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The case against fragrance: The potential harm of our perfumed world

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We live in a fragrant fog of perfumes and scents. But the chemicals, both synthetic and natural, with which we deodorise ourselves and our world cause misery to millions, and increasing scientific evidence suggests they may threaten our health and our environment.

It began after interval, as Kate Grenville sat in the audience at the Sydney Opera House watching Teddy Tahu Rhodes singing the title role in the Opera Australia production of Don Giovanni. Without warning, a lacerating, brain-boiling, eye-sinking pain pierced her head.

“If I had not been in the middle of the row I would have fought my way out,” says Grenville, an award-winning Australian novelist. “But I thought, ‘I just have to put up with this.’”

But this was no ordinary headache; it was accompanied by what she calls “brain fog” – she couldn’t concentrate or think clearly.

Two rows behind her sat the suspected cause of the misery: a woman, clearly enjoying the opera, had freshly reapplied perfume, which was wafting thickly through the still air.

Later, Grenville asked her GP whether the scent could have caused her painful brain fade? Oh, yes, said the doctor. “That stuff is the real devil for giving people headaches.”

Kate Grenville. Photo/Getty Images

We are surrounded by scents: in perfumes, deodorants, air fresheners, cleaners and myriad other products with which we come into daily contact. Even the packaging they come in are getting the scented treatment: the website of the British Plastics Federation  reports that “fragrances and deodorants for plastics … are playing a growing role in marketing food and beverage packaging”.

“Fragrances are now being embedded in consumer goods such as laundry baskets, storage containers and sink stoppers to impart scent into the environment. [Fragrances in plastic] are being used in stores to create a mood and can be used for marketing purposes, bringing products to the consumers’ attention, particularly in food and beverage packaging.” 

But this profusion of perfume is increasingly attracting consumer attention and coming under scientific scrutiny. Our passion for deodorising the world in which we live has, some say, created a kind of olfactory pollution that is disturbing, distressing and, in some cases, may even pose serious health risks.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the industry downplays the concerns. Garth Wyllie, the executive director of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association of New Zealand (CTFA), says the quantities of chemicals, even restricted ones, found in any one concoction are minuscule.

“When you look at the actual element of parfum or fragrance within any given product, you are going to be well within the 1% margin. It is a very small percentage of the total product. And any of those constituent components would be even smaller, so the level of potential hazard, assuming there was a hazard, would be incredibly small.”

Wyllie concedes that “some people” have associated fragrances with symptoms such headaches, “but there is no direct evidence that provides this linkage”.

“At the levels fragrances exist in products, it is difficult to find a link. Fragrance ingredients are highly regulated to remove known risks to the consumer and strenuous testing  is undertaken by companies prior to going to market, so such cases should be the exception.”

Nonetheless, the notion of perfume pollution is being taken more and more seriously. In the US, employers sat up and took notice when a worker won a lawsuit after her employer refused to address her allergy to her co-workers’ perfume and some workplaces adopted policies to avoid being similarly sued. Some public buildings have gone fragrance-free and in Australia, occupational health and safety authorities have warned employers that they need to address the issue.

Garth Wyllie from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association: no direct evidence.

Lifelong reactions

Grenville, 66, knew she was sensitive to certain scents. As she recalls in her new book, The Case Against Fragrance, her early teenage dates were routinely spoiled by a red-eyed reaction that she attributed to the Estée Lauder White Linen perfume she used. But after she contracted a viral infection in her fifties, her reactions to artificial scents – in cosmetics, cleaning products and, most cripplingly, air fresheners – became strikingly worse. She took to flitting through fragranced hotel lobbies with a scarf held to nose; she would hang her head out the windows of air-freshened taxis, like a wind-whipped dog; and she would dine at outside tables, upwind from her perfumed colleagues.

In 2015, she had had enough. On a promotional tour for her biography of her mother, One Life, she found herself lying “pharaoh-like” in an unscented hotel room, with the window wide open and packing tape along the bottom of the door to block out the scents in the corridor. “I had a nasty feeling that I’d just crossed one of life’s little boundaries,” she writes.

