On Perfume & Why My Super Power is Killing Me

I have a hypersensitive sense of smell, which means I can smell a lot more than the average person, and most aromas are like “smell concentrate” for me. That’s a really big problem, especially when I’m in public and people are wearing perfume. In fact, the perfume thing is so bad that I sometimes have to leave stores and restaurants because of the smell — and I bet I’m not alone.

Dead jeff

Just to give you an idea how much of an impact this has on my daily life: I had to find soap that doesn’t have any scent at all. Essential oils count, too, so that really limits my soap choices. I can’t go down the detergent aisle at the grocery store, so I have to find someone to grab my laundry soap off the shelf for me. If you’re smoking in your car with the windows rolled up, I can smell you in my car. With my windows rolled up.

And then there’s perfume. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, if you call it perfume or cologne, the stuff is like an airborne toxin to people like me. It leads in ahead of you like a burning wall, and trails you like tentacles that wrap around everyone’s throat while sucking the air out of the room, blanketing everything with its clingy-heavy smell.

Perfume peopleJust because you can’t see perfume doesn’t mean it won’t hurt people

I’ve been asked several times what perfume smells like to me. It smells like breathing kerosene, gravel and barbed wire. If it’s supposed to smell really sweet, or baby fresh, add in the sensation of snorting granulated dish washing detergent.

It’s a show stopper, and on more than one occasion has led to awkward moments when I have to get up and rush out of a conversation or meeting because I simply can’t catch my breath. Saying that you “only put on a little” is akin to saying “I only dropped a small bomb on your house.”

Kerosene barbedwirePerfume: It’s like breathing kerosene, barbed wire & gravel

When perfumed people come into my local coffee shop I usually have to hold a napkin over my nose and mouth to breathe, and if the scent is really strong I end up having to rush outside and brave the cigarette smoke until they’re gone. Looking through the window at my drink while I wait is more common than you’d think because remembering to grab the cup while my lungs and throat feel like they’re collapsing is pretty hard to do. Turns out that’s an amazingly distracting sensation.

Jeff outsideDrinks don’t taste as good when you can’t get at them

Abandoning my groceries because someone with heavy perfume is in the store? Yeah, I’ve had to do that. When I could finally go back into the store my groceries were still waiting, so that was cool because I didn’t have to start my shopping over.


There are times that I really wish I had a space suit I could wear when I go out just so I wouldn’t have to deal with overpowering perfume smells I face every day. OK, and let’s be honest: wearing a space suit would be really cool.

I know some people really like wearing perfume, and there are people that really love those scents on their friends or significant other. I’m OK with that, and I don’t have any problem with people wearing as much perfume as they want as long as it isn’t in public. The grocery store, the office, at school, your favorite coffee shop, restaurants… those aren’t the places for perfume.

If you enjoy perfume, try thinking of it as an accessory for intimate experiences. The kind of experiences that we associate with the privacy of our homes and bedrooms, not a deep conversation at the coffee shop. Just as I don’t want to be exposed to your perfume over lunch, I’m betting you really don’t want to see me ordering a sandwich while wearing nothing more than naughty underpants.

Naughty underpants

So how about we agree to keep our intimate stuff, whether it’s perfume or sexy knickers, for our special personal encounters?

And I’m not asking just for me. I’m also asking for everyone else that’s afraid to say something, kids that don’t realize they shouldn’t have to be exposed to smells that burn their eyes and throat, people with asthma, and everyone with allergies.


15 thoughts on “On Perfume & Why My Super Power is Killing Me

  1. Hey Jeff, I love the illustrations (!!), but I have to take issue with the overall message.

    The difference is that the elephant you’re considering wielding in public is likely to be problematic for almost everyone, while wearing a modicum of perfume is likely to be problematic for very few people. I don’t have numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests you are way outside the bell curve on olfactory sensitivity.

    I’m very sympathetic to how troublesome it is for you—and I would definitely choose to go cologne-less when I knew I would be with you (I don’t wear cologne)—but I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask the entire world to base their scent on what you can tolerate.

  2. Yeah, it’s unrealistic to expect the world to change for me, although that won’t stop me from dreaming. The important part for me is helping people that don’t see perfume as an issue for anyone understand just how big of a problem it can be. Maybe I’ll be able to help someone that can’t explain why perfume is a problem for them by giving them something they can show to family and friends.

