How to tell someone they smell

Based on my research, people don’t react kindly when you tell them they smell. In fact, it seems to be the quickest way to evoke paranoia.

Technically, everyone smells. Whether it’s from a fresh shower or natural body oils, even the cleanest people have a scent. Just ask my poodle.

However, I am specifically referring to people who drown their bodies in fragrance: perfume, cologne, lotions, deodorant, and detergent. These fragrances can be life-threatening for people with mast cell disease. Just a few seconds of exposure can destroy my health for several days.

Although I try to stick to scent-free environments where people understand my fragrance disability, inevitably someone forgets or doesn’t care. When I was first diagnosed, I tried to be Minnesota Nice and avoid the offenders, but avoidance only left me with two choices: never leave my home or destroy my body. After months of puking, pooping, and gasping for air, I began confronting people.

3 ways to tell someone they smell:

  • Yell “Skunk!” and run away
  • Slap a Mr. Yuck sticker on them
  • Start a game of “Duck, Duck, Smelly Duck”

“You smell” became my default declaration. Every time I sputtered those words, terror swept across the offender’s face, as if they were the one dying. I realize my delivery was not great. In my defense, it’s about all I could manage to say. When your body reacts to fragrance, your organs swell and your oxygen levels drop. Sometimes I become so confused that I forget to flee the room or take my medicine. I fumble for words.

“You smell” was never meant to be a personal attack. I hoped any embarrassment would convince them to respect the scent-free environment. It usually did not. They did not understand the long-term damage caused by their fragrances. I realized it’s easy to tell someone they smell, but it’s hard to explain the consequences.

When I say “you smell,” I mean you’re killing me.

Since my mast cell disease diagnosis four year ago, I have become braver about educating people about my fragrance disability. I have learned requesting scent-free environments is not selfishness. Spreading awareness does not just benefit me; it protects the health of other people with mast cell disease and conditions that cause fragrance sensitivities, such as migraine and asthma.

3 ways to tell someone they smell and it’s harmful:

  • Hand them your EpiPen and say, “You might need this.”
  • Write a passive aggressive blog post and send them the link
  • Email, text, or talk to them after you recover from your reaction. Specifically explain how fragrance affects your body. For example, fragrance reactions can permanently damage my kidney. Probably try this option first.

Of course, you always run the risk of finding out someone is a complete jerk, who doesn’t care if you suffocate or lose an organ. There will always be that one person who suggests you “just wear a mask” without understanding masks don’t block fumes, but they do reduce oxygen flow. It’s best to avoid assholes, whether you have a disability or not.

13 thoughts on “How to tell someone they smell

  1. I generally go with ‘I love your fragrance, but it’s a choice between you smelling great and me dying… you lose!’

  2. I believe it’s likely to be better received if cast not literally as “You smell” but “I am dangerously allergic to your fragrance/scent.” Despite becoming less anaphylaxis-prone generally, my sensitivity to fragrances seems to be ever worsening. Even if a person uses no perfume/cologne, I can react to fragrance she has picked up from her mate, or laundry. Even outside in the park, my breathing can seize up from someone’s fragrance. I almost died in a Hospital from increasing Anaphylaxis to a ubiquitous fragrance.

  3. I asked my pastor to put out a note about fragrance sensitivities, too allow me to return to church. She refused, saying the issue is too complicated. Funny, because when I put out the announcement myself, people were happy to comply. My pastor, on the other hand, keeps wearing strong perfumes… So I guess we know what the real problem is. It sucks when you found out that someone is just an asshole… And they’re supposed to be a source of good in everyone’s life.

  4. Once at work, a coworker used this liquid bandage stuff on a cut right behind me. I started coughing my head off, as I have asthma (which she knew). Between coughs I asked her if she was trying to kill me.

  5. As my wife’s sniffing-nose-dog (she has a lung condition that reacts to fragrances), I once asked a restaurant manager not to seat anyone next to us if he could smell a fragrance on them. He replied indignantly that he couldn’t go around sniffing people. So I smiled and said, “I sniffed you when I walked up. You can be subtle about it.” When he did sit someone next to us a few minutes later, he leaned over and asked me if they were ok (they were). “I sniffed them!” he said, and winked conspiratorially.

  6. I fear in this Covid-19 world that disinfectants are becoming the new fragrance. Just seen an ‘individual spraying device’ advertised for people to use on themselves and their personal items, never mind these ‘fogging’ techniques and the sanitation stations starting to be used widely in public spaces like transport, shops, restaurants. Buckle up, I think we’re in for a whole new ride :-(.

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