Thinking Out Loud

February 5, 2009

Making Your Church a Fragrance Free Zone – Encore Presentation of a Guest Blog from August

Filed under: Christianity, Church, ethics, Faith — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:25 pm

The first time I posted this article , guest blogged by my wife, it produced only three comments online; but it produced a whole lot of controversy locally.   I made the mistake of suggesting in an e-mail that this particular problem manifests itself more in some denominations than others — a suggestion that she and I still believe to be true.

It was the last straw for one particular pastor.   He let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I had no right to my opinions, that he held no respect for the position of spiritual leadership I occupy locally, and would I kindly remove him from all future communications.

Then, just weeks later, my son attended a worship service at that same church, where the same pastor basically affirmed everything written below as applicable to their congregation.   Go figure.

This is the Air I Breathe  by Ruth Wilkinson

This is what an asthma attack feels like.

First, you get a tickle in the back of your throat, way down in your chest. It’s annoying, and makes you cough.

But when you cough, it feels different. Like the air’s going out, but then not coming back in again. So you breath deeper, which moves the tickle deeper in your chest and makes you cough several more times.

At this point, you realize what’s happening and your chest starts to feel tight. Like you’re being squeezed in a giant fist and everytime you take a breath in, you can hear it, like a wind tunnel or a storm.

You start to feel a bit dizzy, light headed and need to lean on a wall or a friend for balance. Then, if you’re still standing, your arms start to feel weak and your legs get shaky because there’s not enough oxygen getting that far.

And every bit of focus you’ve got goes into breathing. Just trying to get enough air into your lungs.

So you dig out the puffer. The ‘rescue medication’. You shake it well, like the directions say, then empty your barely functioning lungs, put the puffer to your lips and, with your oxygen deprived mental faculties, try to squirt and inhale at the same time.

Then, to add insult to injury, you have to hold your breath so the medication stays in your lungs for a few seconds. Then, in 5 minutes, you do it again.

It takes about half an hour for the medication to do much good. At which point, you can at least stand up again.

I didn’t have asthma as a child. Like many, I developed it as an adult. Keeping it under control means taking meds everyday, as well as identifying and avoiding triggers. Which for me, includes perfume.

Your perfume.

That stuff you bathed in yesterday before you left the house for church.

I smelled it as soon as I walked in the lobby and my first response was a knot in my stomach. Oh, crap. What do I do? Do I sit in the parking lot while my family worships? Do I insist we all leave? Run down the road to a pharmacy and buy a face mask?

Being a stoic, I decided to soldier through. I thought, How bad can it be? Stupid question.

Did you notice me shaking my inhaler and taking a dose? Did you find it distracting?

I was sitting near you unable to breathe. And it’s your fault.

I spent the rest of the service just waiting for the moment when I could stagger across the parking lot to my car. And it’s your fault.

I couldn’t listen to the sermon, couldn’t sing, couldn’t enjoy the solo. And it’s your fault.

I couldn’t stay afterwards to talk to people in the lobby. And it’s your fault.

I went home and spent the next hour in bed. I’ll need 2 or 3 days to fully recover. And it’s your fault.

I will never ever again visit your church. And it’s your fault.

Don’t bother to tell me that you have the right to wear perfume, that much perfume, to church because I don’t care.

I just want to breathe.


  1. Our church recently went fragrance-free because we learned that two of the kids developed asthma from it, one woman developed migraines, and one woman would actually go into anaphylactic shock and need her epi-pen.

    So folks, it’s a no brainer. Yes, it means effort. It meant we had to source natural deodorizers for the bathrooms and pay more. And it meant telling the “heavy handers” they couldn’t wear their smellies :-)

    Ignorance is not an excuse, but unless told, people just don’t understand how it really affects others.

    Comment by Philippa — February 5, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

  2. Philippa makes a good point. Why not say something and move to a less scented pew?

    Comment by SoCalWoman — February 6, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    • Best way to explain that idea of moving to a differant pew is if you were in a hot tub with strangers and some one beside you pee’d in the tub would you go sit on the other side ?nObviously not as the urine circulates in the water same as perfume circulates in the air.

      Comment by Andy — December 21, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  3. It’s actually the fault of the fragrance industry that uses all manner of toxic chemicals to create their products with, and the government for not requiring independent testing or labelling or removal of those harmful chemicals.

    It’s not the smells that are harmful, it’s the chemicals that are creating them. Also, many unscented products actually have masking chemicals in to hide the fragrances, so they are not guaranteed to be safe.

