Since HSPs are very affected by stimuli, like the scent of a freshly painted wall, chemical sensitivity can feel all the more intense.
You just moved into a new apartment with freshly-cleaned carpets. While most tenants would be happy about the refreshed floors, you notice the chemical smell immediately. You also start to feel weird. Maybe you experience headaches, brain fog, or shortness of breath. Even after leaving your windows open and buying an air purifier, nothing seems to help.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) often experience heightened emotions, greater reactions to pain, and much more. But did you know your body can be extra sensitive to the environment, too? If you relate to the above, you may struggle with chemical sensitivity.
According to American Family Physician, chemical sensitivity is when low-level exposure to chemicals causes a variety of symptoms. These symptoms can range from sneezing, headaches, or changes in heart rate to anxiety or depression. And, frustratingly for the sufferer, they can look different for each person.
If you’re an HSP, chemical sensitivity can be even more magnified than it is for non-HSPs (since we pick up on everything!). Let’s look at key signs that someone might have this often-misunderstood condition.
13 Signs You Could Have Chemical Sensitivity as an HSP
1. You seem to be sensitive to everything, from soap to smoke.
A person with chemical sensitivity might react to the compounds in things like:
- Home construction or remodeling materials
- Drugs or supplements
- Book or newspaper inks
- Plastic products
- Cosmetic products
- And much more
When someone is sensitive to many substances in their environment, it’s known as multiple chemical sensitivity. For instance, research shows that the person may be affected by things like car exhaust, insect repellent, or tobacco smoke. This sensitivity might mimic seasonal allergies and last as long as the person is exposed to the chemicals, from substances used in a new house renovation to the chlorine used to treat a swimming pool.
Chemical sensitivity can start after short- or long-term exposure. Symptoms might start within days or it could take years of being around the chemical trigger. After a person is exposed, they can have symptoms even when around low levels of the chemical(s).
Maybe you know there’s something making you feel off, but you can’t put your finger on it. You’re feeling anxious, stuffy, or unfocused without a clear explanation. And since HSPs are very affected by stimuli, chemical sensitivity can feel all-the-more intense and confusing.
2. You seek refuge outdoors — you just have to get away from the chemical trigger.
Chemical sensitivity sufferers often react to substances in their homes or workplaces, such as cleaning solvents in the bathroom, a coworker’s face cream, or even ink from the newspaper on your desk. You might notice that you have more allergy- or flu-like symptoms indoors, and you feel better in the fresh air.
Being outside often removes you from potential triggers when you have chemical sensitivity. Some people even move to more remote areas in an effort to avoid common chemicals in cities, like those from industrial plastics, oil spills, or even cigarette smoke. Plus, nature is a happy refuge for highly sensitive people anyway, so this is a win-win.
3. Your physical or psychological symptoms have no clear explanation.
Chemical sensitivity could cause a range of reactions that lead to:
- Chronic fatigue or irritability
- Brain fog
- Memory or concentration problems
- Body aches or muscle pains
- Asthma symptoms
- Gastrointestinal issues
Research has also shown that those with multiple chemical sensitivity have higher rates of anxiety and depression compared to those without sensitivity. According to a 2012 study on 400 patients published in Annals of Family Medicine, those who met the criteria for “chemical intolerance” had higher rates of allergies, as well as possible mental conditions, like panic disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.
Unfortunately, it’s rare for doctors to connect chemical sensitivity with physical or emotional suffering. This can be frustrating for HSPs because, often, it’s hard enough explaining how we feel in a medical setting. We’re already worried enough about seeming “too sensitive” or “overreactive.”
But if symptoms have no clear reason, it could be chemical sensitivity for some people, especially HSPs.
4. Your issues come on suddenly and don’t go away.
Chemical sensitivity may appear to come on suddenly. You might be fine around a substance for most of your life. Then, one day, you have a reaction to something that didn’t bother you before.
For example, maybe your partner starts using a new cleaning product at home. It smells nice and does the job, but one day you start experiencing headaches and muscle pains after coming home each day. Even after you realize the connection and ask your partner to stop using the product, your symptoms persist.
Now, you have the same symptoms when someone cleans the office at work or smell cleaning solution at the grocery store. Something that gave you no trouble in the past is suddenly a major burden in your everyday environment(s).
5. It gets worse over time.
Chemical sensitivity is often a double-edged sword. There are typically two stages:
- An initial (often major) exposure to the substance
- Several low-level exposures over time
After the first exposure, the situation can snowball — even if you don’t have a major exposure again. Someone with chemical sensitivity might notice that their body starts reacting to even small amounts of a substance. Even if the person removes themself from the first exposure, they could have a reaction to minute amounts of the same or new materials.
As Claudia Miller, a physician at the University of Texas School of Medicine in San Antonio, told Discover Magazine, the first exposure can damage someone’s immune and neurological systems. As a result, they can lose tolerance to many different chemicals in their daily life.
Since HSPs react to things more strongly than other people, they might notice these exposure-related symptoms with more intensity. Thankfully, being highly in tune with themselves may help HSPs remove themselves from the chemical trigger sooner.
