Dearest Loved Ones,

Your perfume is killing me. I mean it almost literally.

Image via Four Tears

It’s also affecting our friendship. I can’t hug you, and so you might have noticed my stepping back when we meet up.

I can’t risk dining with you in a confined space and so you might have noticed I’ve been suggesting we meet for a walk instead.

Actually, I probably haven’t always been so subtle. I’ve probably hurt your feelings a bit. This is because perfume, for me, is like a whack in the noggin; I strike out to protect myself.

I’m so, so, so sorry.

I’ve toyed with this a while: how to let you know that I just can’t cope when you wear fragrance (perfume, strong hair product, powerful deodorant, etc.) I know it seems like a personal attack on your very essence.

But let me assure you, your perfume is so far removed – chemically and experientially – from the essence of the You that I know and love that it renders this letter all the more imperative.

A few weeks back I did a bit of a lead-in to this awkward confrontation with a post on chemical intolerance and how it affects my autoimmune disease.

I need to let you know:

  • My chemical intolerance is triggered most aggressively by perfume.
  • When I’m in contact with perfume I get inflamed.

I’m left foggy-headed, aching in my joints. My feet and hands swell and I feel nauseous.

Imagine having three hangovers, carsickness and a set of nails scratching down a board. All at once. That’s what perfume does to me.

It only takes a whiff. You might have sprayed in the morning and it’s now dinnertime. The thing is, the chemical inprint remains. If I come in contact with your perfume, I will have to go to the bathroom and wash what I can of it off.

But please know I do my best, I truly do, to not be neurotic and over-the-top about it. But the inflammatory response can leave me a little cranky. And self-protecting. I’d like to let it go, and be a cool cucumber with the discomfort, but annoyingly the reaction is only getting worse.

I figure it would be good to share a few factlets with you, so you don’t think I’m completely ill-of-sensibility.

1. The EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products reports one out of 50 people have become sensitised to fragrances.

2. Studies have linked perfume exposure to migraines, allergy symptoms, asthma and chronic lung disease.

3. The longterm exposure to chemicals contained in perfume can seriously damage your immune system.

4. Phthalates, which are used in 75 per cent of perfumed products to extend the life and reach of the stink, have been linked to hormone disruption, which in turn can cause serious health issues including, diabetes and obesity, fertility issues such as low sperm count, early puberty, breast cancer, autism and ADHD and thyroid irregularities. Likewise, synthetic musks bind to and stimulate human estrogen receptors and have been linked to the increase of estrogen-responsive human breast cancer cells.

5. 80 per cent of beauty and skincare products contain fragrance.

6. The average fragrant contains about 14 secret chemicals that aren’t listed on the label. About 80 per cent of these unlabelled chemicals are not being tested for human safety.

7. Most beauty products list “fragrance” in lieu of the cocktail of chemicals used. Why? So we’re not horrified. How do they get away with it? By claiming fragrance is a trade secret by law. This stems from an era when major fragrance houses lobbied to protect their secret formulas made from flowers and oils. Today this law is used as a beauty industry loophole.

I know it’s a grim note to end on. But I’ll sign off by thanking you for your understanding. I know many of you consciously make an effort to not wear perfume when you meet up with me. I am incredibly grateful when you do this, at times stunned by the care you show. I hope the above emphasises how much it means to me.

Much love,


PS Friends and family, feel free to respond direct when you see me next…

Have your say, leave a comment.

  • K2478

    I have been acutely aware of the effect my perfume may have on others since I last saw you and have avoided wearing it since. I saw the instantaneous affect on you, and I must have only had residue in my hair from the night before. Since then I have met two others that react the same way. Great read as usual darling – much love to you.

    • Darling KP, I remember that moment at Roadhouse. One of the very moments that I’ve cringed about in past!! Thank you for being so gracious.

    • JB

      Hair products are notorious!

      • Annabel Doherty

        for sure and shampoo without perfume costs heaps more than the perfumed ones – I have to go through weeks of sickness to find shampoos that do not make me sick

  • Joanne Rose

    Excellent letter Sarah. I grew up with my mum dousing herself in Arpege, Beautiful and worse still Private Collection. I suffered allergies, asthma and general misery. Thank you for shining a spotlight on this very real issue.

    • JB

      I had a mum who insisted on spraying hairspray generously and then traipsed it around the house behind her. Like you, I suffer allergies and asthma and was frequently hospitalised as a child but my family still would not admit that their behaviour was giving me so much trouble.
      I am so sorry that you seem to have had a similar experience. Not good at all. One would expect our parents to be more sensitive to their children’s needs.

      • Amy Rorke

        One DOESN’T expect our parents to be more sensitive to their children’s needs when they don’t know any better. This is all new information – most problems didn’t start in epidemic form until the 80’s.

        You do better when you know better :/

        • JB

          If your children are allergic to bees, you are not going to push them into a beehive are you? As a parent myself, if I discovered that something I was doing was harming my children, I would stop immediately! If a doctor told me that the cause of my child’s illness was exposure to something in the home, I would immediately change things to remove that trigger from the home. My parent did have the information and chose to ignore it placing their own vanity over their child’s health.

  • Liv

    Thanks for speaking out about this Sarah, I have the same problem!

  • Suzanne

    I suffer from the same thing. I find household “air fresheners” and scented dryer sheets are even worse than people’s perfume. What gets me is a lot of people think I’m exaggerating when I tell them I can’t stand whatever the scent is coming from. I suffer from migraines also and the smells can trigger it.
    The only thing that helps me when I have to suffer the scents is to inhale Red Tiger Balm ointment. I’ve been known to wear it like perfume, LOL.

    • S

      Yes, I agree about the air fresheners.

      I have to LOL at some of the fragrance names though – “Ocean Breeze” and “Fresh Spring” – which smell nothing like their namesakes!

      • Esp those things people hang in cabs/cars

        • JB

          Don’t start me on the car thing!

        • they are the worst! having to shower/was hair immediately after a cab ride is ridiculous.

    • Jenny

      I can totally relate to this – I can get an instant migraine from the smell of air fresheners but also artificial fragrances, deodorants, hair products, cleaning products, the list goes on! They also all smell disgusting so why anyone wants to use them I don’t know! Most people think I’m exaggerating too but it’s so not the case.

