Saturday Question: The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville


Greg Young from AusScents.


(Ed: Taking an idea from Olfactoria’s Travels. Once a week there used to be a Question. Everyone would chime in with an answer, chat with other responders and it would be a generally fun events each week. Taking sides never meant taking offence and everyone kept it respectful and light.
Today we are joined by my mate Greg who has a book review attached to the Saturday Question)


As something of a perfume collector, I thought I owed it to myself to read this book and find out more about what is in those fragrances in the cupboard.

Kate Grenville has long known that she has an intolerance for fragrances that give her headaches. When it reached a point where she was almost totally incapacitated during a book tour, she decided to research the matter and wrote this book.

(The Name of the Rose)

Book Review: The Case Against Fragrance, by Kate Grenville


Book Depository


Grenville points out that, in modern society, fragrance is almost inescapable. It’s not just the perfumes that we wear. It’s also added to every imaginable household product from toilet paper to laundry liquid. Stores, restaurants and hotels spray fragrance in the air. It’s ubiquitous, and that’s a problem for people that are affected by it, like Grenville.

Any attempt to identify what is causing these problems founders on a few issues. First, trade secrets legislation means that the contents of “fragrance” ingredients don’t have to be revealed. Second, there are thousands of ingredients commonly used in fragrance, and only a subset of these have ever been tested for safety. Finally, nearly all the testing and certification is done by the fragrance industry itself, so conflict of interest issues apply. It’s not hard to see why a manufacturer might prefer to declare that a rose fragrance contains “parfum” rather than the chemical formula above.

Even what we do know is somewhat alarming. Grenville provides an extensive list of compounds known or suspected to be carcinogenic that are either used in fragrances or can form when fragrance ingredients interact with the air (as they unavoidably will). Chief among these is formaldehyde, although there are others.

Another concern is the prevalence of synthetic musk compounds that have proven to be almost indestructible. These compounds bioaccumulate so that they become more prevalent the higher up the food chain you go. That means that the very highest levels are seen in the most vulnerable: breastfeeding babies and foetuses in utero. These musk compounds can mimic the action of hormones such as oestrogen, creating over-supply which can lead to birth defects, genetic abnormalities and cancer.

Grenville is quick to point out that it is impossible to pin this on fragrance specifically, because there are so many other potential triggers for such conditions to emerge over a lifetime. Indeed “the case against fragrance” is largely a circumstantial one. Grenville shows that there are potentially harmful chemicals in fragrances, they have reached a point of ubiquity in the environment, and people are having adverse reactions. But there is no smoking gun; it is impossible to say for sure that there is causality here, and no scientific study would draw the kinds of conclusions that Grenville invites us to make here.

So what to do? The author’s solution is a bit simplistic. For one, she advocates embracing fragrance-free versions of products. That’s fine, except she does not apply anything like the same scrutiny to those alternatives. Just as decaffeinated coffee is not necessarily better for you due to the added chemicals, how does one know whether a fragrance-free detergent contains no harmful chemicals either?

More interesting is Grenville’s suggestion that fragrance-free workplaces may become the norm. ¬If a scientific institute such as the US Centres for Disease Control can adopt a policy that says “Fragrance is not appropriate for a professional work environment”, then it’s possible to imagine that this may one day become more widespread particularly if, as in the US, there are OH&S lawsuits decided in favour of people with fragrance intolerances.

Decades ago the idea of passive smoking was seen as cranky, now it is enshrined in law. We do not have the right to deprive others of a healthy and safe work environment; that is a very clear legal precedent. So maybe one day people who wear perfume will be like the smokers of today, skulking out the back giving themselves a shot of Shalimar before washing it off and heading back inside.

Food for thought? What do you think?
Greg x

49 comments on “Saturday Question: The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville

  1. Jackie b says:

    This is too ghastly to even contemplate. How would they even police this, go round smelling people’s hair and underarms for traces of scent. Ack!

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      HA! Yeah, pretty grim JackieB.
      Portia xx

    • Greg says:

      I’d imagine that policing it would be based on a co-workers’ complaint system, like other workplace regulation. No doubt there would be a mediation process, but I’ve little doubt that would usually result in the fragrance wearer being asked to desist or wear less.

