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Some allergic to scent are declaring war against odor. One Massachusetts woman filed a lawsuit last year after having an allergic woman to a coworker's perfume.
By contributor
updated 3/31/2008 8:34:38 AM ET 2008-03-31T12:34:38

Karen Kraig has been known to raise a stink about strong smells.

The Sept. 11 attacks caused the Manhattan financial consultant’s already acute sense of smell to go both ballistic and bronchial, leaving her wheezing whenever she encounters a whiff of perfume, laundry detergent, fabric softener or window cleaner.

As a result, Kraig instructs clients to show up for their appointments fragrance-free — or else.

“If someone comes into my office wearing perfume or with a strong shampoo or laundry soap smell, I have to ask them to leave,” she says. “On occasion, I’ve made people wear a garbage bag over their clothes because the detergent smell was so fierce I couldn’t endure it.”

Kraig is not alone in her sensitivity to strong smells. Fragrances were named “allergen of the year” for 2007 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. And a 2003 study of more than 10,000 mothers and their infants in England found air fresheners, deodorants and aerosols were “significantly associated” with headaches in moms and earache, vomiting and diarrhea in their babies.

But while the physiological effects of perfume and other powder-fresh products continue to be hashed out in medical circles and research labs, another question looms large for those with sensitive noses and/or sensitive feelings when it comes to being asked to don a Hefty bag or forgo their favorite hand lotion: How far is too far when it comes to sticking up for your nose?

The answer to that question might be easier to sniff out if it weren’t for the fact that not all noses are created equal. Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and neurological director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation of Chicago, says sense of smell differs from individual to individual. Other factors, such as age, gender and whether you’ve had lunch, can also affect sensitivity.

“Women have a stronger sense of smell than men. Certain ethnic groups have better abilities to smell,” Hirsch says. “And there are also different physiological states that will intensify olfactory abilities, like when you’re hungry or you’re pregnant or if you have certain diseases or conditions.”

Indoor smoking bans have also had an impact on our noses.

“People are no longer being inundated by smoke,” he says. “They’re aware of the ambient aromas around them and they’re also more sensitized to them.”

The problem is that what some consider ambient aromas, others perceive as a relentless chemical assault on their respiratory system.

The use of fragrance in cosmetics, candles, hair spray, household cleaners, lotions, laundry soap, maxi pads and plug-in air fresheners has exploded in the last few years. (Downy alone offers 20 different scented fabric softeners including Mountain Spring, Turquoise Frost and Tahitian Waterfall.) And “sensory marketing” has made it nearly impossible to open a bill, read a magazine or stay in a nice hotel without encountering some form of scented sticker, perfumed envelope or blackberry-infused newspaper.

Add to that the raft of teen body sprays, celebrity scents and, yes, even dog perfumes, and it’s no wonder that those with scent sensitivities feel they’re slowly being suffocated by an increasingly large and smelly enemy.

Not surprisingly, some have declared war:

  • A city bus driver in Calgary in Alberta, Canada, kicked a woman off his bus for overdoing her Very Irresistible by Givenchy last March.
  • Last June, a Massachusetts woman filed a lawsuit against her former employer after she was hospitalized for an allergic reaction to a coworker’s perfume.
  • In December 2006, environmental illness activists in San Francisco got chocolate chip cookie “scent strips” banned from bus shelters the same day they were installed after pointing out that the “Got Milk?” advertising stunt might cause asthma attacks and allergic reactions.
  • And a Nova Scotia high school teacher went so far as to call in the cops back in 2000 when one of her students refused to quit using Dippity Do hair gel despite the school’s fragrance-free policy.

“We’re bombarded by chemicals all day long,” says Aileen Gagney, an asthma and health program manager for the American Lung Association of Washington who suffers migraines and breathing issues due to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). “And there’s no need for it. Does your house really have to smell like pine in order to be clean? Do you really need to smell like Jennifer Lopez? We’ve been sold such a bunch of goods by the commercial industry.”

Through Gagney’s efforts, the Seattle office where she works has a fragrance-free policy, which she’s not afraid to enforce should someone fail to respect it.