  • Lisa

    So so true. When someone walks onto the train in the morning doused in perfume or aftershave I have to concentrate on not throwing up.

    Also, in the toilets at my work, someone has helpfully plugged in one of those ambi pur things. In a little confined bathroom with no windows and only a vent above the toilet. It’s so bad, I try not to use the bathroom and go to a public one in my lunch break. If I do use it, I can actually ‘taste’ the vanilla and fake flower smell for ages afterwards.

    So gross.

    • liznc

      You should remove it and throw it in the trash, or go to your supervisor with a Dr’s note saying it causes you nausea and headaches, breathing issues. Is this a plug in or an automatic fragrance dispenser?

      • Lisa

        Yeah, it always gets replaced whenever I’ve thrown it out. It’s a plugin one.

        Whenever I’ve complained about it, other people seem surprised that I don’t like it. Or say that it’s better than other smells that could be in there…

        It’s a battle that I’ve given up on to be honest.

        • liznc

          Do you live in the states? We have the ADA act to protect us. My husband was successful in having Fragrance Emitting Device removed from the rest room via a letter from his doctor.

          • liznc

            So if you get breathing problems or migraine that’s good enough for removal or use MCS.

          • Christine McGrillen

            How do you get people to stop wearing perfume. Some of the people ( even the men) are drenched in perfume.

          • Rebecca Carden

            Give them a delicious essential oil pure-fume blend they cannot help but fall in love with. They will never look back 🙂

          • Lee Ving

            You are not disabled ! Have a stroke ,a broken neck , cancer … You people are the reason we live in such a shitty state of affairs , bitch bitch bitch me me me . I hope you break your neck cunt

          • Doug Perry

            Screw you too dude. Try going into a room and the air is painful to breath. And you leave the room and you still have symptoms for hours. I hope you end up with puss filled bed sores. Lets hear it for cancer, I now know of one stupid prick thats going to die from it.

          • Jiggus098

            I say if someone has any smell that offends you and it is deemed acceptable in the office then all of them are. I would eat beans, eggs, and broccoli. Then blast butt bombs all day.

          • Doris J King

            Obviously you don’t have breathing or autoimmune issues. You’re probably the one dousing yourself in cologne and adding to the toxicity of this POLLUTED world we DIE in today. This is not living. It’s surviving. WE CAN’T BREATHE!!! DO YOU GET IT!!!???

          • suesees

            I looked to the ADA for help and all I got was fired from my job when I followed their advice.

      • Lee Ving

        You all need a kick in your asses and to stay at home .

        • suesees

          Your compassion is amazing! You must be the person people seek out when they are in trouble. Such a humanitarian! You should go into social work or the ministry with your big heart.

  • Karina Shepherd

    I really like this letter. We use sensitive (no fragrance) washing powder in our family and find I cannot stand the smell of clothes that have been washed in fragrance…in the past my kids have refused to wear clothes that their grandparents have washed while in their care for the weekend! Kids obviously have sensitivities too.

  • S

    I used to wear perfume all the time, but ever since I hit my 30s I’ve become incredibly sensitive to it. I was on the train the other day and a girl got on and I had to move because the moment it hit me, I felt nauseous and headachy.

    A friend of mine works at a golf course and he said that on ladies day, he can smell the perfume cloud before he sees the ladies. He isn’t sensitive to perfume, but more curious as to why some women wear so much perfume.

    • Ungus32

      Stinking whores wear excessive perfume. Probably smokers too so they have no sense of smell.

  • Gin

    I’ve been slowly trying to switch to wearing an essential oils blend- is this helpful at all or am I still contributing to the problem?

    • I find essential oils fine, if they’re genuine and don’t have synthetic carriers etc. Lovely of you to ask.

    • Gemma

      Thanks for asking, Gin, I was wondering this, too! I’ve always worn pure vanilla oil, since I was a kid, coz perfume gives me a headache, but wasn’t sure if the smell was still too strong to others so I rarely wear it.

      • Wes

        Hi Sarah. Have you found solutions to keep the stink at bay naturally aside from the obvious hygiene maintenance? Suggestions for men who are in physical industry’s and sweat a lot?

        • Rose M. Rivera

          I have found and love Natural Crystal as a deodorant stick. I was skeptical, but it works! and it works well!! And it lasts forever!

          • t. stone

            I bought and loved this too but was so disappointed to find it has another form of aluminum in it. Have you tried lavilin?

    • Greg

      Its a much much better thing, but as an example – someone with lavender allergies can react to lavender eo. So with something that you’re actually controlling you can potentially tailor it to not impact different people that you are around. On the other hand, with an allergy, the sufferer could actually use medication to help alleviate the effects.
      Basically, its better, but could still have an impact.

      • JB

        Using medications for allergies is not that simple (and expensive). Many medications are impractical to use in the workplace or driving etc. because they cause drowsiness or other side effects. Some meds are not advised to be used long term so avoiding the allergens in the first place is the preferred option.

      • MimB

        I am a universal reactor & cannot medicate

    • liznc

      Essential Oils are a trigger for me and provoke a migraine. Hubby too.

      • Rebecca Carden

        Generally a pretty good indicator they aren’t as pure as the label says they are and are actually made from synthetic chemical compounds.

    • Melissa Jockell

      They set me off just as bad, and on a couple of occasions worse, as regular perfume.

    • t. stone

      Hi Gin,
      Thank you for asking. It really depends on the scent. Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it can’t be offensive or irritating. People often make the mistake of thinking that because something is “natural”, it must be okay, but remember that arsenic is natural too.

    • suesees

      Some essential oils (in very small quantity) can be tolerable for those of us with this problem, but many are made with chemical additives that are not listed on the product and even ones that are not are intolerable when overused.

      At my last job (in a health food store) my co-workers would douse themselves with the essential oils (because they could for free) and then insist on hugging me and putting their arms around my shoulders. I asked them repeatedly to refrain. They said they just could not relate to my problem and continued. I lasted two years. I was fired because I asked for accommodation under the ADA. My thyroid stopped working shortly afterward. I now have to take thyroid medication every day for the rest of my life.

