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Fragrance Sensitivity Part 2: Personal Impact

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If you prefer listening, click below for the audio version of this article.

My Fragrance Sensitivity Part 2: Personal Impact, on the Be Free Respect Podcast. 

Disclaimer: I am not a brain or brain rewiring expert. I am simply sharing my personal journey and my personal understanding as it makes sense to me.

Recognizing My Fragrance Sensitivity Through Two Experiences

As I shared in My Fragrance Sensitivity Part 1, my fragrance sensitivity recognition began with 2 navy blue votive candles. The impact fragrance had on my health and state of mind became clear through two experiences that I will share below. 

The first experience centered around an air freshener at work. The second experience was when I recognized that the fragrance chemicals in a hair conditioner was creating depression. True story. Read below.

Fragrance Sensitivity in the Workplace

It was some time between 2002 and 2005 when I started to recognize an increased sensitivity to fragrances. I was blessed to have a job I loved and I was blessed to be working with a close-knit group of friends during that difficult phase of my life. I needed to put effort into my new gluten-free diet for uphill health improvements while preventing myself from crashing after a failed marriage. My job was my safe place. It was my routine. It was something I could count on. As a teacher’s aide in an early childhood special ed classroom, it was also something I I felt I was good at.

I had previously recognized the blessing it was to have found the job I did. While I didn’t call it my GPS at the time, I felt that I was led to that position. Things had lined up so perfectly that I just had to recognize where this gift came from.

That perfect job started to go south quickly when a teacher and friend I worked with started using plug-in air fresheners. It didn’t take me long to recognize that that scent device was to blame for the sudden change in my well-being. 

Air Fresheners

I felt fine when I left my house in the morning, but within minutes of entering the classroom I felt a tightness in my chest and in my neck. Cognitive struggles came next. Thinking clearly became increasingly more difficult. I started to feel shaky inside. Focusing on the kids became a very real struggle. 

Mental clarity turned to mental mush.

I was grateful for outdoor recess and for 3:15 when I could drive home with my windows wide open. It was a difficult environment to work in. It was difficult just because of that single plug-in device.

What else was difficult?–telling my friend that this product was making me sick. 

Communicating My Needs

This was all new to me. Gluten free was new. Fragrance sensitivity was new. Having to speak up for such  personal needs was new. Diet was something I had complete control of (even if the emotional side took some time to figure out, as I shared in my series, The Emotional Side of Gluten Free). Having a fragrance sensitivity, however, requires requests regarding others’ personal choices–a far from simple task.

I finally had to say something to my friend; I just couldn’t endure it any longer. After explaining my reactions and recognition of what I was reacting to, I basically said (in the kindest way I could), “It is me or the air freshener. One of us has to go.” My friend chose to dispose of the air freshener. I was ever-so-grateful. She removed it and that was that. 

Most people are genuinely kind. We just need to give them the option and show them what kind means to us. Suffering in silence goes nowhere. It was brutally difficult for me to have to request that that device be removed. Health has to come first, though. I learned how to speak up. Honestly, if I didn’t, my friend and co-workers would never have known why I looked and acted so miserable.

Not Everyone Responds With Kindness

I have always tried to be as clear and as kind as I could when expressing my needs. Telling someone their hand lotion, perfume, or laundry product choice makes you sick, however, is never easy. I have been blessed with general kindness and accommodating friends and co-workers—for the most part. An experience less than a handful of years ago, however, showed me a different side of people. 

That particular experience became one of the four darkest times of my life. It is still a significant trigger for me. Since I’m working very hard on my personal journey through recovery from limbic system impairment, and working on avoiding triggering memories, I will save that story for another time (and only in a way that it can benefit others).

I allowed that experience to force an end to a career path I’d been working so hard on. I found myself having to climb out of a very dark hole. But I DID it!—and I found a new direction. No matter where you are, remember this: the days will brighten again. It may not happen quickly, and it may not be in a way you plan, but please reach for the light and make that your focus. 

Through my journey, I have worked at becoming a stronger advocate. There are always silver linings to be found. Many people are forced to live in isolation or under circumstances where fragrance chemicals create debilitating health. Why? Because we are inundating our environments with vast amounts of fragrance chemicals. 

If you don’t live with a fragrance sensitivity, this statement might sound dramatic. There is no way to understand the impact one person’s perfume, fragranced deodorant or air freshener can have. Please know, however, that this is very real!


Click Here for a short video from EWG (Environmental Working Group) about fragrances and the chemicals behind them.

 Resource article: Air Fresheners and Air Quality, by Dr. Anne Steinemann (an internationally recognized expert on pollutant exposures and associated health effects).

International Prevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity  

Fragrance Chemicals and Depression

The following experience really drove home the impact of my chemical sensitivity–or more, the impact fragrance chemicals were having on me. It happened about a year after my divorce, somewhere around the year 2004. I had been on antidepressants for the year following my divorce after discussing my emotions with my doctor. 

The process of creating goals and taking control of my life meant that I was finally able to get rid of that temporary support. I was driving uphill and it felt good. I had been working my day job while taking night classes. I was working towards finishing something I started two decades earlier: getting my teaching degree.

I had a plan. I felt good. But then I didn’t. 

Dark clouds of sadness started to return. Crying spells that had disappeared became common again. I struggled to understand what was causing my depression to return. I made an appointment with my doctor thinking that I must have gone off my antidepressants too soon. But then, just like those navy blue votive candles I talked about in my last post, my brain started to make connections. 

I had just started using a new hair conditioner. I started to recognize the smell in my hair throughout the day even though that product passed the initial sniff test. That scent started to become stronger and more noxious. I finally decided to get rid of that product and go back to using what I’d been using previously. And guess what?!–I returned to the more balanced person I felt I had been becoming.  Depression gone. Appointment canceled. Medication wasn’t needed. 

Surely I'm Not the Only One

My depression was directly connected to my hair conditioner! This wouldn’t be the last time I made a mental health connection to the chemicals in a product. Far from it. While I still had no idea at that time that fragrance sensitivity was even a thing, I was recognizing that it had a pretty serious impact on me. It would take another several years before I learned that so many fragranced products contain phthalates and other hormone disrupting chemicals. All I knew at the time was that I had to steer clear of certain products in order to continue on this journey I had before me: Life. 

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