Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Scentsible and considerate

Imagine, for a moment, that you live with a semi-deaf roommate. This roommate really enjoys music, but has a hard time hearing it, so he cranks up the volume to a level that is comfortable and enjoyable for him.

You, as a person who is not hard of hearing, have a much lower threshold for what is comfortable and enjoyable. Roommate is rocking out while you are rolling on the floor, clutching your head in agony. The sensory overload is causing you real pain. When you ask if the roommate can turn it down, he looks at you incredulously. "It's not THAT loud, hell, I can barely hear it!" You try to explain that, because his hearing isn't as acute as yours, your volume tolerances are different. He scoffs at this, telling you that you're making it up, and to stop being such a sensitive goddamn pussy, and to stop trying to control him with your stupid hypochondriac bullshit. He then turns it up even louder, flips you the bird, and subsequently refuses to ever turn the stereo off at all, just to spite you.

That, my friends, is what it is like to have a very sensitive sense of smell in a world where everyone and their dog is slathering on several layers of perfumed products.

Maybe you don't smell it quite as acutely. Maybe you think we're making this up. But when someone is trailing their cologne behind them like Princess Diana's bridal train, for some of us with sharp noses, it's the equivalent of someone screaming in your ear at the top of their lungs. The sensory overload hurts. It gives us headaches, just like the aforementioned roommate's music would give most other people headaches. Just because you aren't able to smell things as well as we do, doesn't mean that we are imagining this.

The overload of our olfactory senses causes a reaction--our sinuses fill, our noses run, our eyes water. This is a neurological reaction that is designed to reduce the waves of sensory input entering our noses. In fact, there is a certain nerve, the trigeminal nerve, that, if aggravated, can actually cause the nostril on the afflicted nerve's side of the face to run, the eye to water, and the sinuses--just on that side--to fill (this can be trigeminal neuralgia, or a cluster headache)--just from a nerve going haywire!

So, yes, when we get too much olfactory input, there is a PHYSICAL reaction, just like when your pupils constrict and your eyes hurt if you are in light that is too bright. If we are in a place that we cannot leave, such as our own homes, or a workplace, we are subject to pain and discomfort that cannot be mitigated. This is why many of us are sensitive to perfumes, and why we ask that others be more subtle with their scents. We're not trying to be mean to you, or to control you, we are trying to save ourselves from terrible headaches. Why is that too much to ask?


AnnieMcPhee said...

It's not a lot to ask that people not douse themselves in powerful smells that carry for miles. Some of the men's colognes are hideously spicy, some of the women's are horribly sweet and overpowering. I too get a headache and am very sensitive to it. I wear only light scents that I'm sure don't bother me (that are hard to "overdo" even if you put on more than normal) and that other sensitive people tell me do not bother them.

I sometimes wonder what their point is in drowning out all other sensory input in the area - then they can't smell all the subtle, pretty things anyone else might have on. Besides, most of them aren't pleasant even in small doses - they smell cheap (even though they may not be.) There are only about 3 things I'll wear, outside deodorant and baby powder.

I thought this was going in a different direction. Phew.

Karin said...

Your post should be printed on billboards!

It's funny, I was just talking to a friend about this yesterday. Certain perfumes trigger killer migraines with vomiting, same goes for warm beverages with vanilla aroma (like tea with vanilla or caramel flavor). My sister, who *loves* really strong perfume, thought I was being a bitch by asking her to go outside to spray on her favorite scent or to not spray it on at all.

Mrs.Millur said...

And how!
I'm not particularly sensitive, but there are times and places when I've been utterly overwhelmed by someone else's scent.

What do people think they're covering up? How bad do they really think 'person' smell is?

The worst place for this (of the places I go) is the nursing home. I guess, when folks depend on others for regular opportunities to bathe, I can understand the desire. -- but that doesn't make it any easier to be in a room with perfume so strong you can almost see it.

Jessica said...

Off topic, but did you know that your blog has Google ads showing up for and


Anonymous said...

I don't wear perfume...I used to in High School...but it is just too much trouble now. Anyway, the only scent I wear now may be what is found in my soap/shampoo and I try to get light scents if any when I can. I don't have that sensitive a smell...but I can say that I hate the smell of potpourri and that is what a lot of people smell like with one scent shampoo, one scent soap, then perfume and body spray and whatnot. It isn't stinks.

With that said I think people put so much on because they just don't realize it. If you wear the same scents every day then you stop smelling them...then they think they need more, and then they get used to that too and on and on until they are bathing in the stuff so THEY can smell it...all the time not realizing that others around them are choking.

If you can't smell it, that doesn't mean that I can't smell it on you. You put that stuff on so you smell good to others...not for yourself...and trust me...others can and do smell you whether they want to or not.

Lindsay said...

I have reported people to HR for repeatedly ignoring requests to not bathe in eau de OMG MY EYES.

I have a very weird sense of smell. Most natural body odors don't bother me (if they're fresh), i think geraniums give off a foul stench, and i like the smell of skunk. All that, and it's very keen as well. Yeesh.

Last time i quit smoking, within a few days i had an almost supernatural sense of smell. The smell-dampening effect of smoking is one of the reasons i went back to it, truth be told.

onceupon said...

I am allergic to a LOT of stuff but I don't expect random strangers to not serve, for example, shrimp at their parties. Instead, I avoid the shrimp. But my friends and coworkers know me and know about my allergies and they care enough to not serve shrimp in everything when I'm going to be there.

Likewise, when I am around friends with scent-issues, I go out of my way to avoid wearing stuff that will set them off with any sort of reaction. But, when I go to the mall, for instance, I have to weigh the possibility that I will walk next to someone who might be scent-sensitive with my own quality of life.

"Dousing" is such a subjective thing. I certainly don't think I overdo it, and neither do my other friends who are not scent-sensitive. I've found people that I consider unpleasantly heavy with the cologne or whatnot (and it does cause a reaction, as I'm allergic to most of the planet), but I'm not sure my needs supercede their rights when we're in such a public space.

The Rotund

JeanC said...

I swear some people have a busted sense of smell if they can't figure out they are wearing too much of something.

I am pretty average when it comes to sense of smell and what most people wear doesn't bother me. But when I can tell that someone is going to enter the room because their patchouli/cologne/perfume has preceded them by a couple of minutes, that gets to me.

I very rarely wear scents anymore, mostly because I hate the floral ones and I have a contact allergy to my favorite essence oil :( If I do wear perfume I spritz into the air and then walk thru the mist

Most days about the most I will wear is soap and that is usually unscented, fruit or almond scented glycerine soaps. The occasional baby powder.

Anonymous said...

Rarely in my life have I ever been overwhelmed by a perfume smell. People always talk about this - about that person who wears too much perfume/cologne and just overwhelms you - but I can't even remember a single time when I've been overwhelmed by someone's perfume.

I don't know if that's a coincidence, or because I'm really just non-sensitive...though I have been overwhelmed by many bad smells like body odor or a pig farm...and I don't have any maybe I really am just sensitive to traditionally "bad" smells, and not perfumes. I might even be that person who wears too much perfume, I don't do you tell how much is too much?

Also, they say that depressed people are generally the ones who tend to wear too much perfume, because when you're depressed, your sense of smell gets dulled down. Just a thought - might want to be more sensitive to possibly depressed people.

AnnieMcPhee said...

NO no fucking lapband ads. WTF????

Are you serious???