  • Claire Desat

    I totally know what you mean, since removing chemicals from my life I cannot handle any chemical smells including perfume. Instant headache when I am around someone with overpowering perfume. I have had to ask my husband not to wear his aftershave anymore, luckily he is understanding about it.

  • Naomi

    Yip this is me!! Thank you for articulating this so well. I never thought of it as feeling car sick, but that is exactly how I feel. Spend a few hours catching up with my most beloved friends and leave feeling car sick from their perfume, and it takes so long to recover. Yet i still find it so hard to try to explain to my friends, they just don’t get it. And I feel like I am invading their personal life choices if I was to ask that they don’t wear it. Argh, the stuff should be illegal, it is poison. Canary down the mine shaft.

    • JB

      Where is the line between “disrespecting someone’s personal choices” and “protecting one’s health”?

  • Naomi

    Any ideas how to reduce the suffering while travelling long haul on a plane? I am off to the states in a few days and am absolutely terrified I will be stuck next to a heavily perfumed individual?

    • Naomi

      I have just recently returned from the States to Melbourne. I too suffer incredibly – first the headache, then the wheeze etc… etc… I always carry some essential oils (mostly lavender) and put a few drops on a tissue which I keep close to my nose, it may not completey get rid of other perfume smells but it relaxes me and allows me to focus on my scent! Twenty8 have some beautiful blends too. If it’s family or a friend I am spending a lot of time with, I just have to tell them how it is. Mostly they are happy to help.

  • Susanne Dawson Otto

    Sarah, almost everything is perfumed. I used to have a terrible time finding unscented tissues, toilet paper and sanitary products and washing detergent. I spend as little time as possible in supermarkets. The smells of food etc really makes me nauseaus and headachey and asthmatic. Keep up the good work.

  • Brooke

    Thanks for making us all aware Sarah i have noticed this since I have stopped wearing perfume – I am just wondering if you have any good places to suggest to get essential oils from. looking for suggestions for when family and friends ask for gifts etc.
    Thanks in advance

    • Gemma

      Hi Brooke, the Body Shop used to do pure oils & probably still do for gifts? For personal use I often just rub a little of a vanilla a bean &/or a cinnamon stick on me & get lovely compliments on my ‘perfume’.

      • Brooke

        really great ideas thanks 🙂

    • I do think Doterra do a good job. Health food shops are best place to ask for suggestions.

      • Brooke

        Awesome – thanks Sarah I shall a look at 🙂

        • Rebecca Carden

          doTerra is the best in the market hands down, they are what they say they are. I can help anyone here who is still on the hunt to buy their own and create their own pure-fume blends 🙂

  • It just gives me raging hayfever. I have been known to change seats at church is a lady near me is wearing it.

  • Pam

    I have suffered with this malady for many years. The funny thing is people are quite offended when you tell them their perfume is a problem to you. They think you are saying that they smell. It is not the smell…it is the chemical reaction. Samr thing in the laundry aisle at supermarkets.

    Funny how non-smokers are quite forward in letting smokers knlw about the smell….but???

    • I often think the same (about smoking)

    • Robin Jones

      Ahh, but as someone who as a child flew commercial airlines with people smoking (horrible even with a smoking section – what a joke!) and worked when smoking in offices was acceptable, smokers didn’t take well to non-smokers complaining about the smell and many non-smokers were hesitant to complain. And people didn’t believe you could be allergic to the smoke or even the smell on a smoker’s clothes. Perhaps in 20 years it will seem natural to ask people to not wear excessive chemical brews, i.e., perfumes, in public!

      • JB

        Oh boy, I hope so!

  • Kaz

    Yes, me too. Instant headaches. Nausea. Cannot stand most perfumes, so called “air fresheners” etc. Can’t even stand the smell of my neighbour’s laundry liquid wafting over the fence from her washing line. Thanks for speaking on behalf of many of us..please don’t invade others’ space with toxic scent people. Why pay a fortune for a bottle of overpriced chemicals anyhow? It’s all marketing bull. Not cool.

  • AH

    I heard Dr Carole Hungerford speak one time on migraines. She talked quite a bit about the hormone-disrupting chemicals in fragrances and that those of us with the migraine gene can detect them a mile away. I suffer migraines, and perfumes don’t necessarily trigger them immediately, but they certainly bother me. I can smell my next-door neighbours’ washing, and perfumes on my babies for days after they’ve been held by someone wearing it, even wafting into my car as I was pulling up to the pickup area of the airport yesterday! Since it doesn’t necessarily make me sick I have a hard time asking people not to wear it, but I do think people really need to be aware of it. Great post, Sarah.

  • JB

    Hear hear! As a person who receives personal support services from disability agencies, I am frequently having to turn away people who work in this industry who insist on wearing strong perfumes. I have had to put it on my care plan to remind the agencies not to send someone who has been smoking or wearing perfumes which include spray deodorants too. One step into my home with a perfume, no matter how quickly in and out, and the irritation lingers for hours. One asthma attack and subsequent exhaustion can wipe a whole day out of my life. How does one get this message across without being accused of being a hypochondriac, making-it-up, being ultra-sensitive, a troublemaker etc.? This issue also extends to those car deodorisers as well. Do you ever have problems with those in taxis etc.?
    Thank you for raising this issue and providing some evidence as to why perfumes are a real threat to health. We are the canaries in the coalmine.

    • KayEmWhy

      My mom had a home aide who lit up the entire house (2 floors and a basement) with her perfume. My mother was afraid to say anything but she kept coughing and told the woman to tone it down. The next day I walked in and got a migraine. I had to call the agency and tell them not to send her again and to make sure her replacement never wore perfume.

  • Lyn Fuller

    Yes ,I have suffered from this as far back I can remember.I stopped wearing perfume and deodorant 10 years ago .I still can’t handle other peoples chemical smell .Oh and petrol ,air sprays and perfumed soaps.?

  • Mia Grant

    Thank you for the valuable information! I am a lover of things that smell beautiful (ie. perfume) and would be very keen to hear about natural alternatives that are out there…. I’ve cut out most other synthetic beauty from my products from my routine, but I’m still on the hunt for a natural fragrance that appeals to me. I often wear good quality essential oils but am wondering if anyone has come across any 100% natural products that smell delightful. Thanks.

