Photo: One thing you can do for fragrance-sensitive people

It's hard to comprehend how we suffer, because environmental sensitivities are a poorly understood medical condition. (Credit: Dave Moss)

Believe us!

I get scent headaches. They hurt, make me irritable and make it difficult for me to concentrate. Often, I have to flee the area—or person. I'm lucky all I get is a headache. And I'm grateful for a scent-free workplace and home.

Many suffer much worse from toxic chemicals in synthetic fragrances. They can't find a safe place to live (e.g., free from laundry scents), have quit their jobs, and can't ride in a bus or elevator or new car, take a plane, use a new laptop, or enjoy a movie in the theatre.

It's hard to comprehend how we suffer, because environmental sensitivities are a poorly understood medical condition. They're complex and not easily defined. And the causes, symptoms and triggers vary from person to person. Three per cent of the Canadian population suffers.

Did you know that environmental sensitivities are considered a disability in Canada (PDF) as well as the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act? And employers (but unfortunately not neighbours) are asked to show reasonable accommodation.

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In 2012, Ecojustice won a lawsuit that supported Varda Burstyn because they believed that access to a safe environment is a human rights issue! (And now, there's a movie about "fragrance", too, called Stink!)

What is reasonable accommodation?

A list of 14 actions can be found in this report, including:

  • Fragrance-free environments
  • Carpet-free environments
  • Windows that open
  • Moving an employee's work station or modifying work schedule

To illustrate the diversity of causes, symptoms and triggers faced by my Queen of Green fans alone, I recently asked them (via Facebook), "What's the worst scent bomb experience you've had?" Here are 30 stories from real people who need your empathy and compassion:

"Being at work where co-workers use cologne/perfume despite scent-free workplace signs. And management does nothing." Robert

"Three of my five kids have asthma. If we go near the cleaning products in stores I can't trust that they won't have an asthma attack. When my older kids stay with family and their laundry gets done while gone, we need to rewash the clothes AND not let them mix in the laundry with other things. If they come in contact with my asthmatic kids clothes or towels in the machine they wheeze and their eczema flares up." Anon.

"Over 20 years ago my son had a serious allergic reaction to brand name dryer sheets." Sharon

"I had to quit my job (partially) because my co-workers refused to stop wearing perfume. I am now chronically ill from working in that office and can't tolerate synthetic chemicals or fragrance without becoming sick for days." Rebecca F.

"It's so serious we need to give our children their asthma medicine before even walking through the zoo since the indoor exhibits are full of people wearing scents." Amy

"I was in an elevator that broke down for 42 minutes, with a man who wore cologne. It gave me a migraine which caused me to vomit. I had to use my favourite carry bag to avoid messing on the floor." Lisa

"I wish everyone could experience a nebulizer/emergency room, airway closed, asthma attack. Maybe then they would switch to scent free products?" Rebecca S. (Allison said her son suffers like this, too.)

"I get migraines from certain scents. I have been trapped with perfumes and colognes in, elevators, offices, cars, buses, etc. A migraine follows soon after. It is debilitating." Jean

"We can't use our side door, as my next door neighbour's dryer (constantly in use) pumps out fabric softener perfume that shuts down my sinuses. Their vent blows it right into our house." Rebecca P.

"I put a stop to teachers using sensy oil warmers in our school. My kids were coming home smelling horrible. And imagine trying to do work in that?" Liz

"Rushing into an elevator to rush right back out again, overwhelmed by perfume, so much that it felt as though my lungs were closing. Cleaning aisles in stores, or aisles with excessive amounts of plastics are also bad." Roxanne

"A single stall bathroom at work is unusable because air freshener is heavily used. This is a daily event and that stuff is suffocating!" Heather L.

"Scented candles section in stores; trapped in a cab with multiple air fresheners." Heather B.

"I'd rather not smell any of my neighbour's laundry (so would my asthma and migraines). Weekly my neighbours do a load of overly bleached laundry." Desiree

"I hate walking the neighbourhood during the fall/winter here in Langley. Everyone has the horrendous dryer sheet/fabric softener concoction blowing." Sarah

"I work at a college in the office of the registrar. One day a person came to the back office so drenched in someone else's cologne that I had an asthma attack. I never saw the student but had to handle his paperwork and that was enough to cause an asthma attack. Just imagine if I had to actually speak with the student." Brenda

"Brand name dryer sheets send me into a severe migraine. And I have to get off the bus if overly scented people get on." P Jean

"I once had to ask the manager of a store that I frequented to ask an employee to stop wearing so much perfume as it made me ill after just a few seconds of contact. It's a small town and I felt bad but it was supposed to be a scent-free workplace. I am in a small town but find that no matter where I go a scent free policy is not enforced." Cameron

