I sat down today and listed the products most people use every day that are perfumed. It’s an astonishingly long list, and every one of them probably has a different scent. Soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, hair gel/spray/mousse, after shave, washing powder (which often leaves clothes strongly scented), fabric softener (ditto), dishwashing liquid, hand wash, moisturiser, sunscreen, cosmetics (even eye shadow and lipstick), cleaning products, and toilet paper. I am sure I have missed some, and that’s before anyone actually deliberately applies perfume, or uses an ‘air freshener’ (which is simply perfume for the entire room – it doesn’t “freshen” the air, or remove bad smells, it simply masks them with strong perfume). Even nappies, plastic bags and tissues are often scented.
I have two strong objections to this. The first is that for anyone sensitive to perfumes, encountering a person who is awash in this many strong scents can trigger anything from a severe headache to a full blown anaphylactic reaction. Kids who are sensitive to perfumes can become wired, aggressive, hyperactive, sometimes even to the point of losing bladder control and language skills, simply from being near someone wearing fragrance – and because of the above list, almost everyone is wearing strong perfume, all of the time. It does make me wonder whether there are kids out there who have been diagnosed with ADHD on the basis of a perfume or food sensitivity. I have a friend with a nearly 3 year old who is the sweetest, brightest, loveliest boy you could ever hope to meet. He also has astonishingly advanced language skills. Until he is exposed to the wrong perfume, at which point he becomes hyperactive (zooming around the house, screaming constantly), aggressive (this child who never, ever hits, will hit and kick everything and everyone within reach), and completely incoherent. Just from being near someone wearing perfume.
The second problem is sustainability, or the appalling lack thereof. So much wasted effort goes into fragrancing everything from the floor to the windows, the children and the dog. I dread to think what the carbon footprint of the fragrance industry is, even if you only assess that part of the industry that deals with all these incidental perfumes. It is wasted effort, because the human nose is a marvellously adaptable instrument that tunes out scents to which it is frequently exposed, or which have been around for more than a few minutes. It becomes, effectively, deaf and blind to those smells. Which leads us into an ever-escalating arms race, as people apply more and more perfume in order for their poor, abused noses to be able to detect it.
Indeed, noses that are frequently exposed to strong perfumes become, rather like ears abused with too much industrial noise, increasingly insensitive. Not only does this exacerbate the perfume arms race, it also leads to a whole society of people who are unable to detect a gas leak, or even the smell of smoke, until it is extremely strong.
To be sure, it is nice to smell a pleasant fragrance (if it doesn’t make you sick, that is). There is a reason why we like to stop to smell the roses (in theory, at least – if we had time! But that’s another blog). Flowers smell nice, and so does a good perfume. But we have really let it get away from us. I bought some baby vicks vaporub for my daughter a while ago, and it wasn’t until I got home that I checked the ingredients – it contained lavender oil, eucalyptus oil, and… fragrance! Why would you add fragrance to something that already contains eucalyptus and lavender??? The trick with the magic word “fragrance” is that the manufacturer has the legal right not to explicitly tell you exactly what it is, so that isolating a particular fragrance that you react to is close to impossible.
We have had friends visit us for an hour, who have left their scented imprint in our furniture for literally weeks afterwards. Many perfumes are astonishingly persistent – which of course compounds the problem for those who are sensitive to fragrance. They can’t simply wait until you leave, because even after you have gone, you have marked the area like a territorial skunk.
The absurdity of the situation is such that it is actually very, very difficult to buy unscented products. The only brand of unscented soap stocked by our local supermarket went out of production last year. The only brand. Have you looked in the soap aisle of your local supermarket recently? There are hundreds of soaps in every possible scent, except for ‘none’. And that’s just soap. Now try for unscented shampoo, cleaning agents, or toilet paper. If your sensitivity is severe, you may even find yourself poisoned by usually safe products, simply because they have been stored next to a perfumed product – right in the blast zone of those astonishingly persistent chemicals.
This is my challenge to you – next time you shop, try to buy everything on your list in an unscented version. When you have finished screaming and tearing your hair out, let me know how it went!