    Thanks for the compliment on the art! And I promise to not wear the elephant underpants in public.

  3. I’d love to see some numbers, too. Surely, SURELY, your sensitivity is just way off the scale?

    And how about scented deodorants? I’ve worn such near you, but will most assuredly find some no-scent deodorant before we see each other again if it bothers you.

    Body spray?

    Drier sheets?

    Do these things all hit you this powerfully? If so, that sucks butt.

  4. Actually, it’s more common than most people think. Even of its not as severe a reaction, it can still be bothersome. And everything is scented these days which just compounds the problem. WebMD cites about 2 million people with Fragrance Sensitivity. http://www.m.webmd.com/allergies/features/fragrance-allergies-a-sensory-assault?page=1

    And for people like myself with mild asthma, the onslaught of odors can, quite literally, take my breath away. I think most people that are bothered by it feel bad saying anything and just suffer through.

    Miss Manners (maybe Dear Abby) says that perfume should be reserved for private or intimate moments. No one used to think twice about lighting up at a party or smoking a cigar in a restaurant, either.

    Just my 2 cents’ worth!

  5. Hey Bryan! Yep. Scented anything is a no-go. Dryer sheets, detergents, soap, deodorant. No candles (except vanilla and pine seem okay). Luckilyost natural products come in unscented. I was just reading about something mentioned in this article…masking agents. Never thought of that. Things that are “unscented” can actually be “masked” instead. Huh. Who knew?

  6. Also… Not sure it’s obvious in that last drawing, he’s wearing elephant underpants. Okay…I’m done!

  7. Yep, I have problems with all kinds of products. I had to find unscented deodorant and drier sheets, natural household cleaning products, non-chemical based shampoo, and unscented laundry detergent. There are some magazines I’ll never look at because the ink they use actually makes me sick to my stomach.

    Growing up my mom thought I meant I didn’t like broccoli and cauliflower when I said it made me want to throw up. What I really meant was that it made me want to throw up — the scent of those veggies is beyond horrible to me.

    Don’t worry about changing your deodorant because isn’t bothering me. And thanks for the concern. It’s great having friends like you.

  8. Are certain anatomical features exaggerated in the last drawing? Ha. Well, you can never work in the healthcare field. You must suffer in hospitals. I hear they stink. I don’t smell them anymore; you have to have some WICKED meth feet to squick me these days. And I can validate that this issue of yours is really quite common. I buy unscented everything because although I’ve never worn perfume, just the smell of shampoo or soap bothers enough patients that I got out of the habit. And even if you’re not naturally sensitive, some medicines (especially chemo) can invoke the issue and make it acutely debilitating.

  9. Jeff, for some of us, like myself, exposure to someone wearing a lot of perfume can trigger a migraine. Having said that natural perfumes, like Sandlewood, or Patchouli, don’t generally set of my migraines. The best principle to apply with regard to wearing perfumes or cologne is that one should not wear so much that it overwhelms others.

  10. No, that actually is the size of my nose.

    And I know I’d be kind of screwed in the health care industry. I worked in a print shop for a few years, and that was like my own little hell.

    Also, the fact that you pay attention to scent-related issues for patients is just awesome. I’ve always been amazed at the number of nurses, LPNs and doctors that wear perfumes, or even worse, smoke and then immediately come into close contact with patients. How can they think that’s OK?

  11. Bruce, I feel your pain. I’ve been down for the count more than once thanks to perfume-induced migraines. Unfortunately for me, even natural perfumes leave me with a burning throat and a bad headache, and can just as easily lead to a migraine.

  12. Thanks for the added info, NNR.

    Because this, like all things, is all about me, I wanted to add that there are a few people who wear perfume/cologne really well. It’s a chemistry thing, no doubt, but I’ve known a few people who just smell fantastic.

    Most people, however, do not wear their scents well. It makes me sad.

  13. I am so looking forward to those elephant underpants gracing the Macworld/iWorld floor next year.

  14. I am glad someone finally brought up this issue. I too can smell people smoking in cars, know who smokes by just smelling someone walking down the street, and if someone has on cologne, uses scented detergent or dryer sheets, or any type of body spray often times have to leave the room or suffer migraines that last days. People tease me and say I have a super sniffer, but it’s not funny, it’s a serious problem. It also trigger asthma attacks. Airplanes are especially uncomfortable, as are other confined spaces and public areas.

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