  • kate grenville

    Thank you for opening up awareness of this fragrance nightmare! Like you, I’m badly affected by second-hand fragrance – in fact I’m researching for a possible book about it – shocked at what I’m finding about the long term health effects. We have to start speaking out, thank you for starting… kate grenville

    • Thanks Kate. Everyone – keep an eye out for Kate’s book on the subject (reminder: Kate wrote Secret River and Lilian’s Story). She’s had a tough time telling publishers etc that it’s a real issue for many of us…Feel free to encourage her to continue writing!

      • And I love your writing too, Sarah, the fact that you have written about this subject has just endeared me even closer to you as a fellow writer. You have made my day today. It was an awful day to start with but you have just lifted me up, thanks again. Please take care of your health in regards to fragrance exposure. xo

    • Thank you Kate. I have severe fragrance and other chemical sensitivities, and during a class where the students were asked not to wear fragrance or spray deodorants to class at Victoria University, we studied your book, The Secret River, the teacher told us how you, too, have fragrance health issues and I found that that tidbit of information helped created and cement a kind of social proof and awareness that helped my plight.

      The Secret River changed the way I see Australia’s history in regards to Aboriginal people and our place in their land. Thank you. I love, love your writing. xo

  • Beana Lloyd

    I hear that sister! I get super sick with asthma, allergies, nausea & headaches when exposed to the chemical gear. It is a hard subject to touch on cause of course I don’t want to offend the wearer. I usually make it about me & my sensitivities with the hope that one might be more thoughtful ilof others in future. I love that Train the band has a song that says “I wanna buy ya everything except perfume cause its poison”. The things we do for vanity. ☺

  • Thanks for sharing this. Perfume sensitivity definitely seems to be on the rise. I too have a major sensitivity to them, have for years, along with cigarette smoke and petro-chemicals. I also use pure aromatherapy oils, but also know that taking a whiff of top grade coffee beans helps alleviate/neutralise any overpowering aromas. Used to carry a small container of them in my bag when going out – just in case they were needed.

  • leah

    Friends wearing perfume visiting my newborn babies, I hated it 🙁

  • Angela Mollard

    Great post Sarah. When I first learned you were sensitive to perfume I thought how hard that must be because EVERYTHING is scented these days. Now I wonder why we need to adorn ourselves with scent. The sight, sound, feel of another person is sensory enough. Oh and The Secret River – masterful storytelling. Xx

  • Vanessa Piton Wisdom

    Thank you for your article Sarah . Here i am concerned about this exact problem trying to help women to make better choice without to have to comprise, by Importing & offering Certified organic fragrances from France . Fine fragrances that are made from organic wheat alcohol and Essentiel oil that are develope without any chemicals . Unfortunately the idea wasn’t received that well , after all who on earth wants to wear a fragrance without the big tag name . I am still very happy to see your article , as people’s will now realised that fragrances can have terrible effects on other . Thanks for sharing

    • Suminy6

      Vanessa P.W. those fragrances sound awesome–I would be interested in something more complex than the little experiments I concoct with my essential oils… Website possibly plz..?

  • Rachael

    How do you go with the black chicken deodorant that you liked? I find the smell too overwhelming as much as I want to love it. It’s actually a lovely smell but so pungent.

  • Amelia Hill

    Hi Sarah,

    THANK YOU so very much for sharing this topic with your readers.
    It’s a serious health issue that is too often ignored or, due to the modern world’s obsession with fragrance, often denied.

    I have been confined to one room for several years due to severe MCS/Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (or Chemical Intolerance, Toxic Induced Loss of Tolerance or Environmental Illness as it’s also known). Fragrances are one of the most common triggers for me & for the many other sufferers of this condition. (And after scrolling through some of your readers comments, a common cause of concern for them too)

    It’s not uncommon for MCS sufferers to lose everything from their lives primarily due to the disabling symptoms caused by the fragrances found on other people and in so many environments …basic things like going to the doctor, dentist, supermarket or a workplace … visiting a friend or seeing family members …birthdays, weddings, Christmases… can all become close to impossible to navigate. Too often people with chemical sensitivity, especially to fragrances, become totally isolated from any social interaction or once normal life activity.

    I think it’s incredibly wonderful that your friends & colleagues have been so understanding & accomodating for you, but unfortunately a great number of people still choose fragrance over friendship. I personally went for almost 3 years without hugging a friend.

    Although I am fortunate to have a mother & step dad who have supported me, (many people have labeled me difficult or asking too much of them, even ‘crazy’- despite it being a medical condition) I personally know of many people whose own family have abandoned them because it’s all just too hard to deal with.

    Thanks again for sharing this info with your readers. I greatly appreciate it. I firmly believe the more this topic is discussed openly & across multiple forums there will be greater community understanding & support.

    Really, BIG thank you.
    Amelia Hill

  • Kando Frank

    Thank you, thank you for speaking out for us!!!

  • I have just visited Fragonard in Grasse and couldn’t resist buying some perfume. I don’t wear perfume every day, and am not sensitive to it (as far as I know). I wish I’d read this first. However I am definitely sensitive to other chemical scents and hold my breath in the laundry aisle of the supermarket. I always know I’ve been affected because my lips start tingling and I can ‘taste’ it in my mouth. No other problems though.

    • liznc

      Jant, You have chemical sensitivity, so your perfume is not a good idea for you. What happens often is this illness spreads incrementally, or suddenly!

      • Thanks liznc, I suspected it, but wondered if it might have been my imagination as not everything triggered it. All I can say is ‘dammit’. I haven’t used perfume all year because I knew I was going to France and would visit Grasse. Maybe some will end up Christmas presents . . . I will certainly watch all cosmetics, cleaning products, perfumes etc from now on. Thanks again.

  • Sue15cat

    Thank you for raising this.

    I have been extremely allergic to perfume for years now. A spray of it on my skin brings me out in sore read burning weals, so I have to avoid the ‘sprayers’ in most of our UK large stores, the smell of someone’s perfume as they pass by me makes me feel nauseous, if they linger I have to move away. I have slowly and gradually phased out almost all perfumes from my life. Sensitive skin washing powders and vinegar in place of fabric conditioner, a lovely husband with a beard (so no aftershaves) and who takes care not to spray his deodorant when I am around or about to go into the bathroom. Little things like that make you realise people care. Until you read labels you don’t realise how many things contain ‘fragrance’.

