Scents and Sensitivity

8 Mar

Last week, a freelance writer from Seattle contacted me because she had run across my “Sensitive to Scent” post from the old blog.  She writes health and beauty articles for online news pages like and and was researching a story about the etiquette around scent sensitivity.  She wanted to phone me and chat about my scent-sensitivity experiences for 15 to 20 minutes; I’m never one to turn down a conversation, so we connected this afternoon while Jade was down for her nap.  The talk was stimulating, so of course I have to dump some of my thoughts here.

I admit that I don’t mind a nice-smelling cologne or a light perfume, but on the whole I find them unneccessary.  And, to be honest, I think they’re inappropriate in an office environment.  Office air quality is often bad enough without adding fragrance chemicals to the mix.  If someone happens to be sensitive to scent, it can make the office hell.  While I was pregnant with Jade, that was me; it’s hard to work when your head hurts, and you’re dizzy, light-headed, and nauseated.

By all means, wear a perfume when you’re going out on a date; it can be damn sexy to smell that signature scent on the one you love (or just lust after, whatever).  But please, keep it light.  Only your date should be able to smell you, not the poor person trapped in the seat behind you in the theatre, or the sap who can’t even smell his steak through your cloud of Chanel No. 5.  (Remember, you might not be able to smell yourself because the more you use a scent, the more your olfactory nerves are desensitized to it.)

Not being able to tell how strong your own scent is is one of the biggest reasons I don’t wear perfume anymore.  After my two bouts of being scent sensitive, I figure I’d never want to cause that kind of misery to anyone who lives with a sensitivity all the time.  I don’t find it leaves a gaping hole in my life not to wear perfume.  (Besides, Michael doesn’t like the stuff.)

The reporter wanted to know if I’d ever encountered any hostility when I asked someone not to wear perfume.  Luckily, I haven’t.  I think I’ve tried to be respectful in the asking, but also, how could someone be upset when it’s kind of a medical issue?  Smokers understand they shouldn’t blow cigarette smoke into a non-smoker’s face, and parents understand they can’t pack nuts into their kids’ lunches; scent isn’t that different.

Then there was the small uproar there was in the news recently about phthalates, found in many plastics and in scented products, possibly causing reproductive problems, particularly when these products are used on babies.  I felt just a little smug because I’ve tried to use only fragrance-free products on Jade, except for essential oils. (Although I’m sure I’m doing something wrong, since there are always studies coming out to tell us new scary effects of evil chemicals found in everyday objects.)

Anyway, I know that technically I’m somewhat inconsistent because I like the smell of freshly-washed hair (which, really, is the smell of shampoo) and shower gels. I’ve never encountered anyone so sensitive to scents that they couldn’t stand it if someone had just showered with soap and I can see how it might be a burden to accommodate someone who asked me to replace all of my beauty and hygiene products.  I’m sure I’d suspect them of exaggerating.

Whew, this seems like a lot of brain energy going into a pretty simple topic.   It’s certainly something I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about before I became scent sensitive myself (temporarily, thank goodness).  I even remember a girl in grade 6 who would bring a bottle of “Exclamation” to school and found it a great joke to spray it on people.  It seemed childish at the time, but not particularly offensive.  And I can still remember the perfume of one girlfriend I went to high school with.  It truly is amazing how scent seems to be hardwired to memories and emotions.

As for Michael, the smell that will forever remind me of him is laundry detergent.  Nice and clean… now that’s sexy!


4 Responses to “Scents and Sensitivity”

  1. Marian March 9, 2008 at 7:14 am #

    There have been times when I can’t work with a patient because of the heavy perfume….watery eyes, scratchy throat and massive headaches. Luckily the other girls step in for me!
    As for laundry detergent…’s unscented all the way! No scents in this house.

  2. yukonchatterbug March 9, 2008 at 7:56 am #

    I wholeheartedly agree that perfumes have no place in the office or any workplace. I, too, react to some perfumes (not all), and I used to work in a customer service department answering telephone enquiries. A workmate would go to the bathroom every couple of hours to refresh her perfume, which made my eyes water, my throat itchy, and my sinuses plug. Between sounding stuffed up and sneezing while talking on the telephone, I had no choice but to try and approach her as politely as I could. She stopped “refreshing” her perfume, but I got the cold shoulder for a while. I didn’t mind the cold shoulder, it was worth it if it meant no more sneezing on the telephone.

    It would be nice if they made scentless hairspray. The ones currently available still have a strong chemical smell. If you know of any that have NO smell, let me know.

    The way I look at it, we don’t need perfumes in anti-perspirant, make-up, and moisturizing cream. The scents all compete with each other and it ends up being worse. If I want perfume, I like to be able to choose the scent myself, decide when to wear it, and not have it mix with the perfumes from all the other products I’m using.

  3. shannon March 9, 2008 at 9:36 am #

    i think there should be a lot more awareness on both the phthalates and allergy/sensitivity issues. the phthalates issue blows my mind. i’ve talked about it to friends for years and always got shot down like i’m some sort of conspiracy theorist, then it comes out in the news which apparently makes it valid now (???)… oh well… maybe i should just learn to stop preaching!!!!?

  4. surely March 9, 2008 at 12:58 pm #

    I’ve found that people don’t want to believe that their perfume might have a problem b/c they’re not willing to give it up.

    I’ve encountered hostility over other people’s perfumes. I once had a woman sit next to me on a bus literally reeking. When she learned her perfume gave me a migraine, she said that she wasn’t moving, that she liked her seat. So, I had to crawl over her to find another seat. To this day I wish I’d had the gall to tell her that perfume sometimes caused me to vomit uncontrollably and so she could take her chances.

    That’s when I learned to sit in the back of the bus. No one likes to sit back there!

    The saddest thing, though, is that I have family that reacts with hostility. Purposely wearing perfume when we have to get in the same car! Ugh.

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