  2. jac says:

    She is probably right about fragrance free workplaces. Here in Sweden it is still allowed but considered rather inpolite if you wear a high sillage perfume. If you have an appointment at your doctor or dentist, you get a standard letter asking you to refrain from using perfume. So yes I can see it happening in the future.

    • Lindaloo says:

      I don’t know if a ban will happen in the future if we don’t wear perfumes that have too much sillage for close quarters. I think dentists, especially, are making a reasonable request. They work very close and are having to cope with possibly treating 8 – 12 patients a day with different scents at different strengths make me unhappy just for psychological reasons.

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Yeah, I do get that it could become uncomfortable for people who are already working with caustic fumes for their work, it could be the thing that tips them over the edge.
      Portia xx

  3. Cassieflower says:

    This is a terrifying prospect 😬 If it ever happened here then I am certain I would be incarcerated for the rest of my natural life as there’s no way I would, or could, adhere to such draconian rules😉 Just lock me away with my collection and leave me alone.

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Yeah Cassieflower, like the book lovers in Fahrenheit 451. Leave me inside and torch the house. Then run well back, because this place is going up like a fuel dump.
      Portia xx

  4. Tania says:

    I have heard that ‘fragrance-free’ products contain chemicals to mask the natural odours of the ingredients. So there’s that.

    I’ve never actually met anyone with a genuine fragrance intolerance, as far as I know. How many are there, to make it worth while having fragrance-free rules? A lot of people have potentially fatal nut allergies, but nut-free workplaces are not a big thing.

    I’ve met a few people who insist ‘strong perfume gives me a headache’, and they can be quite bossy about it, complaining rudely to scented people. But since IFRA I doubt headache-inducing chemicals are allowed in commercial scents. And I’m one of those bitches who tends to think the complainers are going to have that headache anyway, but they can smell someone’s perfume so they decide that must be the reason. A friend of mine once insisted my perfume was causing her sinus pain, had to be, but lo and behold, the next morning she woke up with a stinking cold….

    I can’t see how passive smoking can be compared to smelling perfume. Isn’t secondhand smoke scientifically accepted to be a real danger, to a lot of people?

    • Cassieflower says:

      Hear hear 👏🏻

    • Maya says:

      Hi Tania. The few studies on secondhand smoke were inconclusive, so there is no scientific proof at all that it is harmful. Scientists simply decided to agree that it was. Certain synthetics in perfumes bother me but that should not be a reason to force everyone else to stop wearing perfume at work or elsewhere in public. I’m not fond of too much *correctness*. It’s stifling.

      • Tania says:

        Me either, although I’m quite happy that I don’t have to breath smoke in pubs, bars, restaurants, cinemas, even airplanes nowadays whatever the reason for the bans. It used to stink, and I hated how it made my eyes red and sore.

    • Lindaloo says:

      Sadly, the IFRA restrictions cut done on naturally derived oils. While it is true that bergamot oil can cause nasty chemical burns in the sun (had one) that can remain brown for life, I’d rather see a warning than a ban

    • Lindaloo says:

      Here the elementary schools are peanut free, Peanut allergies can cause no breathing. Death if not treated immediately. Makes sense immediately with kids as they are less likely to be tidy and not leave peanut smears. Im sure adults are less likely to be careless.

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Hey Tania,
      Perfume is in everything. I wonder if those same complainers like the smell of their laundry liquid and cleaning products, or if the smell of all that illegal in perfume basil in their pesto upsets them?
      Some perfumes definitely trigger headaches for me. So I don’t use them but I can’t remember someone else fragrance ever doing that.
      Portia xx

      • Tania says:

        Hi Portia,

        I’ve never asked one – I don’t want to get in an argument. I have a feeling most don’t even notice it if it’s not someone’s perfume.

        Yeah, there are perfumes I can’t wear because although they don’t give me a headache, they’re so intrusive that they bother me. I can’t enjoy food or drink or any other nice smells if I’m wearing them. Angel is one, another is Amarige.

      • australianperfumejunkies says:

        Yeah, I get overloaded too sometimes and can’t smell what I’m eating. That’s totally annoying. Casablanca lillies rob me of reasonable thought if I’m near them for a long time.
        Portia xx

    • Greg says:

      I think it’s much more common to react to specific fragrance compounds than to be allergic to “fragrance” generally. I have a few that my skin reacts to; Italian Cypress is one. The solution is to just not use them.

