NEW YORK CITY — One of the most crucial questions Bob Dagger has on a first date is, "Will the woman be wearing perfume?"
Any whiff of a chemical-ladened synthetic fragrance, found in many perfumes and cleaning products, will trigger breathing difficulties and an embarrassing outbreak of coughing for Dagger.
His issue with synthetic fragrance is just one on a long list of chemical sensitivities that he believes are more common than many people realize.
"A lot of people have this [chemical sensitivity] and don't even know it," said Dagger, who turned from a "rock and roll" lifestyle to being a health food store owner in the early 1990s. "People are sick from the things that are around them and they don't even know it."
Dagger is part of a movement to reduce exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and toxins that whirl around us everyday in cleaning products, body lotions and our apartment’s air.
Those in search of pure living have often been pinned as hippies living on the fringe, but in recent years more mainstream medical attention has been paid — including from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the President's Cancer Panel — to the impact of chemicals in our immediate environments.
"We have thousands of chemicals available today that years ago we didn't," said Dr. Morton Teich, a New York City-based doctor who specializes in allergies and immunology.
Much of his work over more than 40 years involves how chemicals and allergens can build up in the body, overloading the immune system and unbalancing hormones. Teich said this could trigger symptoms as slight as fatigue, but as harsh as attention deficit disorder.
And while every person has a different capacity to deal with toxins, there is a limit to what each body can handle, he said.
"At some point there will be an overload," said Teich.
Six Easy Ways to Reduce Toxins in Your Environment
Our indoor environment can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Opening windows can help minimize what toxins our bodies absorb and inhale by flushing them out of our immediate surroundings, according to Bill Sothern, a certified industrial hygienist and owner of Microecologies, a company that tests homes and businesses for environmental hazards.
"My windows stay open year round," he said.
"I always say 'My bathroom looks like a kitchen,'” said Alexandra Zissu, 39, a New York City mom and journalist who has penned numerous books on pure living.
Zissu said she uses food grade products such as jojoba oil, almond oil and apricot kernel oil for her skin and hair.
While oils can moisturize hair, baking soda can clean hair of grease.
Francesca Pineda, a fashion designer who juggles what some call a multiple chemical sensitivity, said she saved money and improved her skin with Argan oil. Pineda's shoe line, called Bhava, has a focus on human rights and environmental consciousness. The company's products are mostly organic and made with non-toxic materials.
Zissu and Pineda stick to organic zinc-based sunscreens. These have a more natural ingredient list and are generally not absorbed into the skin, but sit on the surface.
Makeup can be another pandora's box of chemicals. Pineda said regular drugs stores do stock well-priced organic makeup such as Organic Wear from Physicians Formula.
The Environmental Working Group's website and smartphone app have ratings from low to high hazard for thousands of beauty and cleaning products as well as food and electronics that contain or omit toxins.
Taking Shoes Off in the House
Besides a lot of animal feces, shoes are also carrying substances like pesticides, exhaust fumes and lead dust, said Zissu.
"What you are tracking on your shoes is amazing," she said, adding that whatever is on the floor can be kicked up and then inhaled or absorbed.
If "fragrance" is listed as an ingredient on any product it could mean a combination of up to 200 chemicals and their exact makeup is considered a trade secret protected by government legislation, according to Zissu.
Looking for fragrance-free products is important, she said.
Synthetic fragrances are found in everything from cleaning products to feminine hygiene products to air fresheners and candles.
For a sweet-smelling home, Zissu suggested wiping some essential oils on light bulbs — it will heat up and disperse the sent — or boiling orange rind and cinnamon water on the stove.
For those who want a scent, Dagger suggested dabbing a mix of organic essential oils on your skin.
"I use it to clean my sink, my floor, my clothes," said Dagger.
Pineda makes her own cleaning products, such as a simple spray of water and vinegar for surfaces and floors. For a disinfectant, she adds inexpensive vodka to the water and vinegar formula and for a natural drain cleaner she adds baking soda to it.
Borax, a mineral, salt and an acid, is also a good mold remover, according to Pineda.
Some products cater specifically to the clean living market like the Seventh Generation brand, which Sothern said he uses almost exclusively.