Can people literally be addicted to the personal care products they use? It's possible. Although research on huffing (the deliberate inhalation of chemicals) has lagged behind research into other types of drug abuse, recent studies are intriguing and may help us understand not only inhalant abuse, but how everyday chemical exposures may affect us.
It was once believed that inhalant addiction was more psychological than physical, but research is dispelling that notion. Findings include the following:
- A 2007 article in Neuropsychopharmacology reported on the way in which the solvent tolulene increases dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens (the brain's pleasure center). Dopamine is part of the body's reward system and is associated with the development of addiction.
A number of studies have shown that inhalant abusers experience withdrawal symptoms when they cease huffing.
- A 2007 study reported in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that 11.1% of study participants (adolescent inhalant users)
experienced inhalant withdrawal.
- A 2009 report in Medical Hypotheses states that “this article draws from multiple sources of data to suggest that withdrawal symptoms can be part of inhalant dependence and are clinically significant."
- A 2011 article in Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation found that almost half of people with inhalant dependence experienced three or more withdrawal symptoms. The authors note that “the percentage of persons with inhalant dependence reporting clinically significant inhalant withdrawal symptoms was almost equal to the percentage of persons with cocaine dependence reporting clinically significant cocaine withdrawal symptoms.”
What do these findings mean for the general population? They may mean that sometimes when people "really like" a perfume or "have to use" air freshener, there is a physical basis for the desire. It's unlikely that any withdrawal symptoms (such as craving a product) would be recognized for what they are. It may be similar to the way in which people who "really like" coffee may be unconsciously feeding a dependence on caffeine.
The addiction-like nature of certain chemical exposures can make it difficult for people to associate chemicals and symptoms. In the book Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, authors Nicholas A. Ashford and Claudia Miller note that people may be simultaneously experiencing stimulatory symptoms from one chemical and withdrawal symptoms from another. The pattern makes it difficult to correlate cause and effect.
When people are addicted to a substance, they can manage to avoid withdrawal symptoms by making sure the substance stays in their body. This doesn't forestall toxicity effects, however. When people smoke cigarettes, for example (which also increase dopamine), they increase their risk for cancer, no matter what immediate smoking-related health symptoms they may or may not experience. Likewise, chemical exposures have serious long-term consequences, whether or not people initially find them pleasant.
Ashford and Miller note that "The difference between chemical exposures and cigarettes, alcohol, or caffeine is that in the former case addiction is an unwitting process. The individual may have no idea it is occurring." The answer is simple and one I repeat often. Avoid chemical exposures however and wherever possible, both for your own sake and the sake of those who share the air.