    • Anna Maria says:

      well said

  5. shiva-woman says:

    Because scent is so visceral, freighted with our emotions and memories, and perhaps in ways we do not understand, I think Kate’s book is highly problematic in that not only do we not have a smoking gun, but there may be psychological issues conflated with scent.
    I do know of one blogger that I greatly admire who has sensitivities to aromachemicals and they’re pretty consistent. On occasion I’ve had a sneeze or two and a burning sensation in the nose when smelling a few scents deeply, particularly with ambroxan. IsoE and I get along fine. One very noteworthy reaction occurred when I got a bunch of Nordstrom perfume carded samples with one of English Laundry Signature for Him. This mall frag was an instant rash producer, then postules and bumps noticeably only in spray zones. Then the itching, and the Benadryl. Plus it was generic and boring. The bumps went away well over a week later.
    So yeah, there can be some pretty bad ingredients used, synthetics to which we really don’t know how people will react, and personal chemistry–then finally memory, feeling, and reiteration. If I smell something similar to the horrid carded sample I receive, will I get a headache?
    Personally, I’m holding out. I love perfume and scent and I’m so delighted if some brave American soul is wearing it, if I actually do smell something, and that something is not clean musk or fruited berries. Perfume is the sensual world and a fine art, both subtle and ephemeral. I’m willing to risk a few rashes. I do think there should be more investigation into synthetics. I don’t want undue risk–but life is risky. Some natural ingredients like Lavender affect estrogens, but there’s no way I’m giving up my lavender. I do hope we will not have scent-free work places.
    I’m totally allergic to cigarettes, and I have genetic COPD. So I’m delighted these are banned, but scent worn discretely at a low pitch should be fine, and, there’s also common courtesy. If someone is really struggling with the Ysatis bomb you just detonated, maybe not that one the next day at the office.
    At any rate, they’ll have to pry my vintage Shalimar out of my cold, dead, hands along with my Mira Takla Vallee des Rois. And my Amouages, my Lutens…ahhhh.
    shiva-woman recently posted…Saturday Question: The Case Against Fragrance by Kate GrenvilleMy Profile

  6. Gina says:

    Oh yes, please, let’s turn the world into a sterile dystopian society run by dictators and all wear red robes and become handmaids. Sign me up! Someone at my office complained about being allergic to my fragrances. Why does the minority rule the earth?

  7. Ellen M. says:

    I have a member of my choir who constantly tells the other members that she is allergic to perfume, yet she wears deodorant, bathes with scented soap, and uses dryer sheets. How then is she allergic to scent? I begin to think that “allergy” in her case is a word for “I don’t like that particular scent.” I try always to be very careful of what I wear and how much I put on wherever I am.

    • Lindaloo says:

      Have to agree about the hyprocracy here. Personally I hate the detergent, dryer sheets combo. When my neighbour next door whose dryer vent is close to me I have to close my windows. Harder when encountered in the wild.

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      100% this EllenM.
      It seems really hypocritical to me too.
      Portia x

  8. Fazal says:

    I am not sure how the public places will become free of fragrances. If science progresses as it does, it may come up with safer scent molecules that will form the basis of future fragrances. Fragrance-free society is unimaginable because scent has always been around us since the dawn of time whether good or bad. Moreover, almost everything has a scent including the fruits and vegetables sold in stores. So what I see is science coming up with safer molecules because life would be damn boring in a scent-less world. I know some stuff like pheromones are mythologies but what is real is the fact that scent plays an important role in human intimacy as well. Our favorite scents do make the people we are attracted to, even more desirable.

    • Lindaloo says:

      True a world without glorious perfumes, oils and the smells of plants and food would not be worth living in.
      In contrast, airlines do not allow durian on board — a smell too far.

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Yeah Fazal,
      Science does keep coming up with new molecules, these are then used but without centuries of testing. It all seems very foggy to me.
      Portia x

  9. Tiffanie says:

    Is it annoying to be told not to wear fragrance? Yes. Could it become the norm in society? Possibly.

    There are a small number of additives in industrially produced foods that I avoid because they give me migraine headaches, but I don’t ask the the food manufacturers to change their practices. I eat other foods.

