I’ve always known there was something a little unusual about my sense of smell. It is (and has always been) twitchy, like a raw, exposed nerve. When I was a child, the prospect of being stuck in a small elevator with an old lady and her noxious cloud of perfume was enough to make me break out in hives. I had a particularly hard time with spicy fragrances and powdery florals. On the other hand, there were some scents—the wild roses that blanketed the rocky shoreline near our beach house in Ogunquit, Maine, or the sweet lilies of the valley that grew in a dark corner of our backyard in Wellesley, Mass.—that had the opposite effect on me. They were my own Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a sensory refuge where I could take a few intoxicating whiffs and begin to feel calm and centered again.
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In high school my aversion to heavy, synthetic fragrances intensified. This was the ’80s, the era of bold, brash perfumes like Giorgio and Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium ($67, yslbeautyus.com). My best friend wore Poison ($98; dior.com), and it grew like a black mold between us. I literally could not stand to be in the same room with her when she was wearing that famously sweet and potent perfume. (I later found out she was equally repulsed by the clean fragrances I gravitated toward. How, I wondered in my sensory self-absorption, could anyone be repulsed by the smell of fresh grapefruit? Or Aveda’s Shampure, to this day one of my all-time favorite scents?)
It turns out our radically different perceptions of scent weren’t all that unusual. “We all exist on a sensory spectrum,” says Dr. Ted Zeff, author of The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide ($15, amazon.com). “About 20 percent of the population has a very sensitive nervous system. These are the people who feel things more deeply, and that often includes scent. In my research I found many of them struggle with synthetic fragrances.” Natural essential oils are often easier to take in and process, he says. And many have beneficial effects: “Consider something like lavender. If you are an HSP [highly sensitive person] and you inhale that, it can calm you down. It’s the same with chamomile and rose. These oils all reduce stress.”
Dr. Zeff says that whenever he—a self-diagnosed HSP—sits next to someone wearing a synthetic perfume on an airplane, he gets a headache. It should be noted that there are a variety of other reasons—including allergies and asthma—someone might become highly reactive to perfume. But in many cases, Dr. Zeff believes, it can simply be chalked up to an overactive sensory system. Sometimes the fragrance doesn’t have to be particularly strong or even unnatural to elicit a nasty reaction. “I once had a fragrance that I loved,” explained a colleague of mine. “But then someone I disliked asked me what it was and started to wear it every day. Now I can’t even smell that fragrance without getting in a bad mood.” To an average person, this story might sound a little crazy. But as Dr. Zeff notes, highly sensitive people feel everything more intensely, and that often includes not just the aroma of the scent but the emotions generated by it.
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To comprehend this fully, it helps to know how scent is processed in the brain. When we inhale a fragrance, it travels to the olfactory bulb, which is right next to the hippocampus, otherwise known as the seat of memory. This explains why, after many days frolicking along the shore of Ogunquit, I came to associate those heady wild roses with the carefree happiness of summer. It also explains why my husband should never have used his favorite cologne as a dog deodorizer.
On the other end of the sensory spectrum are people with an underdeveloped—or what some sensory-integration specialists call a hyposensitive—sense of smell. Some people are just born this way; others lose their powers of olfaction due to health or environmental reasons. “There are a number of things that can diminish one’s sense of smell,” says Dorene Petersen, chair of the Aromatherapy Registration Council. “One of the first things to look at is zinc intake. This mineral is intimately connected to a healthy sense of smell, and it’s quite a common deficiency.” Smoking can also reduce the efficacy of your sniffer, as can aging, medications, chemical exposure, and a host of medical issues. My late father, who suffered from asthma, completely lost his sense of smell as a child (this condition, known as anosmia, can occur when the olfactory bulb is blocked by swelling or nasal polyps). You could literally spray an entire bottle of Love’s Baby Soft ($12, shop.riteaid.com) on his pillow and he wouldn’t smell it. Interestingly, since scent is closely tied to our gustatory sense, he could barely taste his food. While I, a hypersensitive child, recoiled at the slightest hint of red hot chili flakes in my tacos, my dad would routinely pour a bottle of Tabasco sauce over almost everything he ate (eggs, stew, pig knuckles, pickled herring). He made a sport out of repulsing us kids with his eccentric culinary habits, which I now realize were made possible by the slowly firing nerve receptors in his embattled asthmatic nose.
