Beauty

“How my amplified sense of smell helps me predict migraines”

Posted by
Lucy Partington
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From cinnamon buns just out the oven to freshly mown grass – imagine if your favourite smells drastically changed. In a new series, Stylist speaks to people with olfactory extremes.    

Altered Scents is Stylist’s new series which explores a range of olfactory extremes: from people who’ve lost their sense of smell, to others who can smell too much.

Here, we speak to Mary Epworth, a self-diagnosed hyperosmiac – she has a heightened sense of smell that can help her predict migraines.

“The smell of plug-in air fresheners can make me feel like I’m going to be sick”

“My amplified sense of smell is a relatively recent discovery. Up until a few years ago, I assumed everybody experienced the same intense reactions as me. When I started speaking to more people about it I realised that I have the ability to smell things before anybody else can. I’ve always been a massive nerd about perfume, and I always really enjoyed beautiful smells in nature – but I’m also really fussy.

Plug-in air fresheners can make me feel like I’m going to be sick, so if there’s one in the vicinity I have to find it – even if I’m in a busy pub – and turn it off. The gutters in London, especially in the oldest parts of the city, are also problematic – the smell rises and makes me want to throw up. 

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Living with hyperosmia: Mary Epworth loves the smell of cottonwood trees

It can be helpful too – I always know when I’m going to get a migraine because my sense of smell becomes much more heightened and the smell of everyday cleaning products becomes unbearable to the point of nausea. There’s also weird objects that I can vividly remember the smell of, like saliva on the recorders we had to play when I was at school. It’s horrible to think about.

Sheer volume of smells is also tricky. There can be times when I’m in a public place like the showers at the gym with five other people, all of them using a different shampoo, conditioner, and shower gel, each with a strong smell. The overload is hideous. I have to get out as quickly as possible but I’ll usually be physically gagging quite obviously.

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 I do have some slightly odd favourite smells, too. I love unscented sunblocks – to me they smell like cottonwood trees. I also adore really stinky oudh fragrances: the properly disgusting ones that are a bit like manure or a really stinky Stilton when they’re first applied, but they smell incredible when they’ve melted into the skin. 

Despite being self-diagnosed, I do think my hyperosmia is something to do with my genetic wiring. My family has always been one that would literally stop and smell the roses. My late dad had a more intense sense of smell, and so did my mum before she got concussion that resulted in total anosmia, so to me it’s just normal. It’s my normal.”

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Lucy Partington

Lucy Partington is Stylist’s beauty editor. She’s obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she’ll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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