Trigger Identification Step #2: Ditch the Scents

Our world is scented. We are drenched in scent, and most of us have no idea how much. Even if you aren’t sensitive to scent, figuring out what is triggering your reactions will be much easier if you reduce the amount of scent in your world. There are two main reasons for that, the first is your sense of taste- figuring out food triggers means tasting them. And that means taking off the overload. The other is that you may be sensitive to scent and not realize it.

Keep your Perfume (maybe)

The first thing we think of to reduce scent is to stop wearing perfume. Don’t start there! Keep your Chanel, ditch the Axe and the Febreeze. The cheaper scents are more likely to be artificial, the more expensive are more likely to be natural. Most people who are sensitive to scent learn that the more artificial it is, the more they react to it. Scent is particularly rough for me; I have to wear a scent blocking mask in public, always (at least that has gotten easier, people don’t give me weird looks anymore!). For some reason Amazon has decided to spritz the inside of all of their packages with a scent- someone else has to open all of their packages for me. It’s so hard to avoid the stuff. I am violently allergic to almost all artificial fragrances, but here are some natural smells that I’m actually okay with. Rose, lavender, mint, vanilla, and a few others are wonderful- but only if they are true essential oils or natural scent oils. The moment there is the smell of something I’m allergic to (cedar, juniper, grass), then I react. That means I can’t usually handle any perfumes (a good quality perfume will have up to 20 scents in it, and I’m certain to be allergic to one of them). Most people, though, are far less sensitive to the quality stuff.

What people don’t think about is that stuff like air freshener, fabric refresher, fabric softener, cleaning products and so forth. These are SO much more likely to trigger a reaction, but they are so ubiquitous that we barely notice them. Their smells are often quite similar, so we need more and more of it to notice it. The absolute worst are the laundry scents that are meant to be “long lasting’. [A soapbox aside: They take an organic compound, and make it sticky. And then we breathe them in. There are no real studies as to whether these things are safe or not. I suspect they could prove dangerous; they share many qualities with things like asbestos, another sticky long chain organic compound. Time will tell, but it sounds like a like a poor plan to me]. . For a lot of Masties scent is one of those things that adds to the load; they may not react to it directly, but it makes them more likely to react to other things. There is some evidence that too much fragrance can lead to increased anxiety, I know that those who do aromatherapy encourage their clients to not overdo it, and to cut out the extraneous scents if the oils are to actually work. If you cut back on scent, you may realize that you are a lot more sensitive to it than you thought.

Fragrance Free vs. Unscented

These don’t mean the same thing. The label ‘unscented’ is used by the cosmetics industry as the name of a scent. They use what are called ‘cover scents’ to make the products smell ‘neutral’ (i.e. cover up anything that might smell anything other than purely pleasant, things like wax, for example). We are extraordinarily fortunate that in Canada, the term ‘unscented’ is no longer allowed. If it says ‘fragrance free’, it means it. They may still have a natural smell, but only if that smell is from an active ingredient, not added (i.e. bubble gum flavour in toothpaste isn’t there as an active ingredient, but menthol in a joint rub is). This means that when people put on something fragrance free, they actually are. The difference walking into a hospital is huge- the staff were always trying to be ‘fragrance free’, but most didn’t know that ‘unscented’ wasn’t good enough for someone like me.

It is worth a try to pull scent from your home for a time- or at least reduce it. If you’re in the US, switching to unscented would certainly help, or do a cross border run- we even have fragrance free makeup! Until then, read the ingredients- cosmetics will list ‘fragrance’ even if they are labeled ‘unscented’. Things like scented candles, oil diffusers, air fresheners, laundry soap, dish soap as well as cosmetics are all scented, many of them very heavily. Things like garbage bags, delivery packaging (thank you Amazon) and hard plastics can be loaded with it (with no labeling required, of course).

Start Tasting things Again

If you cut back on scented products you will be amazed at how much better your perfume smells and your food tastes. When our olfactory system is constantly bombarded, our brain turns it off. It’s like being at a loud concert and then going home on the subway, everybody knows who was at the concert because they’re all shouting at each other. This wouldn’t be the best time to listen to a muddled recording to try and figure out what it says. In order to taste food, we need to taste the ‘quieter’ tastes, which is impossible if it’s overloaded. There’s a lot more on the topic, but being able to taste food properly is an essential step in identifying food triggers- I almost never swallow something I’m allergic to- even if I’m expecting something to be fine, if it’s contaminated I know immediately. I may not be able to always identify what it is, but if I’m allergic to it, it tastes wrong. This is a skill you can develop, but you can’t do it if you can’t taste your food properly. Having scent overload (or nose blindness) will make the task that much harder.

In summary, a scent detox is a good idea. Start with removing things like scented laundry soap, candles, air fresheners, etc. Switch to fragrance free everything- shampoo, soap, dish detergent, hand cream, makeup, etc etc. If you just can’t be without a bit of scent, use a tiny amount of your very best perfume, or individual natural oils. And be warned- elevator rides will suddenly be much more interesting (did you know that Jim in accounting uses a different beard oil every day!?!).

Stay tuned for Step #3: Learn about Food

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