Instead of working on her next planned novel, she began scouring the web for information and she discovered that she was not alone in her “sensitivity”. In peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, she found reports of complaints including asthma, allergies, skin problems and migraines that had been associated with the daily battering we are all subjected to by synthetic smells: perfumes, aftershave, fragranced cleaning products, air fresheners and reed diffusers, all doing their damnedest to emulate real pine, lemon, rose, cloves, lily of the valley and musk.

In a 2001 American study, 60% of migraine sufferers identified smell as the primary trigger. A follow-up study three years later showed that three-quarters of migraine patients affected by odours blamed perfume as the most common trigger, ahead of paint and petrol.

Even people without an underlying condition were reacting badly to scent. Between 1% and 2% of the population will develop an allergic reaction after skin contact with certain fragrances. In researching the effect of a broader range of scented consumer products – air fresheners, cleaning supplies, laundry products, scented candles and personal deodorants – Australian professor of engineering Anne Steinemann found that 35% of people report some associated health problems connected with them. In 2007,  the American Contact Dermatitis Society named fragrance the allergen of the year.

Grenville, whose most lauded book is 2005’s The Secret River, calls herself a “novelist with a headache”. She reads science writing for pleasure rather than fiction, which would be “a bit like a busman’s holiday”. But on her book tour – the itinerary was carefully planned to secure unscented hotel rooms – she began her own research.

She began with the label on a “run-of-the-mill box of fragrance” from her local pharmacy. The label listed 16 ingredients, and Grenville says six are known as potential skin, eye and respiratory irritants: denatured alcohol (methylated spirits), butylphenyl methylpropional, hydroxycitronellal, geraniol, benzyl benzoate and limonene. Ten of the ingredients are restricted by the European Union’s consumer-protection authorities, mostly because they had been linked to skin allergies. The restrictions are not bans – the ingredient may still be used, but they must be listed on the label and limits are imposed on concentrations.

Many of the chemicals Grenville found are not scents at all: they were included as UV blockers, antioxidants, colour stabilisers and as fixatives – the last function was once performed by ambergris, the high-priced wax-like substance that originates as a secretion in the intestines of the sperm whale, but is now more commonly a synthetic alternative such as diethyl phthalate (DEP), except in the finest perfumes. The actual scent ingredients remained hidden under the generic term “parfum” – on other bottles, simply “fragrance” – to protect the proprietary rights of the fragrance designers.

“In a world we often say is overregulated, I found that shocking,” says Grenville. “A carton of milk carries a label saying ‘contains milk’, but you look at a perfume bottle and you have no idea – there could be 200 chemicals behind that one word ‘fragrance’.”

For non-contact fragrances – the air fresheners, scent dispensers, incense and potpourri wafting through lobbies, shops, restaurants, theatres and taxis as well as our own homes – there is even less requirement to itemise the ingredients.

“The fragrance industry says you don’t put it on your skin so it can’t do you any harm. But you are breathing it into your lungs.”

We are subjected to scents every day of our lives. Perfume was once the rare and costly privilege of the few but in the 1950s, chemists perfected ways to isolate the chemicals responsible for familiar scents (such as the beta-damascene that gives roses their heavenly bouquet) and create their own cheaper “nature-identical” versions. Ever since, we have been perfuming our environments with everything from expensive top-shelf designer scents to pine-smelling toilet cleaner, geranium-scented soap, tropical laundry powders, citrus cleaners and scented toilet paper. As biophysicist and scent expert Luca Turin wrote in 2008, “What has changed, and not for the better, is the shift from symphony to jingle.”

Allergic responses

For some, that jingle prompts an immediate allergic or irritant response. This may be limited to red eyes, headaches and runny noses, but some of the chemicals used in artificial fragrances have been associated with more serious health effects. Scientists have attributed disruption of cell functions and endocrine systems, and identified build-ups further down the chain in aquatic animals.

