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Review Of 'The Case Against Fragrance' By Kate Grenville

Thursday 9 March 2017


From Committee member Deborah Marlin:


The Case Against Fragrance

Review of ‘The Case Against Fragrance’ by Kate Grenville

The Case Against Fragrance
Kate Grenville
Text Publishing Company, 2017
208 pp
ISBN: 9781925355956

Review by Deborah Marlin

As a young woman, Australian novelist Kate Grenville wore perfume that made her feel glamorous on special occasions. However she realised that it also gave her headaches.

Recently, after suffering from a lingering virus, she found that so did everyone else’s perfumes and colognes. And cosmetics and hair products. And the perfumes from pot pourri, air fresheners and laundry products… A book promotion tour became an obstacle course as she struggled to work out strategies to reduce her exposure to these things whilst still talking and smiling through a headache and signing books for fans.

An internet search reassured her that she was by no means the only person affected in this way. However she could find no handbook explaining how and why this happened. So she wrote one. This is it. And it is a very good one.

Kate Grenville presents the available science in a clear, readable fashion; she looks at the marketing of perfumed products, and the lack of information available to consumers; she outlines how extensive is the reach of fragranced products into our everyday lives, and how hard it is to avoid exposure to them; and she discusses the medical, legal and social issues that arise from this all-pervasive presence of fragrances in our everyday lives.

So what is in fragrance? Even in products which are required by law to list their ingredients (and not all are, for example laundry detergent), only the word ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’ has to be used, to protect trade secrets. Looking at the website of the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), Ms Grenville found that 2947 ingredients can be used to concoct perfumes. On the advice of its scientists, who take into account their own findings, and the results of independent researchers, IFRA prohibits the use of seventy-six ingredients, and prescribes limits for the amounts of 181 others that can be used in any one product. Thus a little over six percent of the available substances have some constraint on their use. Those manufacturers who choose to join IFRA are voluntarily bound to adhere to these guidelines.

But as the author points out, any individual may be wearing many more than one perfume (in their hair shampoo, conditioner and styling products, makeup, perfume, body lotion, deodorant and perfume from laundry detergent). So the combination worn could easily exceed ‘safe’ limits of various ingredients. People then go to shops, schools and workplaces where other people are also adding various perfumes to the environment, which are cleaned with fragranced cleaning products, and which often have fragrances added to the air. So anyone can be breathing in or having skin contact with large amounts of fragrance chemicals in their everyday environments.

So why does this matter? Kate Grenville describes the work of independent scientists from a number of different fields, all showing that there is cause for concern about exposure to many of these types of chemicals. Various components of fragrance have been found to irritate the skin, eyes and lungs; to trigger asthma and headaches; to cause people to have trouble with concentration and cognitive processing; to be suspected or confirmed carcinogens or genotoxins; and to mimic human hormones, thus interfering with many of the functions affected by hormones, in the current generation and sometimes in babies who were exposed to them while in the womb. The effects can be extensive indeed.

This leads to the dual questions of helping people who are known to be made ill immediately by perfumes, and protecting the whole population from longer-term effects. Ms Grenville explores the legal and social issues involved, and looks at the development of fragrance-free environments. In Canada the disability law specifically covers ‘environmental sensitivity’, and hospitals, schools and workplaces are of fragrance-free. Vancouver International Airport has an alternative route through its duty free area for people who would like to avoid perfumes. And the website of Symphony Nova Scotia says “Since several of our patrons have severe scent allergies, we ask that you please leave the cologne, perfume, hairspray, and deodorant at home!” Other examples from around the world are given.

Kate Grenville’s book is a clarion call for the examination of the dangers posed by this pervasive use of fragrance chemicals in public and private spaces, and for the consideration of measures to protect the public from too high exposure.

It would be wonderful if it were to be followed by companion volumes examining the materials which are used to build and insulate our homes and public buildings, the various materials used to furnish them, and the materials and treatments used to make our clothing and bedding. Many of these substances also give off unhealthy chemicals, and add to fragrances to create a miasma of chemicals that we touch or breathe or consume day and night.

I recommend this book to those who know or suspect that they are affected by fragrance; to their friends, relatives and colleagues who are perplexed by their avoidance of perfumes; and to the wider public who may be amazed to discover just how widespread these fragrances are, and how many problems they may be causing to all of us, not just those with an immediate reaction.


PDF Download this review (PDF, 195 KB)


Kate Grenville spoke about fragrance at Adelaide Writers' Week, 9:30am on Saturday 4th March.


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