    I’m sure all of your friends will take this message in the way that you mean it to be taken.

  • KayEmWhy

    I’m so glad someone else addressed this issue. It effects me so much that I wear a surgical mask whenever I take public transportation, especially early morning. I know I look like a crazy lady, but I can’t breath, get migraines, and get dizzy when I breath in the perfumes and colognes. Whenever I buy shampoo, soap, or household products I open them and wave my hand over the top to see what happens. I find that sometimes shampoos use the same scents as “air fresheners”. PU! I wish more products were unscented. I even wrote some companies asking if they could tone down the fragrance or offer fragrance free products.
    I wonder if the chemical compounds in these products have changed because they’re cheaper to produce. I don’t remember people having these issues growing up.

    • S

      You know, I was actually thinking that if someone opened a “fragrance-free” product shop, they’d make so much money! The thought came to me when I was at the supermarket, struggling to find unscented garbage bags. 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been an issue!

      I still don’t really understand scented garbage bags ie. adding heavy fragrance to try and overpower stinky garbage smell, rather than removing the initial smell by emptying the bin/washing the bin more frequently.

  • Rhody Hausauer

    I love this story…and SO true! However for further awareness to others…for me, I would add that my story is that perfume does not stand out as the primary offender…any scent on a person (ANY personal care product)…male or female…not only sends me into painful, itchy, crusty eyes but also clenches my lungs and I have trouble breathing. Mornings at work are the worst where everyone is freshly showered/bathed/primped as are elevators any time of day where I’m trapped, or airplanes, or….I’d like to believe my right to breathe would trump someone else’s right to smell. (Heavy sigh)

  • Anthia Koullouros

    Thank you Sarah. I felt the same as Kirra – word for word. The crazy thing is, I wear it once in a blue moon. Maybe it was coming out of my pores. I know the feeling when my much loved patients/clients are wearing it during a consult and I have to crack open the balcony door. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear! I actually suffer with migraines when exposed to chemicals. My favourite time of day on a Friday is reading “a sweeter life” with a cup of tea. Chemical free hug and love to you..

  • Amy Landry

    Not sure what to say exactly, but THANK YOU.

    You’ve put into words what I’ve felt for years and years. Since I stopped wearing perfume myself a few years back I’ve become even more aware of my sensitivity (and repulsion?).

    So grateful you’re putting this out there in the world, Sarah!

    • Amy Landry

      P.S: we need men to read this too!

  • Jules Diamond

    Yes!!!!!! And aftershave. Sometimes I can smell your really intense deodorant! But I still love you friend, just from three paces away and up wind xx

  • Robin Jones

    I worked at a large independent bookstore here in the US in the 1990s. The employee handbook spelled out that perfumes, aftershaves and other strongly perfumed products could not be worn. And this provision was specifically discussed in our orientation sessions –‘strong scents could cause reactions in some people so for the comfort of our customers and co-workers we should avoid using them’.

    That was a revelation to me, it wasn’t just me! I’ve always had a reaction to strong smells, getting headaches, nausea and swelling sinuses/ears/throat. And that we behind-the-scenes workers without much contact with customers still had the benefit of this prohibition was lovely as well.

    Nice but honest discussion of the issue and makes a great reference to point to if one needs to discuss it with a friend. Thanks.

  • Krysten Ioannides

    I absolutely adore perfume. Always have! However, I find myself almost never wearing it because of the concern I have that someone I meet with May be allergic. Also, when I was pregnant I instinctively stopped using it
    I think this means that deep down I have concerns about the chemicals, even before being presented with the facts.

    • I have met people like you before. You are wonderful and kind to think of others like that, thank you xo

      • Ditto!! x

        • Hi Sarah, is it possible for your or the moderators to put through my comment (on this topic) that is still pending, please? It took me a while to write–and as far as I’m aware, it’s polite and friendly–and I’m not sure why it’s still pending but it has been for a while now. Thank you. And please keep up the good work. (I can post it again if you need me to.)

    • liznc

      Kudos to you! Such a kind and compassionate lady!

  • gwen

    Haha, love it! “…the essence of the You that I know and love…” I so agree! What is wrong with the essence of “us” these days that we want to mask it?

  • JJ

    Wow, I was just talking about this with my husband on our walk to the station this morning. His lovely parents are now the proud custodians of our little toy poodle. We saw them just recently and I was really excited to see our little dog (I guess he’s their little dog now), but I was almost bowled over by his smell. They’d taken him to a groomer and had a wash & clip done. The groomer had sprayed him with some awful ‘fragrance’ which knocked me for six. I can’t imagine what it did to our poor puppy’s sensitive nose.

  • Jeanette Holmes

    I so agree. I can instantly get a migraine. Even Westfield now have a powerful fragrance at their service centres. I can’t walk by without feeling sick.

  • Meri

    I have noticed my intolerance to fragrance the last few years. I have thrown all fragrance products away and only use essential oil specifically lavender on my wrists and neck. people always comment ohhh what perfume are you wearing and are surprised when I tell them. I also get really sick to the smell of chewing gum, I seriously get so nauseated to the point that I am going to vomit. I cannot be near anyone chewing gum.

