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When Perfume Attacks!

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,
Hi! I recently found your advice column and I absolutely love it! I’m not a mom (yet) but I do have a question that I think you may be able to help me with. I hope.
I dearly love perfume but it does not love me. Every time I think I’ve found the perfect fragrance, it invariably either gives me a headache or makes me feel sick to my stomach because it’s too powerful. I use one squirt and I smell it constantly and it drives me nuts! My ideal situation, which may be unrealistic, is to just smell my perfume once in a while when I shift my clothes.
When trying to shop for perfume, I always aim for floral or fruity smells and stay away from musky or oriental scents but I’ve yet to find one light enough to not bother me. I’ve tried lotions but I seem to have the same problem. Maybe if it were a different scent?
My question is: Is there an extremely light fragrance in any formulation (splash, eau de toilette, etc.) that you can recommend for someone who is highly sensitive to smells?

Well, I hate to say this, but it sounds like your sensitivity is probably an allergy. A mild one, granted, since it’s “just” a headache and some stomach-churning, as people with severe fragrance allergies can experience serious stuff like rashes, asthma or even anaphylactic shock. So…yeah.
An allergy would explain why your problem extends to scented lotions as well, and unfortunately means finding something “light” might not solve the problem. It’s not the strength of the smell, it’s…just the smell. The reaction is coming from the fragrance itself, or possibly something mixed in with it.
bnr_IYS_2for26_full_v2.JPGSo my original advice was going to be something along the lines of: allergy testing, maybe? A body spray/splash instead of perfume? Or try experimenting with pure essential oils at a health food store or The Body Shop (where you can create customized frangrances from their oils, although I hesitate to send you into a sniffy-smelly store like that.) But if it IS just a matter of the smell being too strong, buying plain old fragrance oils might allow you to control the strength better than a spray formula.
Then I decided: Time to pass the buck! I sent your question to my awesome go-to health-type AlphaFoxyMamas. As usual, their responses blew my feeble knowledge out of the water:
Mary, who is a pharmacist, had this to say:
Fragrance allergy is fairly common. Anywhere from 1 to 10% of the population can manifest some sort of adverse effect from cosmetics that contain fragrances. Symptoms can range from rash/eczema to asthma and severe allergic response. Sometimes people also have bad reactions to scented products like cleaners, laundry detergents or other cosmetics.
0472273630170_275x275.jpgIt sounds like Jae has a sensitivity to perfumes that may be allergic in nature. Unfortunately, the allergens in perfumes can be the excipients (stuff mixed in with the fragrance) and the fragrance itself. In fact, some patch tests for allergies contain fragrance oils such as cinnamon, eucalyptus, etc.
I’m not sure if there is a good alternative to fragrance in this case since the fragrance itself can be an allergen (and it sounds like she’s had the reaction to more than one product). She could try essential oils, but if her sensitivity is to the fragrant compounds, she will probably have a reaction to those as well.
If it is merely the odor itself that is too strong, she may want to try a “higher end” fragrance. I find Jo Malone perfumes are very light, but they are $$$…She should go to Saks and spritz to see if she can tolerate it before shelling out the dough!!
And Jessica, a Nurse Practioner, had some more suggestions:
I have had good luck with patients using Philosophy products (*LOVE*) when they are sensitive to smells. They tend to be very light, from what I have experienced, and many of their perfumes are in the floral spectrum.
My question would be: Is she having trouble with perfumed soaps/etc.? Another thing that Philosophy and other companies suggest is finding a scent you like, then using the soap, lotion, and maybe a body spray that “layer” together to put on a scent that isn’t too heavy but can last throughout the day (albeit lighter and lighter as the day wears on, unless they reuse the lotion/spray/whatever). philoslayer.jpg
With regard to different formulations, certainly the “eau de toilette” formulations are lighter since they are basically alcohol-based perfumes cut with water… I have a feeling (but no scientific-based evidence) that sprays are heavier since they must be combined with some type of propellant (usually a petroleum-based product) in order to “spray.”
I would think she could get some unscented lotion, squeeze some into her hand, spray the perfume she likes into it, mix it all together, and then lube up… That would lighten the total effect of the scent and still give her what she wants without it being too powerful. Another idea would be to add a few sprays/drops to her hair product before she works it into her hair. I don’t advocate she try it with her toothpaste, though. How about adding a little to her laundry detergent or spraying her dryer sheets before she puts them in the dryer with her clothes?
Having said all that, I wonder if she has trouble with headaches/nausea with other strong smells (not just perfume)? What she describes isn’t unlike atypical migraines which can be triggered by strong smells, tastes, light, sounds, & etc. While allergy testing wouldn’t be out of the question (she could talk to her primary care provider about getting tested by an allergist — most insurance companies pay for testing, particularly when a patient is having a problem, but she could call her insurance company to be sure), I wouldn’t hesitate to look a little further into the strong smell/headache symptomatology and see if it has less to do with her nose and more to do with her brain.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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I have the same sort of problem, but only when the scent is “new” – so just for the first few days. If I keep wearing it I get used to it and I hardly notice it throughout the day.
I tend to like light, powdery scents – Versace’s Baby Rose Jeans is a favorite.


