Why Strong Perfumes Make Some People Gag

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Perfume can be polarizing. Some people love to douse themselves in spicy scents that linger on clothes and leave a cloud of fragrance wafting in their wake. They think nothing of huffing a store's smelly candles and lotions. And then there are those of us who need a gas mask if someone so much as steps into an elevator wearing even a spritz of cologne. If you're more like this last type, there's likely a perfectly logical reason why you're so put off by perfumes.
We all are born with a different sensitivity to smell, says Erich Voigt, MD, clinical associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health. Our sense of smell is important to human survival, and we use it to pick up on possible toxins and dangerous substances, Dr. Voigt says. "Like any of our abilities as humans, some people have stronger senses than others," he says.
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There are a few variables that determine whether or not strong smells irk you: the anatomy of your nose, how congested you are, the overall quality of your "smell nerve," and the condition of your brain, Dr. Voigt says. "Our sense of smell occurs as tiny particles enter the nasal cavity and drift up to the roof of the nose," he says. Then, there are tiny branches of the smell nerve (the olfactory nerve), that penetrate the skull base through small holes. "These tiny branches trigger signals for the olfactory nerve to transmit signals to the brain." So, part of the reason why you can't stand smells might just be because your nose, nerves, and brain are healthy and in good working order.
Past experiences impact our perception of smells, too, Dr. Voigt says. When the smell nerve sends signals to the brain, it then "interprets these signals and, based upon our experience, we identify these signals as smell or odors," he says. That's why some people can have such averse reactions to certain scents, like flowery perfumes or heady lotions, and other people are comforted by them.
"Much of this perception is based on past exposure and memories of smells," he says. "The brain has a very long-lasting memory for smells." For example, if your grandma always wore a specific, strong perfume that you hated, smelling a strong perfume might remind you of that and irk you. Or if your partner uses a certain body spray, you may associate happy or comfortable feelings with that smell.
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For folks in that "gas mask" category mentioned above, there may be something more than a personal distaste at play, such as a rare disorder called hyperosmia, which refers to a "heightened sense of smell," Dr. Voigt says. Hyperosmia is way more intense than just having an aversion to certain perfumes, and it's often linked to other neurological disorders. "There are several known causes, including drug side effects, genetic disorders, and hormonal changes," he says.
So, what can you do if you can't stand the stench of someone's perfume? Not much. "Avoidance of the offending odor is key," Dr. Voigt says. If you're already stuck next to someone who bathed in cologne, Dr. Voigt recommends pinching your nose and breathing through your mouth. "Mouth-breathing will limit the amount of particles getting to the olfactory nerve, however some particles will still travel up from the back of the oral cavity to the back of the nose."
And if you're someone who can't get enough of your favorite perfume, just keep in mind that others might find it intense, or even noxious — so spray responsibly.
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