6. You have reactions to things others don’t notice, like freshly painted walls.
Going out becomes a source of anxiety — you don’t know what you’ll react to and how to explain it to others. Even more frustrating is the fact that others don’t notice the chemicals that cause you trouble at all.
For example, say you’re out with your friends (pre-COVID-19) and the restaurant walls have a fresh new coat of paint. While everyone else “oohs” and “ahhs” about the updated look, you’re just trying to ignore the sudden headaches and fatigue you feel.
Plus, you’re a highly sensitive person, so you wonder if you’ll be seen as overreacting yet again. You finally ask your friends if they notice anything, and all you get are confused looks or blank stares.
7. Seeing the doctor doesn’t tell you much.
If you’ve left a doctor visit feeling like your symptoms are “all in your head,” you’re not alone — doctors’ visits are different for highly sensitive people. Those with chemical sensitivity are, unfortunately, used to getting less-than-ideal results, and HSPs are, too, because we notice when something is off much faster than other people.
The challenge with chemical sensitivity is that it looks different for everyone. You might go to the doctor for a range of symptoms, making it hard to pinpoint what’s going on. Even after multiple tests ordered by your doctor, you could come back with a “clean” bill of health.
According to research by Johns Hopkins Medicine, the medical community is divided when it comes to chemical sensitivity. Some professionals see it as a true medical illness triggered by the environment. Others think that chemical sensitivity is actually anxiety or has other psychological reasons. This can make it harder for doctors to believe when someone is experiencing chemical sensitivity.
8. You notice others’ perfumes and deodorants from a mile away.
Most people use these products to smell better — but when you have chemical sensitivity, it’s just too much.
Perfumes, hair dyes, hairsprays, and more might cause a reaction when spending time with people who use them. Unfortunately, this can make social situations harder. How do you tell someone that you want to spend time with them, but you get terrible headaches from their personal care products?
And if you’re an HSP, you’re extra sensitive to smells even without a chemical sensitivity on top. The combination can make it difficult to socialize without practicing some highly sensitive social distancing.
9. Friends and family think you’re overreacting or being dramatic.
Even if they don’t say it, you can feel the skepticism from your friends and family. Loved ones might sympathize to an extent, but they fail to understand why you can’t just ignore this new car smell or that super strong air freshener. They might think you’re exaggerating the problem or even making up your symptoms. But only you can truly know what you’re experiencing.
When you have strong physical or mental reactions to various chemicals, it’s often impossible to ignore. Just like when you’re highly sensitive in general, explaining chemical sensitivity to someone without it is challenging. You might say to them, “I think the shampoo you use might be giving me a headache,” and they’ll dismiss it and think you’re overreacting or being dramatic.
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10. The smallest things can set you off, like the smell of ink in a book.
Multiple substances can trigger reactions in someone with chemical sensitivity. Someone might be sensitive to the ink in a book they’re reading, the soap bubbles in their bath, or pesticides on the food they’re eating. If you have trouble tolerating various activities, you could be having one or more reactions.
And, as an HSP, non-chemical triggers can also cause distress — the scratchy tag on your shirt collar, the sound of someone chewing, or being too hot or too cold. These are details that other people might easily ignore, but for HSPs, they can be deafening. Chemical sensitivity is a similar constant hurdle that others struggle to understand.
11. You have allergy symptoms with no allergies.
Doctors can perform allergy tests or chemical toxicity tests to see if you’re having a reaction to something. If most tests come back clear, it could be chemical sensitivity. A study from the National Research Council (NRC) found that many people with multiple chemical sensitivity seem fine on paper even with many symptoms. And, for some people, chemical sensitivity symptoms mimic allergies or even the flu.
As an HSP, you might be familiar with similar shifts in your body that others don’t notice. For instance, HSPs can develop physical symptoms, like headaches or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), in response to overstimulation.
12. Scented laundry detergents or soaps are a no-go.
For many people with chemical sensitivity, artificial fragrances, synthetic ingredients, and other compounds can easily cause a negative reaction — that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As an HSP, you might already be very familiar with unscented, fragrance-free, and all-natural products. Maybe you had to switch to fragrance-free laundry detergent because the scent was overbearing. Or you swapped your scented hand soap for a natural kind because the smell on your hands was distracting.
13. Your symptoms are worse in certain places.
Since there are no reliable tests for chemical sensitivity, it can be
difficult to know what’s causing your issues. You could be having reactions to chemicals in certain buildings, a friend’s hand soap, your own home cleaning products, and much more.
Make notes when your symptoms are better or worse and what you think could be causing them. This might help you put a finger on potential triggers. When you review this diary (of sorts) a month or two later, you can see what patterns emerge.
You can then bring your list to your next doctor’s appointment. Reviewing each symptom with your physician can help you remember what to ask and say.
Just like being a highly sensitive person, it can take time for others to understand chemical sensitivity and the struggles that it involves. Remember that you’re not alone and it’s important — and necessary — to advocate for yourself and try to stay calm in the meantime.
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