The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville
Text Publishing RRP: $24.99 AUD
Kate Grenville had always associated perfume with elegance and beauty. Then the headaches started.
This is the tantalizing lead in to the latest non-fiction work from celebrated Australian novelist Kate Grenville. Drawing on personal experience and extensive research, Grenville takes the reader on a journey. From a position of naive curiosity through some truly frightening facts and figures around our use of fragrances, she explores an industry about which we don’t ask nearly enough questions.
The book begins with Grenville’s memories of admiring her mother’s luxe bottles of exotic scents on the dresser. Then, the image of a hopeful teen, dowsing herself in floral delights to attract the attention of boys (who probably didn’t notice). Many of us can relate to these associations – and at least a third of us (according to Grenville’s research) can also relate to what came next: chronic headaches.
Up to one third of the population reacts badly to fragrances
Research around the health impacts of fragrances is a largely recent phenomenon. But the further one digs, the more evidence there is to link fragrances to common illnesses like headaches, depression, asthma, nausea and even some cancers. Grenville’s own physical reaction to fragrances can put her out of action for days; and not just the fragrances she might wear herself, but those worn by other people and released into the environment all around us. Let’s face it, it’s considered impolite (at the least) to blow cigarette smoke in someone’s face, yet we thrill our friends and guests with scented candles and our personal perfume preferences all the time! Maybe it’s time to rethink?
The thing is, fragrances used to be produced using natural products, like flower essences. These are extremely expensive, especially en masse, so 99% of the fragranced products we use these days are created chemically. Perfume springs to mind, of course, but you can also include your shampoo, make up, washing powder, dishwashing liquid, toilet paper, air freshener … the list goes on. The average person is therefore exposed to potentially hundreds of fragrance-related chemicals before they even walk out the door of a morning. Women are closer to the firing line, too, thanks to the fact that we prefer women to ‘smell like flowers rather than smell like women’, as Grenville stated at a recent book reading in Brisbane.
Could fragrances cause headaches, nausea, asthma or even cancer?
Of course not every ‘chemical’ is dangerous, but where it all gets a little scary is when Grenville reveals how little testing and monitoring is done on our fragranced products. Almost everything you eat must now come with a list of ingredients – but what about the things you put on your skin? Or the things you spray into the air and breathe into your lungs?
Whilst some products do appear to contain a list of chemicals, these are generally not the ones related to fragrance. Take a closer look. In amongst the sodium-laurel-whatevers you might see something that says ‘scent’ or ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’ – these words are code for a chemical cocktail, which is safeguarded by patent laws. To stay ahead of the competition, producers of these products do not need to disclose the contents of their unique parfum.
Grenville’s great skill as a storyteller allows her to unpack the story of modern fragrances with plenty of evidence-based data, whilst never sounding alarmist. She is open about being passionately curious rather than an expert herself, and uses the book to kick start discussion rather than draw unfounded conclusions.
If you are one of the afflicted, you’ll be thrilled to know you’re not alone. It’s also worth a look if you’re someone who suffers vague occasional headaches or other symptoms you can’t pin on any obvious cause. For anyone else, this book makes the case for being a conscientious consumer. Fragrance may be the cause of all our ills, or it may not, but we should always be prepared to ask more questions.