The Scientific Reasoning Behind Why Strong Fragrances Make You Feel Awful

Many of us have been there: wandering into a store packed with perfumes and aromas spewing blasts of scents so overpowering that they made our heads spin and eyesight dizzy as they intruded our nostrils and assaulted our sensory bulbs. Whether it's a room freshener or a hair styling product, a strong fragrance coupled with dehydrating air conditioning could trigger a full-blown migraine, nausea, or breathing difficulty. If you've experienced this before, you're not alone. In fact, one-third of the U.S. population has this problem — which is widely known as fragrance sensitivity, a study in the Journal of Environmental Health points out.

For some people, their sensitivities or allergies escalate into a fear of smells, also known as osmophobia. This condition was prevalently reported in patients with migraine with aura, a study in Advanced Biomedical Research shows. The scents that make you feel uncomfortable don't have to be unpleasant by nature, but their potentness can make you feel like you've inhaled poison and go weak in your knees. While fragrance sensitivity and allergies vary from person to person, there's a scientific reasoning behind why some people have a strong physical reaction to strong fragrances. Here are some explanations for your perplexing low threshold for odor and tips on managing it.

Age and medical conditions are possible causes

Some people have greater fragrance sensitivity than others for a variety of reasons, including underlying medical issues, hormonal swings, and age. Scent sensitivities are more common in those with asthma, allergies, and migraine, professor of otolaryngology Zara Patel tells SELF. Those who undergo pregnancy or menstrual cycles and experience hormonal imbalances that trigger inflammation in and around the nasal nerves are also susceptible to fragrance sensitivity. Some strong fragrances have the power to expand or contract the blood vessels in the brain, stimulating the nervous system in the brain and giving people migraines. Many people have a hereditary predisposition to the illness, and vast numbers of people report that their sensitivity and allergies to scents worsen as they age.

In a simpler explanation, William Yin, founder of fragrance subscription service Scent Trunk, likens the sensory overload one feels when exposed to some fragrances to the eye weariness one experiences when staring at a computer for an extended amount of time. "You can get headaches from getting overwhelmed by a lot of scents or from being exposed to a powerful scent for a long period of time," Yin explains to PopSugar. To recover from some lightheadedness as a result of inhaling too many scents in one go, go out and get some fresh air. If you frequently have strong physical reactions or allergy symptoms brought on by scent sensitivity, there are several things you can do to minimize your condition's impact on your day-to-day living.

How to handle hypersensitivity to fragrances

Per Bastille Paris, you need to pinpoint the root causes and ascertain which specific fragrances are to blame for your pain. For instance, if there's any brand of perfume, deodorant, or body wash that has an overwhelmingly rich smell that throws you off, take a mental note and avoid it. Meanwhile, avoid buying personal care products containing harmful synthetic substances such as benzene, benzyl, acetate, sulfates, formaldehyde, parabens, and phthalates. Linalool, citronellol, geraniol, coumarin, and citral are also some chemical names to watch out for before buying any products. The reason is that inhaling these substances can cause drowsiness and headaches, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation.

If you're planning to travel, Michael Rubino, president of All American Restoration (via USA Today), recommends calling several hotels and airlines ahead of time to inquire what disinfecting product or fragrance chemicals would be used in your room or the airplanes. For instance, United Airlines uses the EPA-registered Zoono Microbe Shield antimicrobial spray to cleanse the surface of its airplanes. You can check the substances used in the product in advance to see if you're allergic to any. If your scent sensitivity is severe, see an allergist for a precise diagnosis and tailored suggestions. At the same time, have a portable air purifier on hand to keep your air scent-free and stay away from public spaces where individuals are wearing strong perfume. To reduce your exposure to sensitivity triggers, avoid using any scented items at all.