I agree with trying something on the lighter side. I’d try the Demeter fragrances. I know that these are at Sephora. The scents are fun (laundromat, dirt, tomato) and they are SUPER light.


I, too, don’t like strong perfume smells. I like to use a normal perfume but, instead of spraying it directly on, I either spray it in the air and then walk into it or spray it (very lightly!) on the clothes I will wear the next day and then let it evaporate over night (if you don’t choose yor clothes the night before, you could try just choosing your bra and spraying that). I never apply it to my neck or my wrists.


I had exactly this problem, and for me it wasn’t an allergy, and I went from nausea and headaches when perfume was on me, or anyone in my vicinity, to looking fwd to wearing perfume almost every day. And the small pleasures, they are not to be underestimated. I have two key pieces of advice: 1. Find something you love, and try something non-floral. If you can, try something spendy. I think these tend to be less one-note and more complex and therefore less nauseating. I love Shalimar, but experiment. Go to Nieman’s or Saks and let the ladies help… Read more »

Kim N

I have had problems with perfumes and some lotions as well. There have been many times I have thought I found a scent I could wear, only to get a migraine headache and non stop sneezing a week later. I found two scents I liked by Origins, which is found at many department stores such as Nordstrom or Macy’s. The grapefruit scent I loved for a week and then started to break out in small hives. They happily let me exchange it for a ginger scented lotion that complimented the ginger spray I had found. I wore it for two… Read more »


So far, Philosophy’s “Amazing Grace” perfume has been the only thing to ever give me an allergic reaction! I broke out in a skin rash on my wrists and neck, which didn’t go away for weeks. I don’t know why people are under the impression that Philosophy is safe for people with sensitive skin – it may smell “lighter” but it contains the same irritants.  This is just perpetuating that misinformation. Honestly, if you have sensitive skin or allergies to fragrances, don’t expect to find something you can tolerate packaged in a bottle. 


I’m really struggling at the moment, headache, feeling very sick, mouth constantly filling with bile – because one of the women in the office I work in has bought a new perfume.  I’m struggling as she’s a nice person and I don’t want to offend her – I don’t know what to do.  I want to stick my head out of the window – but of course they don’t open.  This is another downside of open plan offices.  But as for the perfume – I think it’s the one by Lancome.  I’ve recently become allergic to one I’ve worn for… Read more »


I found that I just have a chemical intolerance and my nose just can’t take smells of purfume and body mists, no matter what the smell of it is it just does not work with me.


I have something similar (just the nausea, no headache thankfully), but I have noticed a similar reaction when I use essential oils in a diffuser in my house. Since I am never in contact with those substances, I suspect for me it’s a reaction to the smell, not an allergy. Sensory processing issues tend to run in my family, so I am wondering if my brain just doesn’t like constantly smelling something distinct. That said, I have never felt that way towards the pine scent when we have a Christmas tree up, or the scent of cleaning products used on… Read more »