"I am allergic to perfumes used in laundry products. My clothes stink with it after I wash in the communal laundry; it's hopeless to ask people to stop. I cough every time I pick my wet laundry up. Even after it dries it stinks! What can be done?" Joan

"Walking the trails and being unable to breathe for a few seconds after passing someone who washed their clothes in heavily scented detergent. But the worse one was a person dowsing herself in perfume before a 6:30 A.M. at hot yoga class = asthma attack." Helene

"I hate running past a house when their doing laundry. You can taste the scent from the dryer sheets." Allison

"Women who apply perfume before dinner! It's volatile, ends up on my clothes, in my mouth and on my date." Violet.

"Going through stores and being even two aisles over from the laundry/cleaning aisle." Kelly

"Scented hand sanitizer or hand cream! My students often forget that these products have very strong scents!" Rachel

"I call it death by fabric softener. Apartment buildings and condos tend to be pervaded with these scents." Melissa

"Bug spray cloud at a relay for life cancer event!" Carrie H.

"The public laundromat." Lisa

"Perfumes, cleaning aisles in grocery stores, fabric softeners from dryer vents and driving behind diesel trucks. It seems to get worse as I get older." Jeannie

"The scent from my neighbour's dryer on my patio is overwhelming. Also when I take my walk and use the pathway between houses." Anon.

"The laundry room in my building is down the hall and around the corner. Yet there's someone every week, without fail, does at least one load with bleach that we can smell it by simply opening our door." Anon.

On behalf of those who suffer from Environmental Sensitivities, thank you for believing us!

Please don't feel judged or shamed, but do ask us how you might help us stay healthy and seek to understand. (We often know what triggers us — down to the exact brand name of laundry product.) And thank you for complying with scent-free policies as it allows us to keep working, going to the dentist, doctor, etc.

Lindsay Coulter, a fellow Queen of Green

September 27, 2016

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Apr 20, 2017
2:42 PM

I have known that I have MCS and been so diagnosed for 28 years. And, no, it does not go away.
I am in need of a good, reliable late model, low mileage COMPLETELY FRAGRANCE FREE USED CAR OR SUV.
Thank you bery much, and good luck to all.

Apr 13, 2017
3:03 PM

My life is a living hell at work because I can’t get away from people who are perfuming / over-perfuming. I came home today with a terrible migraine, I just want to barf. They don’t get it. I get asthma attacks, migraines, skin burns, itchy/watery eyes, running nose. We need legislation to protect us. It absolutely, positively sucks.

Dec 07, 2016
6:13 PM

Wendy: while more difficult at times, you may have more success shopping online. At times, the fragrance actually comes from the sales floor, so what you buy online won’t have it.

There are a lot of environmental shops online. I am a big fan of one that has retail locations in Ottawa but allows you to shop online, makes some of its own cleaning products, as well as selling other brands and will not stock anything that contains the dirty dozen. I let them screen things for me that way, and read their smart labels. Of course, there are many others. I even go to health food stores and bulk stores for many of my environmental and/or scent-free needs.

Scent-free is incredibly easy to find once you get into the habit and know where to look. More and more products are coming on the market every year and, unlike before, they work just as well as the old stuff or even are the same brand. You should be able to replace everything you use nowadays.

Dec 07, 2016
6:03 PM

I used to work at a scent-free workplace and was friends for a while with someone with scent sensitivities. I am a HUGE lover of perfume and scented products, but I always wore them Friday night and Saturday. During the week, I washed with and wore scent-free products (not unfragranced — I know the difference), even use fragrance-free laundry products and never wore weekend clothes to work to help. I was very careful about the products I bought to clean my desk. I never set off my friend, nor the scent-sensitive employee in IT.

So I just never understood the fights I got into (yes, fights) with my colleagues who couldn’t follow the policy, or even felt it was their right to wear scents — freedom of expression. I would repeatedly remind that this was not only hurting someone but interfering with her ability to earn a living. Besides, we signed away our rights of expression when we took our jobs — there were restrictions on our speech and behaviour — but, unlike other things which we could never do, you could still use those products on weekends like I did! Or even, on rare occasion, an evening if you were careful the next day. They would even lie about putting on stuff at the office, when I was the one who saw them do it, and told management not only what I saw but what drawer they were hiding it. They never learned.

By the way, my mother is starting to become scent-sensitive and we have a building laundry room. While imperfect, I find putting vinegar in the pre-wash helps get out the scents of the previous load.