    I think if people really knew what was in their perfumes, colognes, laundry products and fabric softeners, they’d be aghast.

    Comment by linda — February 6, 2009 @ 4:36 pm

  4. Why didn’t I move? Gosh, I should have thought of that. Is my face red.

    1. Severe allergy triggers are just that. Triggers. Once you pull it, it’s pulled. Moving a little further away isn’t going to make any difference. Once the kid with the peanut allergy has taken a bite, spitting it out won’t help.

    2. We were in a room. Rooms are filled with stuff called ‘air’. This ‘air’ stuff allows chemicals to travel from one place to another.

    3. Telling the woman wouldn’t have done any good. It was too late. I was a visitor, a long way from home. Even if she had responded positively to me and left, see point 1.

    Comment by Ruth Wilkinson — February 6, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  5. Telling someone to move away from a scented person is like saying swim in the other corner of the small swimming pool when some one unrinates in the pool the differance being lots of people do not habitually pee in the pool at the same time…..

    Comment by A.Kanis — April 25, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  6. […] You can read about what this feels like in her February guest post on this blog. […]

    Pingback by Keeping Asthma and Allergy Sufferers Out of Church: Perfume « Thinking Out Loud — July 26, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

  7. Thank you for all your comments it is heartening. I stormed home from church unable to participate – I was offered a chair to look through the glass and listen from the speakers. I can’t sing with everyone from out side the glass, I can’t be part of the congregation. I am going to see the Pastor this week…

    Comment by Leanne — August 8, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    • You can show your pastor this article, too; so he/she knows this is a real issue.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — August 8, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  8. It was good to read your article and I have just had to resign from church because of lilies in
    church. After gradual contact with lilies in church over a period of four year I starated to develop a sore throat. The on Maundy Thursday there are no flowers in church but during choir practise I started to get a tight chest and a funny cough. The Church was search and lilies were found. The church was full of them at Easter and I stayed away for two weeks. Had bought antihistmines.I also saw my doctor and he said I should be fine. However, during choir practise after only 5 minutes I started to feel unwell, after 20 mins I had to leave, foolishly on my own as I am disabled. I got into my car and as I was driving my chest tightened so much I couldn’t breath. I ended up with the emergency ambulance and put on oxygen. The doctor at the hospital said I had had an asthma attack brought on by lilies and he told me to keep away from them. I was given an inhaller by my doctor and have had to use it serveral times. I have read that this is how the allergy starts and the doctors said I was extremely lucky to have found out what I was allergic to. I have also read that if you take the stamens out of the lilies they are safe, but a lily shoots its pollen when they open so a shut up church absorbs all the pollen for a week before new flowers go in. I have also read that the actual perfume of the lily is very bad in itself and is used in soaps and various products this causes people many problems. Since I had these attacks I have been told by many people they cannot stand the smell of lilies and many who have been sent flowers have to put them outside. I also think that many people may think they are allergic to all flowers as lilies are now put into most boquets. Take the lilies out and see how you are then.
    I have to now use my inhaler more often as there are lilies everywhere I go. Such a beautiful looking flower but it can do so much harm.
    So through lilies and a flower team who are just obsessed with the flowers, I now have no choir and no church, of which I was an extremly committed member, to attend, but I hope that by sharing my problem I may help others.
    I would be interested to hear from others who have this problem.

    Comment by barbara — August 27, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

  9. […] A February, 2009 post at this blog continues to attract readers and the occasional comment, as those with allergies continue to deal with people wearing perfume at church. […]

    Pingback by Wednesday Link List « Thinking Out Loud — September 1, 2010 @ 6:14 am

  10. I gave up going to church 14 years ago. I really miss it and feel spiritually starved, but I tried going back 3 weeks ago, then 2 weeks ago, and now I’ve give up again.

    It isn’t worth being sick with a migraine for 3 days to attend one day of church. I just can’t do it to my body.

    To make matters worse, I’m happiest at the LDS church and they don’t allow coffee if you want to go to the temple, and coffee is often the only thing that will cut through the migraine.

    So I’m sunk.

    I wonder if Jesus asked every woman not to wear perfume so one could attend, if they would balk?

    Anyway… nice to see I’m not alone. Thanks for listening to me vent.

    Comment by Deborah Carvalho — December 17, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

  11. Want to make a difference in areas all over the world. Sign the petition asking the Olympics to go Scent free. It will create a major awareness.

    P.S. Don’t forget to pass it on to others.
    Melva Smith

    Comment by Melva Smith — June 13, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  12. Does anyone know how I could find a scent-free church or social group near Geneva, IL?

