (CRC Network, September 2010)
  • How to Be Fragrance Free, Peggy Munson: a practical guide
  • Fragrance Free Resources from East Bay Meditation Center