“If someone comes in to meet with me and they’re off-gassing perfume or hand lotion, I’ll ask them to go wash it off,” she says. “Some of them are pretty incensed. They get defensive and say, ‘It’s just hand lotion.’ But I’ll tell them, ‘Yes, but your lotion is triggering me.’”

Chemical sensitivity or chemical entitlement?
But while scent-sensitive souls point to wheezing lungs, watery eyes, throbbing temples and even perfume-induced ambulance rides, others wonder if something else is behind the big ado about odor.

“I understand that there are people who’ve been exposed to hard core chemicals and have legitimate issues,” says Carly Sommerstein, a 42-year-old production editor in New York who became extremely scent-sensitive during her pregnancy. “But I think there’s a whole other group of people who are just using this to boss everybody around. They’re moving away from chemical sensitivity to chemical entitlement.”

Dawn Geisler, who cashiered at a natural food store in Ann Arbor, Mich., for 13 years, says she’s been led around by someone else’s nose again and again.

“[Customers] complained about the cashiers who wore deodorant. They complained that we had painted walls. Some even complained about the vinegar and water solution we used to clean the belt,” says the 35-year-old who now does data entry. “I know that people can be very sensitive to these things, but it seemed like some of these people were expecting the world to accommodate them. And that’s very hard.”

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But Hirsch, the smell expert, says seizing control of a smelly situation may actually be part of what makes scent sensitive people feel better.

“People perceive smells as an intrusion on their body space,” he says. “But if you can control the smell, you’re much less bothered by it than if you can’t control it. It’s an instinctive perception, like a dog marking its territory.”

Hirsch says a person’s perception of a smell will also change depending on whether it’s coming from someone or something they like or not.

“You can clear a room with a bad smell and give people all kinds of headaches,” he says. “But you can put that same smell on a Disney ride and no one will complain.”

This principle, which Hirsch calls “hedonic perception,” may explain why a person’s nose may get out of joint about one smell but not another.

“I wear body butter and one of my coworkers will always start coughing and gagging every time she goes by my office,” says Maryam Diaab, a 40-year-old health care coordinator from Long Island, N.Y. “But there’s another woman who wears patchouli and she never says anything to her. I feel like she’s singling me out. I hope she coughs up a lung.”

War of the noses
Workplace nose wars are one reason Peter Post of the Emily Post Institute recommends minimal scent or no-scent policies on the job. But until those are in place, he says people with sensitivities great and small need to find a way to communicate their health issues while still respecting the rights of those around them.

“We all have to get along in this world somehow and share this space,” he says. “And at what point do you make your allergies somebody else’s problem? If people have severe allergies, they have to figure out a way to interact with others without making that person change their life completely, too.”

Sending people laundry lists of “banned” beauty products or telling them to cover up their clothing with a trash bag is pushing the envelope, he says. “You’ve got to figure out another way to handle it.”

Fawn Fritzen, a business analyst from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, was able to get her coworkers to forgo fragrance simply by asking nicely.

“Scent is a personal thing,” says the 29-year-old, who brought up the topic at a staff meeting after construction dust, and later, pregnancy wreaked havoc with her nose and lungs. “So if you’re going to ask someone to change their behavior it has to be done in a caring way. If I would have told them to make sure all their products at home were scent-free, that would have been going overboard. But it’s not a huge burden to ask people to change a few things, like not wearing perfume or a strong-smelling hand lotion.”

Luckily, for those who’ve come to dread the scent of a woman, a few things are changing.

Scent-free policies have been embraced by workplaces, weddings, colleges, and conferences and both perfume sales and the willingness of women to wear it have declined. The sale of men’s and women’s fragrances fell one percent in 2007 according to the consumer product sales research firm NPD Group, which also found that the number of women who go without perfume rose from 13 percent in 2003 to 15 percent last year. In addition, natural products and unscented versions of old favorites are starting to grace more and more grocery store shelves.

Even a San Francisco dominatrix is able to resist the urge to bully her scent-sensitive clientele.

“Let me know during our confirmation call,” her Web site advises, “so that I may adjust my toilette accordingly.”

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