    Comment by Julie Gutierrez — June 18, 2011 @ 12:25 am

  13. Today I am making the descision to stop going to church our Church of 30 years…….for 10 years I have asked pleaded begged for people to stop wearing perfumes colognes …aftershave and lotions… I am tired of being sick… I am praying that we will be able to start our own church soon and it will be fragrance free…and all you people that think you are not harming others… think again…

    Comment by Carol McKinniss — April 2, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    • It’s too bad when it comes to this, but you have to do what’s right for your health. In our neck of the woods, churches have been very responsive; one church told us that the problem was actually fairly widespread and that my wife’s complaint was “the least militant” of the ones they received.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — April 2, 2012 @ 4:46 pm

  14. I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and had to stop going to church also because of all the fragrances. It would be wonderful if I could find a church that was fragrant free, however my sensitivities are so that clothes washed with fabric softeners or dryer sheets make me ill, also. I recently sat down outside at my daughters ball game, only to immediately pick up my chairs and move farthest upwind. One whiff of someone’s perfume sent a migraine to my head and pain into my neck and down my arm. The longer I am exposed the worse my symptoms become: my face will go numb, and then my arms and legs, my body goes weak, and I become fatigued along with migraines and other pain.
    The general public has no idea how fragrances affect those who are sensitive. And our numbers are growing.
    I had been an Art teacher that had to resign because of my sensitivities. The schools are full of fragrances from hand sanitizers, and cleaners, to air fresheners. I traveled from room to room, and other teachers that used room fresheners were very unwilling to accommodate me. I became sicker and sicker until I knew my health was more important. I resigned.
    We need to educate those in our communities. Not only are the fragrances and chemicals affecting the most sensitive, but also contain neuro-toxins and many harmful ingredients that are harming our children and all of us.
    I am trying to start a non-profit org. whose goal is to educate about the harms of fragrances and chemicals. I would like to start in the schools with children and teachers. Then to other groups as well.
    Hopefully, I can make this a reality. We need fragrance free schools. We need fragrance free lives.

    Comment by Beth Johnson — April 5, 2012 @ 11:45 am

    • Beth, were you able to start the education presentations? I ask, because my daughter (a senior in high school) is extremely sensitive to scents. She gets severe migraines from them. The school principal made a rule to not allow sprays in school, but he lacks the ability to enforce it. I would love to find someone who would do a presentation for our school. I know that its not only my daughter whose getting sick from the scents.

      Comment by Nancy — November 7, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

  15. I have found a lovely new Church and they will not put lilies in. Please don’t give up. barbara

    Comment by Barbara — April 5, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

  16. […] with new people with new kinds of environmental allergies. But we’ve already discussed that here and here. So we upset at least one usher by not moving in because Mrs. W. desperately needs to have […]

    Pingback by Megachurch Miscellany | Thinking Out Loud — January 9, 2014 @ 8:11 am

  17. I gave up church attendance years ago because of perfumes. I miss it terribly. I’ve been attending a local church the past month, staying behind the glass window in a parent’s room. It is not the same. I am looking for a fragrance free christian church in Puyallup, WA. Doing a google search didn’t turn anything up. Does anyone know of a search that would help me out?

    Comment by Shari (Sharon) Madison — April 18, 2019 @ 4:33 pm

  18. Jesus might get mad at the stinkers and push the envelope a bit… He did overturn some tables after all…

    Comment by linda @ Seriously "Sensitive" to Pollution — April 18, 2019 @ 10:16 pm

  19. I found this while researching fragrance-free churches, to see if that was a thing.

    A few years ago we started going to a church with heavy perfume wearers. I have always had sensitivity to certain scents but since we’ve moved here, it’s gotten worse. The pastor knows, as do most of the church “leaders”. Before COVID started, Sunday had started becoming my least favorite day of the week because I knew I was going to have trouble breathing, have to leave and use the inhaler as you mentioned, and have “scratchy” lungs on through Monday….which also leaves you feeling ill and tired overall. The pastor’s wife is the worst offender! She knows that I suffer with it, but she continues to do it. As you mentioned, visitors are one thing but long-time members being so heartless still floors me. After several weeks of virtual church, we have not yet returned to Sunday service. I am not looking forward to the lung issues. As you mentioned, all churches are not the same in this regard.

    I hope that you can get some relief. We are headed to the mission field once we leave here and my hope is that we can start a fragrance-free ministry once we return to the States. God bless.

    Comment by Constancia — July 6, 2020 @ 2:56 am

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