Nov 30, 2016
8:46 PM

Help! I’m looking for as much support as possible in regards to the problems with fragrance. I have allergies and asthma.In the last couple years I can’t believe how strong the smell of fragrance is coming off the clothing in certain stores among other horrors with so much fragrance in everything I need to use. It’s also very distressing to me is that the problem is ever increasing. I don’t know where or who to turn to. This fragrancing of everything has got to stop.

Oct 13, 2016
1:46 AM

My first extreme reaction was to an essential oil, so not everyone can tolerate them… maybe due to the solvents used to extract the oil from the plant. Car, bathroom and air “fresheners” are right up there with fabric softeners for me. I don’t get headaches but I do get something that I call “mental dullard syndrome” which can last for a couple of days. I am unable to concentrate or work effectively, and I lose that automatic ability that we use to type or change gears in a standard car which means I have to look at the letters just like a beginner. I have noticed that the longer and more often I am exposed to these poisons the more they build up in my system until I can’t tolerate even very faint amounts of the offending products and have to withdraw from society for awhile.

Oct 12, 2016
7:07 AM

All you people with “environmental sensitivities” are the canaries in the mines. The canary is more sensitive and warns the people oblivious to everything around them that dangers are nearby. Everything you are sensitive to is bad for everyone. Too bad the other 97% has forgotten to watch the canary. Keep fighting to save the rest of us. :-)

Oct 11, 2016
9:58 PM

This is my life since Christmas 2011, I have to wear a full respirator to work and when I grocery shop. I get headaches that vary in severity. Some feel like a punch in the head really hard. They seem to trigger an angry button too… I cannot control my emotions after being fragrantly assaulted. They get worse as the day gets longer even after the “hit” is gone. My life has changed so much since then. I have no friends anymore, some think I am faking it or it doesn’t pertain to them. I do not go out for fun anymore. Until it is in the collective agreement, I am full time stuck wearing a mask.I wrote a letter to HR Canada and Western Regional and they shot it right back down to the local warehouse manager… the usual blah blah blah. I have taken stress leaves and unpaid because it is a HR problem according to insurance provider, tough luck for me again.

Oct 11, 2016
2:29 PM

I agree with your comments and empathize with your dilemma. I have the same problem and when I comment on stinky deodorant or perfume or after shave I often get snide remarks and looks. I literally get nauseous. Some of the deodorant and perfumes are so strong that I’m sure it can kill flies. Top that off on a hot day in a small room and I am sick for the whole day to the point where I can’t even eat. I’ve asked employees in the past not to wear the stinky stuff. I agree to with the smelly dryer sheets too. I use sent free detergent and dryer sheets because I can’t handle the overpowering smell. I guess they will never have to worry about a bear attack as they can be smelled for miles.

Oct 11, 2016
7:41 AM

I avoid going to places like shoppers drug mart where you have to walk through the perfume department to get into the store. It causes me huge headaches and I feel ill the whole time I’m in the store. I have a huge love for live music, but I can smell the perfume wearers as soon as they walk down my isle…what a horrible feeling it is to be sitting right behind them for an entire 2 hours. A friend of mine spilt fabric softener in her car 2 years ago, had it cleaned, and I still can’t go into her car without headaches, and the type of asthma attacks that make you cough so hard you might throw up. It’s hard to explain to people how these things make me feel without them thinking I’m exaggerating, or making it up. I do understand how hard this is to regulate with the amount of chemicals and scents out there, all I know is that it’s real to the people who get sick from it. Yes, people should get properly tested, diagnosed, and learn how to treat their illnesses. This issue is bigger than that though, we as a society are polluting our environment with chemicals, reactions or no reactions it’s a problem for all of us.

Oct 11, 2016
6:52 AM

I was on a flight. They announced 20 minutes to our destination. Someone prepared themselves for disembarking by heavily spraying themselves with perfume. I spent the rest of the flight with my head inside my shirt trying not to vomit. Contacted the airline and asked why spray anything was allowed on board and was fluffed off.

Oct 10, 2016
7:41 PM

I am very sensitive to any perfume, cologne, or body lotion. I have found an Aroma Therapist whose products are subtle enough for my use. Detergents, hand soap, fabric sheets all are triggers for me that will start off with dizziness, then emesis. Next thing you know I have a full blown migraine, which may run for a few hours, or days. I am also an asthma sufferer from infancy. It upsets me because I feel if the “rules” were followed for fragrance free environment we wouldn’t be suffering, nor would our children.

Oct 10, 2016
5:03 PM

I cannot work the chemicals and perfumes give me I would say worst then migraine’s .I feel like I cannot even move my head or even talk myself into going to bed it hurts so much. And also my left side of mt tongue swells. But there is nothing I can prove this with.