  • Veronica Power

    What a lovely well written personal letter explaining this issue, which is often misunderstood/not believed. Thank you for posting it – there are many people out there who could use this as a template for a tactful yet objective letter for their own friends/family. I include myself in this category, due to suffering from the same problem. Someone said to me a while ago about this condition, consider it a gift as it helps you figure out who your true friends and family are. There are days when it’s difficult to adopt that view, but overall, in my case, I have found it to be true. I hope you have a great fragrance-free weekend ahead and get lots of positive responses from those closest to you. 🙂

  • Lisa Rudham

    I am grateful that you have written this article because I with perfume! It is poison to me. I stopped wearing it about 7 years ago when I was having hormonal issues. They have since subsided. I don’t have auto-immue but because I don’t indulge in perfume it makes me more sensitive to the stench…. Ugh! I hope that many people read this and get the message!!!! 🙂

  • Thanks for writing this Sarah! When you live in Byron you almost forget that perfume exists… what a relief! I have a very similar response….not quite so full on but it gives me an instant headache, leaves me foggy and I find the chemical smell just so offensive. When I visit my Mum I find it difficult to sleep in her spare room because her clothes are soaked with it. It is overwhelming and intolerable, like sleeping in a pub full of cigarette smoke (I have a similar response to smoke). We have to ask participants at our retreats to not wear perfume or other fragrances because it is so common for people to experience this response… so thank you, as always for sharing your secrets 🙂 xx Big love xx

  • Kelly

    Burning off, especially rubbish, chemicals, spray painting, paint, deodorant, perfume, nail polish and nail polish remover, cleaning products, especially Mr. Muscles potpourri, yes – car fresheners (hanging pine trees etc.) & some shampoo and conditioners …..
    What is wrong with natural products people?

  • LF

    Hi Sarah, Thank you so much for bringing this to the fore. I have suffered Chemical sensitivities since I was a child. My mother used to wear Red Door perfume and the smell made me really dizzy. Strong perfumes and strong smelling cleaning products can trigger an instant migraine. What is most challenging is that my 4 year old daughter also has chemical sensitives that when exposed causes severe nausea and vomiting. Unfortunately very regularly. I too try not to be over pedantic, however when I know the implications for my child it is hard not to be. Thanks for bringing some awareness to the issue.

  • Vicky

    My 4 year old has inhalant chemical sensitivity, as diagnosed by an immunologist. Exposure to perfumes, air fresheners and detergents with fragrance causes him great pain and distress. Please share this article. We need to raise public awareness.

    • liznc

      Poor little boy! Even some fragrance free detergents are a problem for me & hubby. TIDE and GAIN are horrible!

  • Heidi Hodder

    I don’t wear perfume or deodorant (well the latter occasionally but unscented) and when my friends rave on about and get me to smell their perfume I wonder if I’m abnormal! The other day I gave my boss a lift and felt guilty that I don’t have a car fragrance thingy (she always does in her car!). Feel much better about it after reading this! Am going to share with my aunt who suffers from terrible chemical sensitivity

    • liznc

      Heidi, do not feel quilty for protecting your health. Those car” fresheners” are the worst! I get a migraine that last for days if I smell one of those in a car passing

  • dervishdancer

    Thank you! Never too much discussion about this!

  • KindaWildCacti

    Perfume is made with toxic chemicals. Anyone using perfumed products pollutes the air, not just for themselves, but for everyone around them. ‪#‎WeShareTheAir‬ ‪#‎MakePollutersPay‬ ‪#‎GoFragranceFree‬ ‪#‎SaferAlternatives‬‪ #‎RealReform‬

  • Susie – The Busy Woman

    THANK YOU! Finally another way I can explain it to my friends or show them I’m NOT making it up! Thank you!!!

    • feel free to copy and paste!

      • Susie – The Busy Woman

        Already did! 😉

  • Jennifer

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I have the same issue and find it increasingly challenging to find truly fresh air. I always cringe not only for the impact that such heavy, synthetic scents have on those of us with sensitivities and health issue but also for the unknowing everyday individuals who are constantly exposing themselves. Thank you for bringing this to light!

  • Lynda Kling

    I really HATE it when you walk into the airport duty free section (after security) and you are hit, right away, with the stinky perfume section. It makes me I’ll from the smell, and I have no allergies or auto immune issues…
    Cannot they find an out of the way place to stick this? I feel so bad for you!

  • Lynda Kling

    That should be ill…not I’ll…..damn auto “correct”……

  • Jo Immig

    Thank you for writing this Sarah. Many people suffer from fragrance reactions. I can relate to how you manage it too and had to laugh as I too hold back from hugging people in case they’re wearing it. Sometimes I get caught off guard and WHAM! it’s all over me in a flash and I’m in the bathroom washing my neck and face only to despair it’s infiltrated my clothes and I have to leave the party early to go and have a shower. Department stores with perfume puffing people at the entrance are scary and men’s products have become so stinky as well!. It’s very hard for people who work in offices and it’s part of the reason I work from home. Scent-free workplaces are a thing in the USA.

  • thia_sagh

    I don’t have allergies, but I stopped wearing perfume and body mists a couple of years ago after learning about the potential harm it causes to humans and the environment. I already have a strong sense of smell, but now I’m even more sensitive to anyone around me wearing perfume or cologne or the like. This has helped me empathise more with a friend I have whose asthma makes her extremely sensitive to sprays and scents. Thanks for your letter Sarah!

    • liznc

      Thia, you are one kind and caring lady! Thank you!

      • thia_sagh

        I wasn’t thinking that about myself, but thanks for the encouragement 🙂

  • Emily

    This is so true. There is a woman at the gym whom very unfortunately often chooses to sit next to me on the exercise bikes, and her perfume is so horribly overpowering that I almost have to stop cycling. I’d rather it was BO!

  • Amy

    Thank you so much, Sarah. I have similar sensitivities, and your speaking and writing makes it easier for me to speak about it as well. I give you my best!

  • Annabel Doherty

    me too – instant headaches and migraines which with their aftereffects can last up to a week. I find that people, in general, do not believe me when I tell them how perfume impacts on me.
    Basically the only place I am safe is my home and even then people wear perfume to my house.
    People have no understanding how the crap gets into all their clothes and pores. Also I am assuming most people use perfume not because they think it smells great but because they believe it covers the smell of their body odor and they think it smells good – well I can still smell their body odor and trust me when I say the smell of body odor is much more pleasant than body odor missed with perfume.
    My perfume reaction was also used as a way to bully me – I ran an unfair dismissal case (and won) and my ex boss tried to say that I had once told her a secret that I used my perfume reaction to benefit me – when she was cross examined on this she changed her story to say I used it to benefit my clients – it was such a load of croc and something that upset me greatly – no one benefits from my reaction to perfume – no one!

