Saturday 18 March 2017

The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

I didn't expect to read one of my Top Ten Tuesday Autumn Reads so quickly, but a curious reaction at work today prompted me to devour Kate Grenville's The Case Against Fragrance in one sitting.

I've known for quite some time now that certain garden chemicals, cleaning products as well as regular old dust particles can give me ghastly long-lasting sinus headaches.

But it took me longer - much, much longer to accept that some perfumes and fragrances also had a similar effect.

As a family we moved to soap free washing powders and body washes a number of years ago when one of the booklets developed eczema. The link between soap and skin problems seemed obvious.

However, because I didn't wear perfume very often, it took a long while for me to link my sudden migraines to scent. I blamed hormones, chocolate, red wine, cheese and work, but some non-scientific and sporadic testing over the past few years, has led me to finally believe that it's perfume. Not all types of fragrances though - perfume and some room air fresheners seem to be the main contenders. I'm fine with essential oils, incense, shampoos and hand lotions.

I usually cope fine if the scent is on someone else or in another room or if enough time (& air) have gone before me in an enclosed space.

Our recent holiday in Mexico was a case in point. The hotel we stayed at used a specially designed fragrance for their boutique rooms. If we came back to our room not long after the cleaner had been and we turned on the air-con, I ended up with a sinus headache. But if we stayed out all day and opened up the verandah doors when we did come back, I was fine.

When we checked out the hotel presented us with a small vial of their special room scent, so we could be transported back to Mexico with one whiff of their special spray!
The first time I sprayed it at home, I ended up with a headache and felt nauseous. Not the kind of holiday memory they intended I'm sure!

Today at work, one of my colleagues cleaned the bathroom with some regular supermarket purchased spray cleaner. I was a room away, but the outside doors were closed. Within minutes I felt ill and dizzy and completely overpowered by the scent. Opening the doors up and turning on the fans helped me feel better, but tonight I'm feeling all sinusy with a sore throat.

I've never had such an immediate reaction before.

Reading Grenville's book tonight seemed like the logical thing to do.

Grenville is not a scientist, but she has used her formidable research skills to present her case against fragrance. Early on she says that,
using fragrance is a choice,and my hope is that this book might give people the chance to make that choice an informed one.

She presents studies (among people who get migraines, around half get them from fragrance - pg24), lists signs and symptoms, defines terms, lays out the history of the use of scent and how scent is produced, reveals the various industry and government bodies who regulate the use of fragrances and chemicals as well as providing anecdotes about her experience with fragrance intolerance.

Did you know that 'when you smell something, it's because little bits of it have just gone up your nose'? Grenville goes on to explain how this actually occurs and why it can be beneficial for us.

Problems around trade secrets, loopholes in labelling, animal testing and industry based research and assessments are discussed. Lists of impossible sounding chemicals and some of their known side-effects are noted. Grenville devotes two chapters to the recent research around the indestructible nature of synthetic musks - how it has invaded our water sources, is stored in our bodies and affects our hormones (it was common to find musks in over ninety per cent of the people tested pg125).

She concludes with a discussion about recommended dosages,
How small is safe, how weak is safe and what the long-term effects might be, are questions no one yet has the answers to.

What to do? Grenville encourages us to consider creating low-scent work places and buying fragrance-free products (if you can only afford one alternative product, spending a little extra on laundry powder is one of the best ways to make life safer for you and your family pg168).

Have you ever had a reaction to the fragrances and scents in perfumes, cleaning products or air fresheners?

I wonder how many people have been suffering in silence, not knowing what the problem was? Or how many people have had a milder reaction to fragrances and therefore haven't made the link?


  1. I made the perfume connection 30 years ago. I figured it out when I worked on the 30th floor of a downtown office building. All I needed was one heavily scented person on the ride up and I had a sinus headache for most of the day. Floral scents bothered me the most, but live flowers do not cause me any distress. I'm guessing all those chemicals play a part!

    1. There may be a tiny minuscule amount of real flower concentrate in some perfumes, but it's the other 150 ingredients (that they don't have to put on the label) that cause the problems for many people.

  2. My sister has terrible migraines from scented products. She has found if she keeps her own home completely scent-free she can cope with the outside world which isn't scent-free much better. But if she allows something in her home to contaminate her living space then she gets major headaches when she is around scents in her life outside her home. i will recommend that she read this book.

    1. Ahhh that fits in with the threshold idea I read about once with headaches and migraines.

      Apparently we all have a headache triggering threshold. Everyone's threshold is different, but you can cope with a certain amount of headache triggering events...until you reach your threshold...then you get a headache/migraine.

      By limiting her trigger events at home, your sister is keeping well below her migraine threshold...until she ventures outside.

  3. I just read this book this week too (sadly not in one sitting though). It was an interesting read. I don't know that I'm going to change much of what I do (but then I don't have major problems). I just need to put the finishing touches to my (rather long) blog post about it. It turned out I had quite a bit to say...

    1. Now I'm curious to hear what you have to say...

  4. Anonymous10/4/17

    I was introduced to this issue around 30 years ago when I joined an allergy association for my eczema. I have never used perfumed products on my skin and rarely used (then or now) perfume itself because my skin is very sensitive. But back then people with allergies knew about the impact of fragrances and one of the requests for attending their meetings was that people not wear perfume to meetings, because of all the ways perfumes affect people. So, it's a bit like passive smoking - what someone else does can be bad for you. Why do we need perfume anyhow in our clean hygienic society?


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