Oct 10, 2016
12:37 PM

Far better to use Young Living Essential oils as they are not synthetic, I have a chemical free home and it does make a dramatic difference. If anyone would like any information as to my comment please feel free to PM me.

Oct 10, 2016
11:22 AM

I will never understand why Shoppers Drug Mart put the fragrance section right at the entrance of their store. You have to walk through perfume to enter their stores. So insensitive, in my opinion.

Oct 10, 2016
9:48 AM

If I read this correctly, there is no treatment so the individual either has reactions or does not. But there is symptom management. From an employer point of view and Canadian Human Rights Duty to Accomodate language, there are mitigating factors before going straight to reasonable accommodation: -is there medical evidence of the sensitivity (evidence is not just a Dr or Employee saying it exists). But the Dr did no tests.
-Was there allery testing? Does the employee even know what they are sensitive to? ‘Scents’ is a very broad term. - are there any diagnostics which determine specifically what the trigger/allergen is? How us an employer to accomodate when the employee doesn’t even know what the problem is. - what does the Employee already do to protect themselves in public and can this be copied in the workplace? -what about wearing a mask at work that protects the individual from vapour and scents? This is the most practical,non invasive solution and the most resisted ‘because it looks funny’. I have been working in disability accommodation for over a decade and this article oversimplifies the process and accountability of the employee. In my experience in 2 large public sector employers is that 90% of these accommodation requests do not have medical backing, the employee has not been tested and has no idea what they should avoid. 75% of the time there is corresponding workplace conflict. 99% of the time no one can smell what the employee is smelling so how is a manager supposed to discipline the behaviour of the scent wearerwhen the accused insists they are not wearing scents. It is always a he said/she said (otherwise they do discipline) . I appreciate this information but can tell you that these are very difficult to manage in public institutions. It is very vague and often appears to be overly subjective. It appears to be one of the only medical conditions where people do not insist on proper diagnosis. Even the name Scent Sensitivities- how many scents are there? Billions? Trillions?

Oct 10, 2016
9:41 AM

I’ve been living with this my whole 40 years. The headaches, hives and asthma attacks are brutal. I cannot go into many stores due to it. I have friends go in first to “check” to see if it’s safe. I have reminded Co workers and family about this many times. I have lost most of my sense of smell due to 30 years of nasal steroids but still suffer the allergy reactions. It’s nice to see that I’m not alone and not the only one who had to deal with this.

Oct 10, 2016
7:44 AM

We should educate kids to accept chemical intolerant people. More and more people are suffering. Our environment is less and less healthy. Thank you for posting this article.

Oct 04, 2016
10:09 PM

Thank you for helping to raise awareness on this topic. I suffer from such sensitivities. So far I have been able to remain employed and have not reached to point where it completely debilitates me. It has been an uphill battle though, advocating for myself at work and elsewhere so that I can prevent this from becoming debilitating for me. Please keep it up, Queen of Green! We need more awareness!

Oct 04, 2016
11:38 AM

I know I have MCS, but not from getting migraines. My mouth will burn for up to 5 or 6 hours, like I’ve eaten soap! I want to spit, and try to get rid of it with hot beverages or strong flavoured food continually! It stays with me, so getting away, if I can, is an improvement, but not a solution. After avoiding what triggers it, I’ve seen the symptoms decrease in severity slowly over the last 10 years. The burning taste lasts maybe half as long now, but when it happens, the reaction is just as disgusting. Really hard to concentrate.

Percentage of sufferers must be higher than what’s reported. I’ve had no luck being diagnosed. Allergists will take you in for tests, but the ones i found only do a standard array for foods. Investigate their method before booking a repeat of the ‘same old’ again. Received no info on where else to try.

So far I’m good with natural essential-oil scents

Oct 04, 2016
7:14 AM

I live in an apartment building and can no longer do my own laundry. I can no longer do the grocery shopping. I can no longer read many printed materials such as newspapers, flyers, ect. Have had to leave family events or just plain not attend. My quality of life sucks and I have thought of the new laws in Canada that allow assisted dying. Wondering how qualified I would be to get this service.

Last Friday, September 30th, 2016 I left work feeling quite ill and just cried all the way home and for a while after. So angry and frustrate not even sure who I was angry at — such a big change in my personality when I get sick from chemicals and scented products.

I can end up in respiratory distress (like a bad asthma attack), heating up to the point that I am taking clothing off regardless of who is around (I am normally very modest and all my clothing is to the neckline or knees), full body swelling, eyes and nose dripping, severe headaches (migraine), and full body rashes. The reaction is dependant on the exposure.