    • Annabel Doherty

      missed = mixed

  • Susie – The Busy Woman

    People just want to smell nice, so we understand why they wear scented products. What they don’t understand is that A. they are putting toxins on their bodies. B. if they walk by and their scent(s) can be smelled long after they’ve gone, others inhale the toxins. C. after a while they are so used to the scent that they can’t smell the little dab and end up putting on too much. D. they don’t put just one scent. They have scented hair products, scented deodorant, scented lotion, scented soap or body wash, etc. All of these scents at once don’t smell nice. In fact, it feels like you are getting hit in the face as they walk by.

  • June Geraci

    Understood! I live this too. Have thrown people out of my office, my home, and my car. They think I am insane. My mother has thrown medical staff out of my hospital room or ER cubicle because they are drenched in scent. A person having trouble breathing does not need perfume, thank you.

    Have been making my own laundry soap for a few years now. Unscented and gentle, inexpensive too! Let me know if you want the recipe. No more itching and eczema.

    Hang in there. You are not alone.

  • Penny

    I just have to walk past someone on the street to feel the adverse effects of perfume. I avoid hugs and I’ve had to ask house guests to not use fragrance inside but it’s such an awkward conversation! The worst was when my babies would be ‘skunked’ by perfume wearers and would smell of perfume or aftershave for days despite washing hair etc…my own babies gave me chemical headaches 🙁

  • Here here! Take note of the word fume. The word fragrance listed on INCI (international nomenclature of ingredient listing) does allow perfume to be used on a number of various ingredients which is dubious, confusing and misleading. It could in some cases be the preservative i.e. Naticide which has been passed by organic standards. In short, best to use a smattering of essential oils (in a carrier) that have therapeutic benefits. This should assist with maintaining friendships and not causing too much of a stink with those of us who are chemically sensitive 🙂

  • Fay Pottinger

    Oh my goodness – I LOVE this letter! I’ve suffered from chemical sensitivities for years, and most of my friends and family think I’m nuts for my reactions to certain ‘smells’! I’ve spent the last few years developing a range of 100% natural balms which combine the art of fine fragrance with the science of aromatherapy, resulting in some really beautiful and complex wellbeing fragrances (up to 25 essential oils in each blend). We launched just a few months ago in the UK, but have had the most incredible response so far, and I’d love to send some samples to you, to see what you think? Please email me on [email protected] if interested. Many thanks, Fay

  • Lara Anastasia Dunne

    Love this! I often find myself even having to move at a restaurant as people sitting nearby are wearing such strong “fragrances”, an added dilemma to finding the right place to sit. Thank you for sharing so many truths and making me feel a little less strange!

  • Michele

    Thank you so much for highlighting this issue.

    I have multiple chemical sensitivities and fragrance is a major trigger for migraine.

    I also grew up in a home where strong perfume, hair products and household cleaners permeated the air all the time. My migraines started at age 15 & now at 42 I’ve had to give up full time work due to the debilitating effects of migraine. I moved out of Sydney a few years ago thinking that a slow, quiet life would allow me to regain my health but my commute, a 4 hour round trip on the train, has been horrendous due to the fragrance that both men & women wear. At times I can barely breathe. I move from carriage to carriage trying to escape the smells but it’s almost impossible. I can now only cope with the commute two days each week and spend the rest of the week trying to recover.

    My family are starting to realise the impact their perfumes, hair products, candles and air freshers (?!?) have on me. For so long I’ve felt like a whinger and suffered in silence. We have to raise our voices 🙂

  • Molly

    i too suffer headaches and asthma from anything with a perfume smell, my mum always washes the kids clothes in her laundry stuff when she has them cause she thinks my clothes don’t smell clean because there is no perfume. i have to wash their stuff a few times to get rid of it before the kids will wear it again, and hubby always complains of the stench.

  • charli

    A good friend has always been dolled up like a princess with all the hair, nail, face and fragrance products. She is now battling for her life with breast cancer. I know it’s probably not ultimately the cause, but it can’t have helped.When you are young you don’t tend to think of the repercussions and I am trying to teach my teenage daughter to ditch the chemicals. She doesn’t understand why when all her friends are fine and spraying themselves with impulse between lessons and all I let her use is baking soda and tea tree antiperspirant.

  • Jodie

    Yes!! a work mate used to spray his deodorant at his desk and I would literally choke on the chemicals from the other side of the room. I had to ask him not to spray several times before I resorted to making dramatic choking noises to get him to stop. So glad i’m not the only one who struggles with this kind of reaction.

  • I love the beautiful smells of perfume, but like you I cannot have them near me. I can’t use hair spray or for that matter pretty much anything that comes in a spray. If I’m close by when someone sprays a deodorant or hair spray I can’t breathe. My allergies don’t stop at perfume, I also cannot handle the strong smells of many cleaning products, so I find myself having to clean our house with vinegar, lemons and bi-carb soda instead of bleach or other cleaning products.

  • Iona

    My sense of smell has become super-sensitive twice in my life – both times immediately after having hair highlights done. The first time I had to stop wearing perfume and other people’s perfumes would smell suffocatingly strong. The second time (10 years later, I decided to risk it again) car fumes smelt incredibly powerful. Both times the effect has lasted several months and still hasn’t worn off permanently. Sarah – do you know of any effective alternatives to traditional chemical highlights? I live in London so we don’t get enough sun here for my very mousy tones! Thanks for spreading awareness of these issues. Iona

  • Karen Church

    I never had allergies or hayfever as a kid but when I started working the moment one of the staff came in with aftershave on I would start sneezine. I would started getting allergies and hayfever and we thought it was the sprays the florist next door was spraying on her flowers to keep them looking good in the non ventilated common area at the back of our shops.

  • Garrett

    Yes, someone finally spelled it out! Thank you, Sarah. I agree with you 10000000000000000000000% (was that enough 0’s?)

  • Anese

    My pet hate is when my colleagues spray aerosol cans in the staff room while I’m eating my lunch! As if the toxic smell from those awful things isn’t bad enough, I am also forced to taste it!

  • dgerl

    Advice please 🙂 What to do on flights when you’re stuck next to someone perfumed and can’t move seats… Face mask? I’m finding flights the most difficult to manage. Thanks!