    I have worn a handful of perfumes (most often new releases with rose notes) that cause the same migraine pain. I was so surprised when this happened that I wore the same suspect scents (one at a time, repeatedly, over a series of weeks) to check my reaction. It resulted in the same horrible pain lasting for hours until medication relieved it. No fun for me, but happily there are hundreds of perfumes that I have worn and enjoyed without difficulty.

    I wear fragrance every day and believe I always will. After my migraine experiences, I also believe that for a small number of people there are likely a small number of chemicals that can cause health problems when breathed in or worn on skin.

    I feel it is up to those of us who adore fragrance to be goodwill ambassadors, to share the love with kindness. We can bend gracefully when someone is unhappy, annoyed, allergic, or becomes ill in response to fragrance. It’s perfume, it shouldn’t be worrisome. It should be fun. If someone around me isn’t having fun they can leave, or if they can’t/won’t leave, then I’m heading out the door as soon as I can. For my sake, not theirs. 🙂

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      i wonder if the perfume was on a different person and you smelled it if it would produce the same reaction?
      Portia x

      • Tiffanie says:

        That’s an interesting question! I have not tested it but my guess is that if I smelled one of my headache-inducing scents on someone else it most likely would not give me a headache because it would be a small and quick exposure. Sniffing those scents from the bottle is ok for me, a dab from a sample might also be fine, but wearing and smelling them for hours results in migraine pain.

      • australianperfumejunkies says:

        Right. Interesting.
        So sorry for your migraines. they’re freaking awful. My Mum used to get them very infrequently. When they hit though she would dose up and lie down.
        Portia xx

    • Greg says:

      I agree Tiffanie, that it is in our own interests to be understanding when others have a fragrance problem, and to try and foresee when wearing a big fragrance, or even any fragrance, might be unwise. The more we moderate our own behaviour, the less likely it is that somebody will moderate it for us.

      • Tiffanie says:

        Thanks, Greg!I appreciate your comment and your post here on APJ. It’s been a thoughtful discussion. I’m always in favor of civility. Of course I also favor speaking up in a constructive manner whatever side of any issue I may find myself on.

  10. Lindaloo says:

    I do NOT agree with Grenville’s far too sweeping analysis and prescriptions.

    For me it comes down to common courtesy. (As may become clear from my replies to some of the earlier statements
    I have a friend who simply doesn’t like perfume. I really like her I don’t wear perfume when we get together.

    More importantly, is not wearing perfume when I meet with my friend who has asthma. Her flare-ups are not caused by perfume, but when she is having one I do not add an irritant that she will breathe in.
    I have lots of other opportunities to bask in scent.

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Yeah, good point Lindaloo,
      Say though it was a co-worker and you couldn’t wear scent to work every day. How would that make you feel?
      Portia xx

      • Lindaloo says:

        That would be a real pain. All I can say, is if my co-worker can smell me without hugging I’m probably wearing too much for the workplace. A little sniffing of my wrist or huffing under my blouse is probably as good as I’m going to get through the day. Or a glorious scented shower in the morning.
        Then the evening is all
        For me, stepping into an empty elevator and smelling someone’s scent that is strong enough to last my 6 floor ride isn’t enjoyable — unless I happen to love the scent. 😀😉
        But it does make me happy to know that someone wants to wear scent in an increasingly sterile world.

  11. Kate Apted says:

    Fabulous article, Greg. Well considered and disected.

    One glaring point that irks me – how is it that natural, supposedly allergy inducing compounds were ‘banned’ in the last 10 yrs, only to be replaced with untested chemicals? I understand, from an ethical and an environmental point of view, that certain ingredients need to be replaced, such as oakmoss and musk, but others?? I get more reactions from more perfumes now than ever before. And I abused the late 80s and all the 90s powerhouse scents on a daily basis!!

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Yes Kate,
      I wholeheartedly agree with this.
      It seems ridiculous.
      Portia xx

    • Greg says:

      Thanks Kate. Yours is a very good point; what was the point of replacing in-use compounds with untested compounds? I wouldn’t mind knowing that either.