I feel I need more support but do not know how to get it and where to go. Sick for weeks on end. Getting boils and blocked secretion glands due to the excessive heat my body makes sometimes — constantly not feeling well other than if I am off for several days and do not go out and have no exposure.

People have told me they feel naked without their scented products. I am the odd man out not them. Even my family does not seem to “get it”. Some days I just feel do done with this life.

I am not looking for sympathy I am looking for understanding and accommodation from family, friends and co-workers.

I feel we with this problem are the tip of the iceberg and one day if we keep making all these artificial products there will be many more of us.

Oct 04, 2016
5:32 AM

Scentsy products are unconscionably intense. I am only a little scent sensitive myself, but find this air freshener nauseating. I have never seen a product indirectly coat people and objects so strongly before. I can smell it lingering fairly intensely on library books we check out (and so can my four year old!). I can tell which neighbours use it when I walk past their house with their windows open. If I go into a Scentsy users house house, I have to shower and wash all my clothes after or it will linger for a week. I can’t imagine how this product would make someone environmentally sensitive feel.

Oct 01, 2016
8:33 AM

Over the past few years, I have been chased out of my favorite stores due to their use/sale of scented candles. Antique shops no longer smell like antiques. Gift shops and specialty stores and decor businesses no longer get my business. I have brought up this issue with many stores, but my needs are not taken seriously. It is their loss as well as mine.

Sep 30, 2016
2:55 PM

I agree, chemical injury, or sensitivities can be debilitating and life-threatening. These products need to be banned immediately. Too many people are suffering, losing jobs, dying of asthma, various cancers, and neurological diseases. Did you know that inhaling synthetic fragrances can actually kill you? They contain chemicals listed on the EPA’s Hazardous Waste List, and numerous “known” carcinogens. Please read my book,, and see the movie, STINK, at

Sep 29, 2016
7:43 PM

Excellent article. Thank you for representing us so well. I would like to add that while in America Chemical Sensitivities are recognized as a disability, that is rather misleading because in dealing with Social Security and some businesses where accommodations need to be put in place, the sufferers are required to “prove” they have this condition with medical tests. There are no medical tests as of yet. The average doctor in the U.S. still believes that Chemical Sensitivities is a somataform disorder and not a “real” medical condition. We do have a handful of Environmental Illness specialists, but most of them have been labeled as “quacks” and their diagnosis are not widely accepted. Trust me on this, as I have been fighting this battle for quite a while now. In truth, many of us American Canaries (what we call ourselves after the canary in the coal mind of old) look to Canada as a beacon of hope, that someday our AMA and doctors will emulate you, our neighbors to the north and start accepting that this is a real condition.

Sep 29, 2016
4:54 PM

Try walking past a Victoria’s Secret store. I’m not sure what the fragrance is called but to me it’s Get Me The Hell Out Of Here.

Sep 29, 2016
8:09 AM

I can relate to almost every post. The laundry products are my #1trigger also! #2 is smoke from cigarettes, outdoor burning, wood stoves, fireplaces, etc. #3 is car exhaust especially diesel. Some days are just grueling.

Sep 29, 2016
7:03 AM

I had multiple chemical sensitivities for years and did not begin to heal completely until I began a program to retrain my limbic system. There are several amazing programs out there that provide either dvd exercises or in-person seminars. I highly recommend anyone with MCS look into amygdala/limbic system retraining.

Sep 29, 2016
2:51 AM

I have those with fragrance sensitivity issues and have to use a public laundromat:

I wash the washing machine before using it. I bring a large empty water container and fill it with hot water. I carefully pour it into the soap/softener reservoirs and then add several tablespoons of Bio-Kleen fruit wash because it’s the best thing I’ve found that dissolves waxy/greasy residue. Then I run the machine empty on the hot cycle.

I hang dry most of my clothes because I haven’t figured out a way of cleaning the dryer yet. For the items that need a dryer, I literally sniff out the least noxious dryer and take my chances.

Sep 28, 2016
11:48 PM

I really hate that Shopper’s Drug Mart forces me to walk through the perfume section just to get into the store! I have to plug my nose and walk quickly — not always possible when other patrons are in front of me.

Sep 28, 2016
7:55 AM

Allergies, asthma and migraines all seem to occur like an avalanche with unstable conditions preceding the triggering environmental factor.

Scents, can achieve the same effect as eating something we are sensitive to. With migraines there can be almost instantly occurring feeling that something has changed in the body before the headache is felt. This same subtle sensation is also felt soon after ingesting something that triggers a migraine.

There is little doubt this is mere coincidence.

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