After suffering from ill health brought on by fragrance, bestselling novelist Kate Grenville decided to turn her attention to the science of scent and the fragrance industry. Here she reveals seven facts about perfume that might surprise you.
The health hazards
One person in three gets sick from fragrance. Some people get headaches, others get asthma. In other folk it triggers skin allergies such as eczema. Some people start coughing and can’t breathe properly. Some get red, sore eyes. Others feel sick to their stomachs. That’s a third of the people in the bus, on the train, and at the office. (This astonishing statistic has been confirmed by multiple academic studies.)
But isn’t fragrance just made from flowers? Yes, it used to be, but in the last hundred years scientists have been able to make synthetic versions of natural scent chemicals. They’re hundreds of times cheaper than the naturally-sourced products. Whether a product is a toilet cleaner or an expensive designer scent, it’s virtually certain to be fragranced with synthetic chemicals.
No matter how you peer at the label, there’s no way of knowing what’s in your fragrance, because the ingredients don’t have to be fully declared. Scent manufacturers often combine a couple of hundred smell chemicals to formulate a particular aroma, and the law allows them to keep that cocktail a secret. (The theory is that this stops competitors from stealing the formula.) Instead of revealing all those chemicals, the manufacturers only have to use the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on the label.
"Things like scented cleaning products, laundry detergents, candles, and air fresheners don’t have to declare any of their ingredients"
In any case, labelling laws only apply to products that go directly on the skin. Things like scented cleaning products, laundry detergents, candles, and air fresheners don’t have to declare any of their ingredients. This is odd, because skin contact is the only one way we’re exposed to fragrance. When we breathe scented air, the fragrance chemicals go into our lungs, and from there they travel around every part of the body.
Many commonly-used fragrance chemicals are known to be bad for humans. Some are “sensitisers”—that is, they can cause skin allergies. Others are irritants—they’re the ones responsible for all those headaches, breathing difficulties, sore eyes and asthma. Some fragrance chemicals are known to be carcinogens—they’ve been associated with cancer.
"Laundry detergents are heavily scented with these hormone-disrupting chemicals"
Others contain chemicals that can interfere with the way our hormones work. This is especially worrying when it comes to unborn children and infants. Delicate organs like brains and sexual organs are still developing, and it’s hormones that guide that development. (Laundry detergents are heavily scented with these hormone-disrupting chemicals.)
One of the most surprising things about fragrance is that the people who make it don’t deny that it can cause health problems. In fact, it’s a lab that the fragrance industry funds that shows many of these effects, and it’s the industry itself that publishes a list of risky fragrance chemicals.
But they still claim their products are safe. They test their chemicals on lab animals, and use those tests to come up with a “safe level” for humans. But lab animals aren’t humans—only tests on humans can really come up with a safe level for humans. Humans are surprisingly reluctant to volunteer for cancer studies.
"Each individual product might only have a 'safe' level, but we’re exposed to unknown numbers of them, every day"
In any case, there’s no way to know what amount of a fragrance chemical we’re exposed to in the course of a day. There are all the scented products we’ve chosen to use, plus the ones that everyone around us has chosen. Each individual product might only have a “safe” level, but we’re exposed to unknown numbers of them, every day. There are also all the products where the makers don’t have to stick to the safe level because there’s no direct skin contact—all those air fresheners, room fragrances and scented candles. They can contain any amount of even the risky chemicals.
The lack of regulations
The only people who test fragrance for safety are the same people who make and sell it. Governments don’t test fragrance or fragranced products. And apart from a few minor regulations in a few countries, governments don’t regulate what’s allowed to go into fragrance. The fragrance industry is trusted to be self-regulating. As one researcher puts it: “If it was coming out of a smokestack, it would be regulated, but if it’s coming out of an air freshener it’s not.”
Going “fragrance-free” or “low-scent” is becoming best practice in workplaces and public venues all over the world. In many countries, laws now recognise that fragrance is an Occupational Health & Safety issue, and that people have the right to breathe air that doesn’t make them sick. Big compensation payouts have been made to people who’ve been made sick in their fragranced workplaces.
If you’re one of the one-in-three, take heart from these surprising facts. Fragrance illness isn’t all in your mind, and you’re not alone.
The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville is availabe on Amazon
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