Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Case Against Fragrance


A new Kate Grenville book is always a special moment. I've read a few of her early books, but not really kept up with her more recent books. Which is a sad thing for me as The Secret River is certainly one of the most significant novels of recent times. I really need to read it some time soon(ish). I do remember absolutely loving Lilian's Story way back when.

The Case Against Fragrance was released last month and was reviewed quite widely. I was rather incensed at her choice of subject and really wanted to read it to pick a fight with her I think. I was especially keen to get my hands on a copy- the aqua tones of the cover (not fully captured in the picture above) made it even more enticing, it's just so, so pretty. And it has a stylish, embossed typeface. The cover illustration of a Chanel No 5 style bottle did make me think it was more a case against perfume, but the book's scope is far broader than that and deals with the widespread use of fragrance (and not just perfume) in our modern lives.

Kate Grenville has written this book and taken leave of her usual fiction because of her personal reactions to fragrance. It wasn't until her 30s, when she had subconsciously moved away from wearing perfume that Kate realised the enormity of her own problem with fragrance. A friend gave her a bottle of perfume and she immediately developed a headache. Overtime she began to avoid fragrance in other guises too- cosmetics, shampoos and cleaning products. And then in her 50s she had a viral illness with a prolonged recovery that seemed to sensitise her to fragrance even more.

As I began to read I started to realise that I had some commonality with Kate after all. I have had prodigious hay fever for most of my adult life (although thanks to the immune modulation of pregnancy it has been vastly better for the past 17 years or so), and don't like certain smells because they make me sneeze. I never linger long in those heavily incensed hippy shops. Whilst I like some of the products of places like Lush the overwhelming strength of the smell of the shops is a bit much for me. And I rather famously don't like coffee. But I especially don't like the smell- it makes me nauseous. I've long thought of it as a stench, but I do realise that one (wo)man's stench is another (wo)man's pleasure. And I realise most of the world actively likes the smell of coffee, and am more than ok with the fact that it's just me that doesn't like it.

Kate Grenville came out swinging with a quote from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, but then the tone of her writing was more centered.
When I was little, my mother had a tiny, precious bottle of perfume on her dressing table and on special occasions she'd put a dab behind her ears. The smell of Arp├Ęge was always linked in my mind with excitement and pleasure- Mum with her hair done, wearing her best dress and her pearls, off for a night out with Dad. 

Which is kind of how I think of perfume too. I'm not a daily perfume wearer, but I do have several bottles of perfume on my dresser. Like Kate I too love the sensuous shapes of their bottles, "the names and the labels, so evocative of all things glamorous". Not that I approach glamorous most days but smell is closely associated with memory and as well all know certain smells will take us back to a specific place and time. My current perfume makes me so happy that I blogged about it in 2013. I can't see the bottle or smell the scent without thinking of Paris.

In 2015 Kate did a book tour for her previous book, One Life: My Mother's Story. It was a fabulous tour, I went to her talk locally. But it was on that tour that her problems with fragrance really intensified. I was probably one of the perfumed women giving her a headache on that tour...
We're smelling man-made scents all day, every day. Fragrance is now so pervasive that, as I was finding on that tour, the only way to avoid it is to become- to put it mildly - eccentric. 
Yes, taping up the doors of hotel rooms is probably somewhere beyond eccentric and Kate was aware that "I'd just crossed one of life's little boundaries. It was possible I'd joined the section of humanity that thinks the moon landings were faked by the CIA or the government puts Prozac in the water supply."

So Kate set out to look into Planet Fragrance. And she discovered some interesting things. Prior to World War II perfumes were made with largely natural ingredients, because of course we weren't refining petrochemicals in the way that we do now. Even when we are using natural raw materials now modern processes are concentrating these natural compounds into unnatural substances. "It takes up to four thousand kilos of rose petals to make a kilo of rose essential oil."
But these days fragrance makers can produce rivers of fragrance for the cost of a single basket of hand-picked rose petals.

There are interesting chapters on the regulation and safety of fragrances. 
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. Yet, when it comes to these chemicals, we consumers are on our own.

It can get a little dry in there, but No I don't want stuff in my washing powder that demyelinates rats and turns their tissues green (Versalide, a synthetic musk in use since the 1950s that was then banned in 1982), and clearly noone wants carcinogens in their shampoo. Naturally, it's always concerning when the overseer of a particular industry is the industry itself. 

I had no idea that some folks collect vintage fragrances. Or that there are perfumes for babies! Why? Babies smell delicious by themselves. I'd never heard of 'low-scent' or 'fragrance-free' workplaces. I made an active choice that it wasn't appropriate to wear perfume to my work place many years ago, but I come across many people that don't appear to use any fragranced products of any kind and they are mighty unpleasant to be near. Although obviously I'm not meaning to suggest that Kate Grenville smells... but clearly no fragrance can go too far. 

I'm not so sure about Kate's claim that fragrance causes "health problems for over a third of people". If I wrinkle my nose because the laundry aisle is sometimes a bit stinky- is that a "health problem"? I don't think so. If I get someone to move their offensive cup of coffee away from me is that a "health problem"? No. No, it's not. 

Kate Grenville did make me think about perfume and scent in a way I never have before. While I realise Kate Grenville's reactions to fragrance are on the more severe end of the spectrum I do think that it's a long bow to draw to say that second-hand scent is the new second-hand smoke. She ends by asking us to be considerate of others and play nicely whilst in public. 

There's no law that says you can't play the bagpipes on the bus, but everyone's glad if you don't.

There are many references in The Case Against Fragrance one of which is an interesting early TED talk from 2005 by Luca Turin on The Science of Scent


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