So what does all this mean in terms of choosing a signature perfume? A lot. Armed with a better understanding of your unique sensory and emotional profile, you’ll have an easier time navigating the sea of overwhelming choices. And about that colleague in the next office who just dropped a bottle of perfume on the carpet? Fill a spritzing bottle with equal parts vinegar and water and spray liberally. I swear it will help.
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Are You a Highly Sensitive Person?
Not all HSPs struggle with fragrance, but many do, says Cliff Harwin, author of Making Sense of Your High Sensitivity ($9; amazon.com). Take this quiz to see whether any of these characteristics sound like you. If you agree with three or more of the following, you are probably highly sensitive.
• You have a strong need for alone time.
• You are easily affected by caffeine and alcohol.
• You are deeply moved by art and music and have a rich interior life.
• You have a long-standing relationship with ear plugs and eye masks.
• You sometimes tear up in the middle of an emotionally charged conversation (even a positive one).
• You have a keen radar for other people’s feelings and are extremely conscientious.
Hit Your High Note
So you can sniff out a rogue aldehyde faster than a bomb-detecting Labrador? Big whoop. Now there are dozens of essential oils and natural blends that will appeal to your finely tuned nose. For something a little stronger and more complex, check out these other heady creations. But please: Don’t head straight into the elevator.
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If You Like Vetiver
(From top) The pure oil: Aura Cacia Vetiver organic essential oil ($13/0.5 fl. oz., amazon.com), The natural blend: Heeley Paris Vetiver Veritas eau de parfum ($195/1.7 fl. oz., luckyscent.com), The potent perfume: Carven Vetiver eau de toilette ($102/3.33 fl. oz., saks.com)
If You Like Bergamot
(From top) The pure oil: Aura Cacia Bergamot Organic essential oil ($11/0.25 fl. oz., amazon.com), The natural blend: Strange Invisible Perfumes Leo eau de parfum ($125/0.5 fl. oz., siperfumes.com), The potent perfume: Tom Ford Private Blend Venetian Bergamot eau de parfum ($220/50 ml, sephora.com)
If You Like Neroli
(From top) The pure oil: Apothecary Shoppe Organic Neroli essential oil ($20/1 ml, apothecary-shoppe.com), The natural blend: Tsi-La Organics Fiori d’Arancio organic eau de parfum ($95/50 ml, spiritbeautylounge.com), The potent perfume: Nomenclature Effloresce eau de parfum ($165/3.4 fl. oz., aedes.com)
If You Like Jasmine
(From top) The pure oil: Apothecary Shoppe Jasmine Sambac Absolute essential oil ($25/1 ml, apothecary-shoppe.com), The natural blend: Red Flower Champa organic perfume concentrate ($186/15 ml, redflower.com), The potent perfume: Diptyque Jasmin Essences Insensées eau de parfum ($175/2.5 fl. oz., nordstrom.com)
If You Like Rose
(From top) The pure oil: Jurlique Rose Pure essential oil, ($51/0.03 fl. oz., jurlique.com), The natural blend: Aftelier Perfumes Wild Roses eau de parfum ($180/0.25 fl. oz., aftelier.com), The potent perfume: Chanel No. 5 Eau Première eau de parfum spray ($100/1.7 fl. oz., chanel.com)
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If You Like Vanilla
(From top) The pure oil: Aveda Singular Note Vanilla Absolute essential oil ($28/1 fl. oz., aveda.com), The natural blend: Pacifica Island Vanilla spray perfume ($22/1 fl. oz., pacificabeauty.com), The potent perfume: La Collection Privée Christian Dior Fève Délicieuse eau de parfum ($210/4.2 fl. oz., dior.com)
Amy Synnott is InStyle’s executive editor. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.