Guest Author: Becky Anne Michael, Caregiver
It had been the perfect night. As I wrapped up my fifth year of teaching, I went out to dinner at a local French restaurant with a group of students I had taught for four consecutive years. We dressed up, took our time in traditional French style, ate escargot, reminisced, talked about the seniors’ plans, and had the perfect night. Were my life a movie about the struggles and triumphs of becoming a teacher, it would have been the quintessential final scene, representing how far I had come as a teacher and how poised I was to live happily ever after in teacherland.
After our goodbyes, I got in the car and called A to say I was on my way home. He asked if I could stop by the grocery store to pick up a few things and I was happy to oblige. It was rather late, so I didn’t have a lot of time before the store closed. I drove over and started gathering items. However, as I grabbed a can of black beans, I noticed something. A smell. Perfume. There wasn’t anyone around me, so it wasn’t a person. I sniffed my hands. It was on my hands. I don’t wear perfume. I sniffed the handle of the shopping cart. There it was. The culprit. And if it was on the cart and then on my hands, it was surely on everything I had already gotten.
Already all too familiar with how intensely and easily perfume transfers from one surface to another, I knew what to do. I grabbed a bunch of plastic bags from the produce isle and made make-shift gloves. I replaced everything that was in my cart and continued shopping with bag-gloves as a barrier between the fragrance and the items I would bring home to my chronically-ill, hyper-sensitive partner. I finished up, paid for my items, and started bagging them (not the easiest thing, when you are using bags as gloves). As I did my bagging, I checked the items. In spite of my best attempt to keep the fragrance off of the items, it was on them. So, I called A and explained the situation. We decided that the only thing to do was for me to return everything. Because fragrance is so difficult to get off of one’s skin (and the fact that it was so late), there was no re-doing it. I just had to abandon my mission and go home empty-handed. Well, hands full of fragrance, but free of groceries.
After returning the groceries, there was still the issue of the perfume transfer. It had transferred from a woman’s hands to the cart, the cart to my hands (and groceries), and I had to drive home, which posed the problem of more transfer from my hands to the steering wheel of my car, my seatbelt, and my gearshift (minimum). The soap in the bathroom at the grocery store was … fragranced (of course!), so that wasn’t helpful. Even if I could have, soap and water are not enough to remove something as tenacious as perfume. So, to mitigate any further spreading of the perfume, I again armed myself with plastic produce bags and managed to drive home with them tied around my hands. Once I was home, I alternated scrubbing my hands in vinegar and washing them with my fragrance-free soap (as I keep vinegar and fragrance-free soap in my car at all times). Even with my series of vinegar, soap, vinegar, soap, vinegar, soap, I could’t get the fragrance all the way off. That was the night I started smelling my shopping carts.
At that point (we were living in California and A was completely homebound), I was the grocery shopper. I shopped very frequently and had to start sniffing the handle of each cart before shopping to avoid a repeat of the perfume incident. I also started smelling actual products I put in my cart. People like to touch stuff. I am actually like that (or used to be). I would pick up a product, turn it around, hold it, examine it, then put it back. Since a lot of people wear lotions, perfumes, colognes, and body sprays, and lots of people touch things (shoppers and also stock-people), products often end up with fragrances on them. Touching one item with fragrance could derail an entire shopping experience.
A and I have since moved to Massachusetts. In our current situation, A is able to get out of the house from time to time. We now do the grocery shopping together, but I am still in charge of the cart and of picking up the items. Now that my hair is long, I begin shopping by holding my hair back with one hand, and leaning over to smell the cart handle. Then I do a touch-test. I put my hand on the handle, take it off, and smell my hand to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I do not take the front item on the shelf, as that tends to be something that someone else has probably recently handled. A helps me keep track of what we are getting while trying to avoid getting bumped into by perfume/cologne wearing customers who don’t pay any attention to the fact that other humans exist. We both have to do some fancy dance moves in order to avoid highly fragranced customers. It isn’t just being near them, either. They leave clouds of fragrance long after the have left the isle, so we often have to circle back around to avoid the clouds.
Last weekend we were avoiding a very nice, kind lady in blue who was everywhere we needed to be and left her scent long after she moved on. At one point, I left the cart with A while I picked out some bell peppers. In the time it took me to get the peppers, a different perfume-wearing lady tried putting her produce in our cart (thinking it was her’s) and then touched the cart all over, getting her perfume on the handle and one side of the cart. Then she was rude and irritable when A told her it wasn’t her cart and asked her to stop touching everything. Thankfully, she didn’t touch any of our groceries, so we just had to deal with transfer to the cart. I grabbed some plastic produce bags to create a barrier between me and the perfume. This time I realized I could wrap the bags around the handle (rather than trying to wear them as gloves) and it worked quite well.
Now, at the end of shopping, I go up to the cashier with a big smile on my face and as upbeat and kindly as possible, I say, “Hi there! I’m really allergic to fragrance and since you are going to touch my groceries, I need to know if you are wearing any perfume, cologne, strong lotion, or anything like that.” I say that I’m allergic for a few reasons. Firstly, fragrance really does bother me (though not at all like it does A). Secondly, the task of shopping is extremely taxing for A and by the time we get to the check out, he is foggy and rundown, so I can communicate more easily. I find that being upbeat and direct about it goes over the best, though more often than not the cashier is caught off guard and a little confused. Last weekend, A asked the cashier and he started to say, “well, I showered this morning…” Maybe he thought his soap was a problem? Maybe he was telling us he had washed off his cologne. It wasn’t clear but it was kind of funny. If the cashier is wearing something, I say, “Okay, thanks anyway! I’ll see if I can find someone who isn’t” and off I go to repeat the conversation with a new person.
The other part of check out is making sure that no one tries to bag our groceries because of the fragrance transfer issue. It’s just easier for us to do it because we know for a fact we won’t because we aren’t wearing anything. So, after finding the least fragranced cashier possible, I have to then inform that person that they cannot let anyone touch or bag our stuff for us. Usually at least two people try to anyway and are confused or annoyed when we won’t let them. There is one high school girl who works at our supermarket who is my go-to cashier. The first time I asked about perfume, she was really sweet about it and told me that she never wears anything scented. Now when I get in her line, she immediately tells the bagger that we’ll do our own bagging and not to touch our stuff. It is always such a relief when I see her at check out because I no longer have to ask or say anything to her about our check out process.
And if you are wondering just what is so bad about fragrance, perfume, cologne, etc., here is what happens to A when/if it does end up on our things and in our home:
- sinus pain
- brain fog
- muscle cramping
- burning skin
- itching skin
- trouble breathing
- vision issues
- heart palpitations
- sore throat