Book review: The Case Against Fragrance, by Kate Grenville
Australian novelist Kate Grenville had a problem. On book tours, she began suffering crippling headaches and other intense symptoms that she eventually deduced were connected to scents. She realized she was highly intolerant to artificial scents and fragranced products.
Scent is certainly everywhere. Even if we choose to use little of it ourselves, we’re still breathing in and being affected by scents used around us.
And artificial fragrance really is remarkably prevalent. I remember learning that scented tampons exist. I’m still astounded. Who do those benefit? When would you ever…why would you need…who would notice…my mind goes in circles trying to make sense of them. I can’t imagine the benefits (a tampon that smells pleasantly perfumey when you unwrap it, I guess? When else is its scent important?) compared to the risks (exposing unknown chemical fragrances not only to some of the most sensitive skin on your body, but inside it.)
But no matter, it’s one (in my opinion, extreme) example of how scent has plenty of opportunities to accost us: some that we may be so used to, we don’t even notice.
“There’s a downside to fragrance – to do with our health – that you don’t hear much about. This book aims to balance things out, not by trying to persuade, but by presenting some of what’s known about fragrance. Armed with a bit of information, readers can make up their own minds. Using fragrance is a choice, and my hope is that this book might give people the chance to make that choice an informed one.”
I was so excited to discover this book. A few years ago, my headaches evolved into migraines, and they’re sometimes triggered and always made worse by certain environmental factors, scent being a major one. I contracted one day a week at a company where an employee would blast herself with perfume at lunchtime in the bathroom. If I’d left my coat hanging in the closet, unfortunately located in the bathroom, it would reek of perfume when I left.
Often it was enough to give me a headache – just spending a minute in the bathroom grabbing my coat before I left and passing by her occasionally. I associated that day of the week with ending in a headache and braced for it. I can’t imagine if I’d actually had to work there all day, every day. She probably experiences “olfactory fatigue,” a condition Grenville describes as when you can’t notice a smell anymore so in the case of a nice smell, you add more to get the desired effect again.
I get headaches or nausea when people sit near me on the subway doused in perfume, or if they smell too strongly like cigarettes. In Europe, this has been a bigger problem than it was in the U.S., both the perfume and the cigarettes.
But we know cigarettes are bad, and we know secondhand smoke is also dangerous (even if Austrians, who I currently live amongst, will aggressively defend smoking and argue about its risks, secondhand or otherwise. Fact is considered opinion here.) But what about perfume? Isn’t it just a case of some people preferring it, or preferring certain scents, while others simply prefer different ones, or an absence of it? No inherent danger in something you only smell, right?
Absolutely not, argues Grenville. And science. In this book she proves it, and draws important parallels to when the health risk from cigarette smoke, primary and secondhand, was also an emerging science.
But you can barely tell people this – they might understand and accept that you don’t like their preferred scent, but most refuse to believe that scent itself is intolerable or can affect some people so strongly and detrimentally. “Rubbing salt in the wound [of anywhere public being a potential trigger for illness, allergic reactions, and migraines] will be the fact that many other people won’t believe the problems are caused by fragrance.”
But they are, and unsurprisingly, because as Grenville shows, there’s a lot of bad stuff mixed into fragrances. There’s industry secrecy involved, so sometimes we don’t even know how bad some chemical ingredients are for our health, or what effect they might have. And that’s all legal.
“The extent of government safety regulations these days can feel like overkill…Yet in other ways – ways just as critical to our safety – the protective shield of regulation is strangely absent. We’re exposed, every day, to powerful chemicals in fragrance. They’re largely untested, mostly unregulated, and, in many cases, not declared on the label…This seemed so strange and so inconsistent…Surely there are experts who aren’t just labeling or assessing fragrance, but are making sure it’s safe? Well, yes, there are. The only problem is, they’re the same people who make it.”
GASP! Twist! What the hell? How is that possible? Part of it has to do with trade secrets, so if fragrance producers revealed what creates their signature scents, they’d harm their profits as others could easily copycat the mixtures. The solution? They don’t have to disclose potentially toxic, dangerous, sensitivity-creating, allergy-inducing chemicals. Perfect!
One woman defends her collection of vintage perfumes, many of which had their formulas reworked due to dangerous chemical compounds, like nitro musks, used previously:
“When people find out I collect vintage perfumes the usual question is ‘Do you really wear those old perfumes?’ Well of course!…I too have had some minor allergic reactions but nothing to deter me. I’ve also read the warning on some of the ingredients such as the nitro musks…I say, experiencing perfumes that haven’t existed in decades, from bygone days, is worth the risk.”
Wow. What power does scent hold over us?
Harsher chemicals are used in products not meant to have contact with skin, like fragrance diffusers, room sprays, and the like. I knew that already, but the extent is shocking. And as the science shows, we’re still breathing those things, and they can still affect us, as evidenced by those who are more sensitive, experiencing adverse effects through allergies or illness symptoms.
I don’t like to read things that make me paranoid about products that I need, like skin creams, soaps, and shampoos. But as Grenville says, it’s important to be aware of the reality of industries that we possibly trust too much, and to make informed decisions as often as possible. That’s what I particularly liked about this book: there’s a personal story, but the bulk isn’t opinion- or emotion-based, it’s science and fact-based. No paranoia, no conspiracy theories, just scientific research.
I’ve been reading labels closer, recognized some chemicals mentioned here, tossed products out and spent more for fragrance-free options. For what it’s worth, in a few months I’ve had fewer small skin rashes and headaches than what was normal for me for a long time. This idea particularly struck me: “Unfortunately, you can’t run your life twice, to see which of the choices you made were the ones that damaged you or your children.” She likens the necessity of being informed to taking out insurance policies on homes and possessions. We hope nothing happens, but we should make informed decisions in case something does.
As interested as I am in this topic, the scientific sections and study results are admittedly dry and dense. I’d hoped with a novelist’s eye they’d be more palatable, but I didn’t find it so. However, Grenville’s writing talents still come across strongly, as she’s expert at distilling certain other important points and translating into readable format. You have to slog through statistics and chemical compound info to get there. I understand it’s important, it’s the whole point, really – I just hoped for something more overall readable.
Still an eye-opening, well-researched and game-changing book on a topic too long ignored or diminished.
The Case Against Fragrance
by Kate Grenville
published in the U.S. September 12, 2017 by Text Publishing
originally published January 30, 2017 in Australia
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.
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