  12. The Accords says:

    I haven’t had a chance to read Kate’s book. Not a great way to start a comment, but anyway! I have done some reading on phthalates which are the chemicals in fragrance (and heaps of other stuff) that are increasingly regarded as endocrine system disrupters (your endocrine system includes your pituitary gland, ovaries or testes, thyroid, and adrenal glands – all kinda important) The big issue with endocrine disrupters is their bio-accumulation, so they build up in living things and in us when we are exposed to them or we eat other living things (like fish especially). Studies have proven links between endocrine distrupters and hormonal disorders and some have been banned. Others are deemed to be not in high enough levels in manufactured products to be unsafe which seems fair, except for that pesky bioaccumulation bit. So when *everything* has a fragrance added and those chemicals literally never degrade, just accumulate, um it’s pretty easy to see where this is going. Obviously a spritz of Shalimar is a drop in an ocean of hideous air fresheners, fragranced bin liners, tissues, cleaners, baby products and actually I think as perfume junkies with sensitive noses we can identify and try to eliminate those unnecessary chemicals from our lives and the environment so we can enjoy the stunning perfumes we consciously choose to wear.
    The Accords recently posted…Hazy ShadesMy Profile

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Interesting points The Accords,
      I did not know that about phthalates. Did you study them or do you have some links for us who would like to know more please?
      Portia xx

  13. Is the writer American? Many materials (around 20,000) are in use in the US but banned or restricted in the EU. She may have a case for the US following the EU’s line, but not for banning everything.
    The neuroscience research on getting headaches from perfume is demonstrating thst these are stress headaches brought on by memories. There is no physiological cause. So if she smells perfume and is worried it will give her a headache her brain will cut straight to instant headache without checking first to wait and see. I meet many people who are genuinely afraid of perfume because of scare stories such as this and I am able to relieve many of their fears.

    (We’re just going to have to amass the evidence before the scare stories get totally embedded. Also that chemical compound named is not a “chemical formula” and the scent of rose is far more complicated.)

    • shiva-woman says:

      I agree. This was one of my primary points. Memory and scent and smell are so closely intertwined so if we have a bad experience and there is a smell adjacent to it we are likely to associate the smell with the experience but that’s not necessarily a logical cause an effect. The fact that people repeatedly experience a reaction is also not a logical cause and effect because there are still other factors that may have contributed to the primary issue in the first place.
      For example if I’m extremely stressed out and I’m feeling a little bit sick and there is some emotional turmoil going on in my life and I smell something, say eucalyptus, that smell is intrinsically linked with memory. The next time I smell eucalyptus perhaps I may actually experience a real headache. That headache is real. And the smell is real. But the chemicals that constitute the smell, the compounds do not necessarily create an allergic reaction per se. I do not want in any way to downplay people’s very real reactions to aroma-chemicals. And I do think there are a lot of untested synthetics that deeply concern me. In fact I’m more concerned about the new synthetic aroma-chemicals that are on the market and that are so cheap and easily displacing real high-quality and natural ingredients. Nonetheless virtually anything can give somebody an allergic reaction. And people can have real and genuine sensitivities.
      At the end of the day I think we all need to be somewhat courteous. I do not spray with wild abandon my vintage Shalimar at 8 or 9 in the morning and go off to work. It’s just not the thing; it’s not suitable for that. I have only had positive comments about the patchouli in my scent–I wore POAL and I got loads of compliments, though a guarded one from a patch hater at work. And I’ll admit POAL is probably not super work appropriate, but I’m a college teacher so can get away with some things.
      I want a healthy environment, and I want to be healthy, but every day when I’m pumping gas in my car and surrounded by a plastic water bottle world, and think of all the chips, beef,and general garbage we eat and are surrounded by–perfume is not only the least of my concerns, it’s a sybaritic lovely sensuous pleasure that makes life worth the daily pains, mundane concerns, deep depressions, and casual fluff that makes up our days.
      shiva-woman recently posted…Scent Diary: 3.7 – 9.7.2017My Profile

    • australianperfumejunkies says:

      Hey Sarah,
      Thanks for chiming in.
      So interesting about the stress headaches. I’m going to try telling myself it’s not really a reaction but a memory next time and give my brain the new direction I’d like it to take.
      Totally non-scientific here but if you start amassing evidence I’ll do stories on it.
      Portia xx

  14. PS Phthalates are banned in the EU already.

  15. Anna Maria says:

    I always have three or four big sneezes when I put on my perfume and then I am ok…this would not stop me from wearing perfume. I have never had a headache from it luckily. I get sinus every couple of years I don’t think it has to do with perfume though in my case.

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