Last week, while riding on a BC Transit bus, I saw a poster that said “Scent Consideration Zone,” depicting a clean-cut teenage boy with a backpack on a bus, smiling as he grips a pole in the aisle. Looking at this young man, you can almost smell the cloud of Axe Body Spray that he (presumably) refrained from steeping himself in. The poster made me laugh, and then think about scent awareness in recent years. You can see it here: Scent Considerate Bus
If you’re as old as I am, you remember Avon’s catalog covers that said, “If you wear nothing else, wear fragrance.” Women considered perfume a part of their make-up regimen (and all women had a make-up regimen). Even men splashed on Old Spice, English Leather, and here’s an oldie—Hai Karate.
I can remember walking through department stores and being spritzed with perfume without being asked—they simply atomized you as you walked by. Once they nailed my ice cream cone and I demanded the princely sum of 2 dollars to replace it. (If you’ve ever licked ice cream covered in an amber layer of Charlie, I can see the face you’re making right now.)
In recent years, people cut way down on their use of scents, as people became more aware of the effect their fragrances have on others. It started, as many social movements do, in California, with office buildings being declared “scent-free zones.” I remember the backlash in the 90s as people had to leave their signature scents at home. It’s kind of like smoking; people just had to put up with it before, but then they started to stand up and say “not in my space,” and it’s rare to smell cigarette smoke in public places anymore.
Scent sensitivity takes so many forms and affects people so differently, it’s hard to define it for everyone. I have a friend who literally breaks into skin rashes when she smells certain things—that’s a straight-up allergy, with inhalation as the exposure pathway. Other people get dizzy, nauseated or faint when exposed to strong smells. Scent can even trigger migraines. In some cases it’s hypersensitivity to a specific substance; other people are just affected more strongly by smells in general. Hyperosmia is a real thing—a heightened ability to perceive odors. A character with hyperosmia was featured in an episode of Castle, in which the woman worked for a perfume company and lived in complete isolation because her condition was so bothersome. That episode had a touching ending, taking the high road with compassion instead of comedically bullying the poor woman.
When I was hit, my lungs were damaged severely enough that I had to be on a respirator for 9 days. I regained consciousness after 6, but couldn’t breathe on my own because all my ribs were broken and my lungs were bruised and swollen. After I was transferred to the rehab center, I complained that my bathroom “smelled like a bathroom,” and worried that it might not be hygienic. The nurse gently explained that with my lung damage, they couldn’t use cleansers that contained ammonia, triclosan, or bleach. They did the best they could with plain soap and water.
My massage therapist keeps a shower cap in a drawer next to her massage table, and sometimes she has to ask people to put it on if their hair products are too irritating. She’s the one who gets rashes. I used to roll my eyes a little, but once I triggered a facial rash with my hair gel before I donned the shower cap, and I felt terrible for making her suffer that way. I make sure to wash with plain Dr. Bronner’s soap before my appointments now.
Another friend has celiac disease and finds that many scents trigger nausea and in extreme cases, constricted breathing and/or migraines. She doesn’t know if the celiac and scent issues are related, but when you have chronic illness, it all seems to interlock somehow.
At the same time we’re becoming more aware of scents, they keep introducing new products to keep our olfactory nerves on guard. One of the things that bothered me the most about condo living was the scented laundry products other people used, that vented into the air along the building walkways. Honestly, I’d rather have someone smoking nearby than that. I went to a concert by singer-songwriter Jeremy Fisher and he stopped in mid-song, distracted by the strong smell of the shirt a relative had washed for him before the show. He literally walked offstage and changed into a t-shirt between songs.
Don’t even get me started on Glade Plug-ins (how to make noxious chemical smells in disposable plastic dispensers even more environmentally harmful by making them use electricity). Scent diffusers using essential oils and porous straws that poke out the mouths of jars saturate a space with smells that are generally pleasing only to the person who set out the jar, and some people do this in office cubicles!
Scent-free zones are here to stay, and I say good. Gone are the days when every girl received a gift set of Jean Naté body splash for Christmas. There will still be the odd older lady steeped in a triple whammy of perfume, scented lotion and powder on the bus, but it’s getting safer to go outside.
Do you suffer from scent sensitivity? How does it affect you? Are you ever made to feel like you’re the problem?