    • Gemma Teagan

      In order of most offensive scented products, i can’t deal with dryer sheets, vanilla perfume, axe body spray, and almost every other perfume. For some reason, girls in my city have started dousing themselves in vanilla perfume en masse – I encounter at least one of them wearing the sickening stuff every time I get on a bus. It gives me an instant headache and brain fog, makes my eyes itch and puff up, gives me a sore throat, and makes me nauseous and want to upchuck. I can’t tell how much of it is chemical sensitivity and how much is personal dislike of that sickly sweet smell, but they ruin my day by wearing it. I personally would feel ridiculous wearing a scent that I thought would make everyone go, “oooo you smell so good,” when in reality it makes people want to barf. I feel like there must be some pop cultural thing I’m unaware of that’s making these girls put on vanilla perfume, because there are just so many of them suddenly wearing the exact same synthetic one-note perfume. If I’m complaining a lot it’s because I’m currently sitting on the bus right near a vanilla-perfumer and it’s viciously assaulting my senses.

  • Michelle

    This. I find it so rude when people wear a lot of perfume. I catch public transport for work most days and am often faced with the dilemma of being around at least one person with strong perfume. I have mostly outgrown my asthma, but certain perfumes still trigger it. Perfumes also give me allergies and headaches. I can’t help but think that in the decades to come that wearing perfume will be frowned upon, or people won’t wear it at all. Similar to smoking now!

  • Storm Baynes-Ryan

    Sarah, I’m with you on this, but get stuck on how to smell nicer than a dead rat on a hot day. I use a homemade deodorant, same with shampoo and conditioner, a relatively scent free soap but sometimes I can’t get rid of the smell of myself at the end of The day, even with soap, especially if I’ve had some stress. Ideas please?

    • ellie

      A cotton cosmetic pad or cotton ball, dabbed in a bowl of baking soda and patted on armpits works great!

  • Alicia Vaux

    I’ve definitely noticed that I react to fragrance/perfume and it is MUCH WORSE since having a baby. When I was pregnant I became repulsed by perfume and would get an instant headache. Couldn’t go anywhere near the laundry/cleaning aisle and even the smell of washing detergent on peoples clothes was so strong and off putting.
    The feeling never went away and most synthetic perfume gives me asthma too. There are such gorgeous natural perfumes out there now that I never feel deprived, and I love the effects of essential oils as well.

  • Melissa Jockell

    And this goes for laundry products, as well. I am unable to do anything where groups of peoples site near each other for an extended time (movies, etc.) because not only do the fragrance in personal care products affect me, but the laundry detergent/fabric softeners/scent boosters/air fresheners wreak havok on my health. And don’t get me started on people who are walking aromatherapy diffusers. It leaves me feeling despondent because I am fearful of being around others. Not many people understand this issue and how serous it can be. it leaves me fearful of other people. It also affects my ability to keep a job without detrimental effects when overscented people come into contact with me.

  • red nosey

    Ugh. I’m just the same. And my family won’t stop. Even though I tell them all the time. it is hurting me but they are being inconsiderate in return. I don’t know what to do anymore. its effecting my daily activities . the worse is when im done washing from a long shower and then someone use it again and again. I’m talking about the incense too. I cant lock my self in my room all day and even that doesn’t work.

  • Jason Smalls

    As a man I can say there’s no bigger turn off than a woman who wears perfume. I want to smell her natural smell not a chemical smell. These days it’s extremely difficult to meet a woman who is not using some kind of scented lotion, perfume, deodorant, laundry soap, dryer sheets or heavily scented shampoo and/or conditioner. Unfortunately I’ve avoided getting into relationships with women who I really liked simply because I could not take the fake chemical fragrance of the products that they were using. You’d be surprised at how many times I hear my guy friends say: “I really like her but I can’t stand the smell of her perfume (conditioner,clothes) and I don’t know how to tell her.”

  • Siobhan O’Sullivan

    I’m so grateful to have come across your website! It’s difficult to come across anyone who understands.

  • Rose M. Rivera

    Thank you for writing this! I have the same exact response and symptoms, with an added skin reaction, stubborn exzema that worsens when exposed to some fragrances and/or chemicals. I’ve not been diagnosed with autoimmune disease but I fear that I will become a recluse out of necessity is more and more difficult to find a store that doesn’t use cleaners I cannot tolerate, or to go to the movies or a concert, even outdoors, the fragrances carry.

  • ellie

    Thank you for sharing your letter. MCS is very isolating. It gives me hope to know others are out there like me, and I’m not crazy! It’s really hard when your own family thinks you are!

  • JohnWayne777

    I am male and never used colognes nor do I like most perfumes. Some smell nice on women in part per billion quantities but it seems some people have a weak sense of smell and think they need much more than I can tolerate. Some perfumes and colognes make me want to rinse my mouth with water because they some sort of petroleum distillate compound or something that sticks to my tongue. And you should NEVER give perfumes as gifts because for some people the selection is critical to avoid illness. My thought is that perfumes and cologne manufacturers should be required to disclose the chemicals used and therefore some of those chemicals would probably be banned from products. I especially hate going to malls and other places where someone is spraying perfume or handing out paper samples sprayed with it. I can smell it a mile away and have to hold my breath and frantically fight them off as I pass by until the wind of my brisk walk carries the molecules away enough to safely take a breath. In my opinion the workplace is NO place for perfumes or colognes. Unless everyone agrees that your scent is acceptable by blind vote then leave it at home and have no remedy in HR.

  • Anne Harrison

    I don’t know you. I am joining in. I hope you don’t mind.

    I had a bit of an episode at work last Friday. A colleague was wearing a new perfume. I do not have issues with them all, but this one contained “that ingredient” . I got to the flight stage before I mentioned it but it was OK. I was able to go to another room although I really wanted to go home for the inevitable bath. The only way to clean myself and nostrils, just think trying to drown yourself and repeat, until all offending aroma and chemicals have gone.

    You do not seem to mention rage. I get almost psychotic when I am trapped,(as in the office), the only one suffering, when no one else seems the least bit bothered by the “torture”. They all carry on as normal and I get indescribably furious with them.

    The worst is that now I have been re-exposed I know that I am susceptible to more attacks.

    What is to be done ladies? Is it only ladies?

  • Jen

    Still relevant, 3 years later.