What is Chemical Sensitivity?


Chemical sensitivity is an acquired condition in which people experience a number of various symptoms and other health effects from exposure to chemicals in small amounts that do not seem to bother other people. Continued exposure to chemicals usually causes reactions to occur at increasingly lower levels of exposure.

Recent studies show that 15% of Americans are sensitive to common chemicals and the numbers are growing. Solvents, paints, pesticides (including herbicides), disinfectants and other cleaning agents, propane and natural gas, auto and truck exhaust, office and industrial air pollution, air fresheners, fragrances, fabric softeners, detergents, hair spray, after-shave lotions and colognes all contain chemicals which can cause chemical sensitivity and trigger asthma and allergies.

But chemical sensitivity is not just an allergy but is a more complex and far-reaching condition. Chemically sensitive people’s immune, nervous, digestive, and endocrine systems tend to become debilitated over time so they develop secondary problems which include food and traditional inhalant allergies as well as autoimmune problems. But an allergy is a mistaken immune-system reaction to a basically benign substance--pollen, weeds, dust, corn, milk--while chemically sensitive people react to many modern chemicals which are toxic, in varying amounts, to everyone.

Chemical sensitivity is specifically recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though some chemically sensitive people are so disabled they are virtually prisoners in their own homes, there are many others who are mildly or moderately affected who can still function in society as long as they have a “safe” room or house to detox in a certain number of hours per day.


Because chemicals can affect so many organ systems--including the neurological, cardiovascular, endocrine, respiratory, and digestive system--, symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Symptoms can include brain fog and short-term memory loss, fatigue, insomnia, muscle aches and pains, low-grade infections, yeast infections, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and breathing problems. Many believe chemical sensitivity can also be a component of candida–related syndrome, chronic fatigue, sick-building syndrome, electrical sensitivity, Gulf War Syndrome, fibromyalgia, and cancer. Have you noticed symptoms from or do you dislike the smell of perfume, hairspray, after-shave, paint, cleaning products, tobacco smoke, new carpeting, new cars, or gasoline? Find an environmental health specialist who can help you discover whether you are chemically sensitive or not.


For some of us it was a single large chemical exposure (to pesticides, solvents, heavy metals, etc.), which triggered our decline in health and subsequent chemical sensitivities. For others it was smaller insidious chemical exposures over a long period of time, at work or at home, which may have caused chemical sensitivities. Yet, for others it was an exposure to mold in their home or workplace or moving into a new or renovated home or office. Over time some of us become sensitive to more substances than the original trigger and/or at lower doses.


Although therapies that strengthen the body and encourage the release of toxins can provide symptomatic relief in some cases, the only known way to arrest or reverse the progress of chemical sensitivity is to avoid all toxic exposures. “Because the effects of chemical exposures are cumulative, patients will not get better if continually or frequently exposed to chemicals in their environment.” Grace Ziem, M.D.

Everyone has a different genetic make-up, which will make him or her more or less susceptible to chemicals and everyone’s detox systems vary in the amount of toxins they can detox before experiencing symptoms. Our total body load—how many toxins we have accumulated over our life—is unique to each of us. And we each have a different size rain barrel—the amount of toxins our body can deal with before experiencing symptoms of toxic overload.

So the first and most important thing you can do to alleviate symptoms is to practice avoidance. Avoid cigarette smoke, pesticides, paints, new carpets, and new building materials. Stay away from ink fumes from printers, faxes, and copy machines. Some people initially cannot withstand print in new books or magazines and read them only outside or after they have aired out or by using a reading box. Avoid exhaust fumes, fragrance from perfumes, colognes and other personal care products, and air fresheners. Use safer unscented soaps, detergents, shampoos, after-shave lotions, and cleaning products. Avoid dry-cleaned clothes or hang them out for a few days. Refer to our section on Safer Alternatives and Resources.

Second, find an environmental physician who will help you find out what is causing your symptoms. See our Referral List.

Third, try alternative therapies such as massage, chiropractic, and homeopathy, all of which have helped many with chemical sensitivities. Also, using medically supervised detoxification protocols with saunas, supplements, enemas, and exercise have improved many people’s health.

Fourth, change your diet. Find out which foods you are allergic to and avoid them. Use the rotation diet, the macrobiotic diet, or the gluten-free diet or a combination of all three.

Eat simple unprocessed organic foods.

We are all different: experiment and find what works best for you.