Chemicals that mimic oestrogen action or affect oestrogen levels can come from a variety of sources, including chemical industrial pollutants, automobile exhausts and plastics, but they are also found on our bathroom and laundry shelves. A 2010 Canadian study, a collaboration between the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Environmental Defence Canada, found that seven out of 10 scented spray deodorants showed “oestrogenic activity” – that is, the body responded to the fragrance as if it were oestrogen. Three chemicals listed on the label of the bottle Grenville bought from the local pharmacy – ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, benzyl salicylate and benzyl benzoate – are known to be potential hormone disruptors. The clean-smelling synthetic musks, used in perfumes, cosmetics and laundry powder, have been detected in human breast milk, body fat, blood and umbilical cords, and they have been shown to accumulate in the natural environment at a risk to fish and other aquatic creatures.

Phthalates, such as DEP, have been linked to early onset of puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men and “incomplete virilisation” – abnormalities in the formation of sexual organs – in the developing male fetus when the mother is exposed during pregnancy. A 2014 assessment by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission of DEP used in fragrance identified an “urgent need to implement measures that lead to reductions in exposures, particularly for pregnant women and women of childbearing age”.

In animal tests, the endocrine-disrupting compounds beta-myrcene, benzyl acetate (which smells like jasmine), isoeugenol (sweet and spicy), allyl isovalerate (cherry or apple), estragole (aniseed), methyl eugenol (cloves/carnation) and 1,4-dioxane (used in deodorants and cosmetics) have been linked to forms of breast, testicular, prostate and ovarian cancers.

Grenville: “I wanted to put the subject on the table.” Photo/Getty Images

The difficulty of testing

As Grenville says, it is not easy to extrapolate reactions in other animals to humans, and tests on humans are near-impossible – in our heavily fragranced world, it would be difficult to expose someone to a single fragrance chemical and even harder to establish a control group that was exposed to no fragrance chemicals at all.

In any case, there are restrictions on chemical use in synthetic fragrances. The Geneva-based International Fragrance Association (IFRA), representing the fragrance industry, develops and implements a code of practice and safety standards used by regulatory bodies around the world.

The industry the IFRA represents is essentially self-regulating, but it does take advice from independent advisory panels, says University of Canterbury toxicologist Ian Shaw. “They want to produce a result that is meaningful – they don’t want people to get allergic to their products. It is not in their interest to say it is perfectly safe when it isn’t.”

The IFRA does acknowledge that some fragrance chemicals can cause allergic sensitisation – and confirms that some are carcinogenic. About 75 chemicals, including diphenylamine, nitrobenzene and toluene, are prohibited altogether; for others, the health risks are reconciled with commercial demand through quantative risk assessments, by which the IFRA works out how much of that chemical will put your health at risk, the assumption being there can be a safe dose for even a dangerous chemical. The IFRA website claims that “a substance may have endocrine-active properties without necessarily leading to negative effects on human health”.

But even if a safe dose for a particular ingredient can be found, says Grenville, “in the real world we might get that safe dose from about 15 different products before we have finished our morning routine in the bathroom”. And people don’t always follow usage directions. An extra squirt of deodorant (adolescents, says Grenville, are particularly vulnerable to suggestive advertising on body odour), the freshly laundered blankie ending up in an infant’s mouth, the rinse-off conditioner left on the hair may all push at the limits set by quantitative risk assessments.

Local rules

In this country, rules governing the use of hazardous substances, including solvents, industrial chemicals, agrichemicals, household cleaners, cosmetics and “fragrance materials”, are set by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act. The EPA develops standards for different groups of substances with common conditions or risk factors.

Scented cleaning products, such as laundry powder, come under the Cleaning Products group standards. These are divided into various categories of risk, such as combustibility, corrosiveness, flammability, oxidisation and toxicity. Air fresheners, incense and reed diffusers are covered by the Food Additives and Fragrance Materials group standards, again divided into a range of risk factors from skin and eye irritants to reproductive toxicity, target-organ toxicity and environmental toxicity.

Both of these standards, as well as the group standards for cosmetic products, prohibit ingredients classified as known mutagens, carcinogens or reproductive toxicants as well as any other any component banned by the IFRA. The Cosmetic Products group standard also takes into account the EU-wide Cosmetics Products Regulation, which came into force in mid-2013, and the opinions of its scientific advisory committee, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety.

But because the IFRA is an advisory body only, fragrance add-ons can turn up in products that fall outside its oversight. Galaxolide, a chemical that imparts the distinctive new-car smell, has not been subjected to long-term studies, but new research is finding evidence of the synthetic musk accumulating in the natural environment.

Under the toxicity category for the EPA group standard for aerosols, any fragrance substance is expected to comply with IFRA standards and restrictions. But many aerosols contain toluene, not as a fragrance substance but in its formulation. Toluene is prohibited by the IRFA code and Shaw says toxicity of toluene is not high – “exposure to low levels will not be a huge worry” – but that doesn’t mean we should be exposed to them. The Environmental Protection Authority would not comment on this.

The blizzard of chemical names notwithstanding, natural fragrances are not all innocent bystanders in the world of scents. Many of those allergic to fragrance mixes also react to what is growing outside the door, says University of Auckland dermatologist Amanda Oakley.

“People who are fragrance-allergic are often allergic to many plant materials – for some of them, just walking in the garden can cause an issue.”

The so-called “natural” essential oils are made from concentrations of ingredients not found in nature – it takes four tonnes of rose petals to make one kilogram of rose oil – or encountered by our immune systems. In fact, inside their self-defence armouries, some widely used plants contain dangerous ingredients. Basil, for example, contains estragole, a suspected carcinogen, but Grenville says “our appreciation of basil would fade long before we have reached the concentration that could cause harm”.

And although most synthetic compounds are closely based on the structures of natural materials, single molecules chemically extracted from the mixture that makes up the scent of a flower or spice will not have the complexity of scent found in nature or the relative proportion to other molecules to dilute its effects. The oxidising potential of limonene in lemon zest, for example, is countered by the presence of vitamin C, a natural antioxidant. In its synthetic form, limonene in perfumes or other fragranced products needs to accompanied by extra antioxidant ingredients to be equivalently safe.

Allergy New Zealand CEO Mark Dixon.

Different view

Grenville says she is not out to demonise the fragrance industry. “It is a business like any other. They’re in business to make money [and] they are not breaking any rules. Obviously I don’t like their products, but I don’t have an argument with them. They have a product to sell and they are going to sell it using very emotive images and words that induce people to think it is very glamorous to use perfume. And that is their right. But my right, and this is why the book is called what it is, is to assert there is a different way of looking at this product.”

Some workplaces in the US have been taking a hard look at fragrance. In 2010, Susan McBride, a city planner in Detroit, won US$100,000 in compensation after her employer refused to address her allergy to her co-workers’ perfume. In the immediate aftermath, some workplaces around the country adopted “low-scent” or “fragrance-free” policies to avoid possible litigation.

Canada has a range of fragrance-free hospitals, workplaces and concert venues. Vancouver International Airport has a fragrance-free route through its duty-free shops. Australia’s occupational health and safety regulator Workplace OHS says on its website that it is in the employers’ best interests “to address the issue of perfumes and personal sprays in the workplace” as perfumes and other scents can “adversely affect workers’ health, causing headaches, nausea, dizziness, upper respiratory symptoms, skin irritation and difficulty with concentration”.

Mark Dixon, the CEO of the not-for-profit lobby group Allergy New Zealand, says his organisation is aware of evidence identifying the toxicity of the chemical blends used to achieve cost-effective fragrances. “A number of these additives can be detrimental to our epidermal and respiratory systems, especially those of asthma and allergy sufferers, and can damage the skin through constant exposure and/or inflame already existing asthma.”

He says strong clinical evidence to support the idea that it should be mandatory to develop fragrance-free policies within health and safety plans for workplaces and shared spaces of study and recreation.

The problem is that governments take action in proportion to known risk, and measuring the risk posed by specific synthetic chemicals used in fragrances is no easy job. Unions spoken to for this article had not heard of complaints or people having to leave their jobs because of exposure to fragrance in their workplaces. “Where a member is experiencing an allergic reaction due to a perfume or other fragranced product,” says Public Service Association national secretary Glenn Barclay, “we would encourage them to approach their health and safety representative.”

Rachael Shadbolt of Hospitality New Zealand.

Hospitality New Zealand’s Rachael Shadbolt says she has not heard of anyone leaving a hotel because of the fragrance. “If you walked into a hotel room and smelt a cleaning product or a heavy masking of scent, you would wonder why,” she says. “Maybe someone has been in a non-smoking room and smoked.”

TripAdvisor comments suggest that the most off-putting odours for hotel guests are from cigarettes or cooking. But Auckland woman Alison Jones says she had to leave a Wellington hotel after checking in because of the “sickening, cloying smell” of deodorising chemicals used by the cleaners.

“I was only in the room for a couple of minutes and I could hardly breathe,” she says. “But the cancellation date had passed and the hotel would not refund the room charges. I had to go to another hotel down the street and say goodbye to my money.”

Jones, a frequent traveller whose mild asthma and dust-mite allergy are both well controlled, now makes a habit of calling ahead to make sure her room is not deodorised, at least on the day of her arrival, and to ask for the room’s windows to be opened in advance.

But some manufacturers are taking note. The Body Shop has phased out all phthalates and Johnson & Johnson has done the same for its range of baby products.

In 1993, while looking at ways to keep a local water supply toxin-free, Ecostore co-founder Malcolm Rands discovered that there were more toxic chemicals inside his home than in the environment he was campaigning to protect.

He says that when Ecostore released a range of non-synthetic, naturally sourced shampoos, soaps and cleaning products, “we started getting phone calls and letters saying, ‘Since using the products I don’t sneeze any more, my rash has disappeared, I haven’t got eczema any more, my asthma is getting better.’”

With a $40-50 million annual turnover, the company’s most popular lines are now part of the growing range of soaps, deodorants, sunblocks, insect repellents, cleaning products, laundry powders, shampoos and cosmetics on the market that are fragrance-free – not “unscented”, a term that can describe products that may include chemicals to mask the odours of other ingredients.

“You don’t need that perfume,” he says. “Your clothes will smell completely fine without it. It is just a perfume that you have been made to think if you smell that perfume you know your clothes are clean. But often synthetic perfumes are the most damaging thing in that particular product.”

Cautionary tale

Now, at work on a new novel, Grenville has learned to manage her scent-averse life. As a full-time writer she can control her work environment. She shops mainly online; she arrives at book promotions in her “shabby old Corolla” rather than a fragrant taxi; she shuns the hermetically sealed rooms of theatres and concert venues in favour of musical performances in airy churches. “They’re fantastic. You can sit where you like. If someone near you is wearing a lot of perfume you can just move, and usually there’s a draught blowing through.”

The Case Against Fragrance is a cautionary tale, says its author, which seeks to prompt questions rather than making “wild statements beyond what the evidence will bear”. She is aware that the number of people suffering from reactions as severe as she experienced in the opera house is not huge. Most of us will ignore or even admire perfumed air – the bespoke “signature scent” made for the Langham Hotel chain is sold as a gift item – or, like the perfumed opera fan, simply become oblivious to it. But for those suffering in silence, the smell of laboratory-manufactured nature is not so easy to overlook.

“I wanted to put the subject on the table,” says Grenville. “Saying the way you smell is giving me a headache is an awkward conversation to have. It is embarrassing – people think you are crazy.”

Her book, she hopes, will give people the tools to make up their own minds as to when and where they expose themselves and others to scent. At a party, in the bedroom is fine, “but not in the cinema or theatre where everyone else smells it.”

THE CASE AGAINST FRAGRANCE, by Kate Grenville (Text, $30)

This article was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.