Friday, March 29, 2013

Demonizing Perfume with the Evangelical Conviction of Erroneous Fact Splashing

Live a more natural life, a more organic life, eat fresh produce, use natural all sounds totally desirable and, well, common sense, doesn't it. Who wouldn't want to be able to say "I'm doing the very best I can for my health and my children's future"? Eco-awareness is indeed a most significant and noble cause. But to leap from this to an evangelical Dr.Kellog persuasion, often removed from solid scientific facts, or -worse yet- just brushing on them for added conviction, veers into a crusade for sanitation of everyday life which tends to deprive people of the small pleasures left us in favor of an ultimately unattainable goal shimmering with promise in a future that is uncertain. But let's take things at the top. The other day an article called "Secret Scents: The Hidden Chemicals in Fragrance" came to my attention thanks to a popular forum. It was posted in the best of intentions for fume enthusiasts who are interested in such stuff. The problem is the article is misleading. I mean, totally.

The Women film still (1939) via
It is easy to lose track of just how things actually work, especially if one isn't immersed in research (and even then, one tends to be immersed in one field of research to the exclusion of others to a comparable level, which makes trying to get to the bottom of anything a really hard and prolonged task). In light of that, let's clarify I'm no medical doctor, but I have more than one university degrees, which if nothing else teach you the way to approach things from a scientific point of view. I'm also in conversation with relatives and friends who are members of the international scientific community, in some cases into the medical and biology ones, so I feel like I'm not taking too many liberties by posting the following.

Browsing the site on which the article was published I came across some interesting preliminary insights. The host is Maria Rodale's blog, who I found out is the CEO of Rodale Publishing -who issue Men's Health, Prevention and other titles in the same vein. There is even a book authored by Maria called "The Organic Manifesto", from what I can see; I can't tell you much on it though as I'm afraid to click on the title, lest I'm blinded by the earnestness. Let it be said in passing that anyone who posts in their personal blog statement "If you've made it to this blog, you're on the right  track" with Messianic vapors of self-importance has my credibility antennae lurching wildly. But apparently they're dead serious about it! (check out The Rodale Story link on the bottom  of the page) I have read some of their magazines, which are rather nicely put together, if a bit too focused on how to attain a specific ideal which might -just might- not be everyone's ideal. Anyway, I'd love to be proven wrong on the Messianic shades.

Apparently the article is NOT written by Maria Rodale who is merely hosting it (and therefore I assume she approves of it) but by Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for Women’s Voices for the Earth. This was the first mental "uh huh" I did. Especially when I read this statement on their site: "This bill will ensure that personal care and salon products are free from toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm." The reason? Simply put, the natural sensibility of women, especially towards the care-giving and nurturing role they -for better or worse- emulate in our society, is unfortunately very often channeled into crusades of goals that are peppered with half-digested truths and half-truths period (and I'm coming to that shortly). Perhaps the classic men's -though not restricted to men!- "no suffering fools gladly" attitude would be nice to surface from time to time to actually challenge and put things into perspective, even if it veers into the boorish and frat mentality. As women we tend to sometimes be over-considerate of others' feelings, I find, and in issues that have to do with information circulating on the Net this might do more harm than good. But I digress.

Furthermore, I read that Alexandra "Prior to working at WVE, she worked in the epidemiology and statistics unit at the American Lung Association headquarters in New York. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana and a BA from Amherst College." This also gives me an insight on how the data and the viewpoint are formed. I realize that we're dealing with someone who has a focus on the environmental issues rather than the medical profession. This is totally legit and I respect it as long as the article would adhere to presenting things via that prism (but it doesn't, which is my whole point).

My deduction is the article is misleading, written from an "expert's" viewpoint addressed to a lay(wo)man, which makes it particularly dangerous (and if you browse some of the other articles you might see the same): it's easy to take it as gospel, reproduce it via social media, email and just plain linking, to the point that it catches on like wild fire and becomes THE truth due to overexposure and repetition. I'm not in a million years suggesting there is some Goebbelsian intent of spreading lies or half- truths. No. They seem like perfectly nice people and with a noble intention in their heart of hearts no doubt (It sells magazines too, but hey, that's totally legit and everyone does it). I'm just saying that in their earnestness and oversimplification in this particular article the author/editors are doing a disservice to the public.
I'm going to really dissect this with a scalpel below, so bear with me (it's long but worth it, even if I say so myself).
NB. The different font is meant to differentiate the quotes taken off the article.

"Have you ever used a scented product that resulted in itchy, red, or blotchy skin? Or have you had a rash that’s hard to predict or control that you suspect might be caused by products in your home?" 
Itchy, red or blotchy skin can be a sign of too many things. Products in your home might be a hundred different things, from detergents to insecticides to dishwashing liquid to actual foodstuff. But the article talks about "fragrance" and specifically shows a perfume bottle forcing a mental connection.

"Millions of people in the U.S. have been sensitized to ingredients in fragrance, making them predisposed to allergic reactions like contact dermatitis. In fact, “fragrance allergy” is one of the most common diagnoses among dermatology patients." 
Major fallacy: skin sensitisation is not synonymous with allergies and contact dermatitis is usually not an allergy per se (most of the cases belong to "irritant contact dermatitis"). An allergy is a disruption of the functionality of the immune system and is much graver than those simple symptoms mentioned above. You can see how it leads the reader into thinking they have developed something "serious" though, can't you?

There are then some statistics presented (obviously Scranton's expertise) : 
"Up to 11 percent of the population is sensitized to fragrance".
All right, I'm willing to believe that. I have no way to refute it anyway.

"Women are two to three times more likely than men to be allergic to fragrance".
Uh huh. Please see my argument above. (It is inferred subconsciously that it is because more women than men use fragrances. But as the author states herself previously it just might be "caused by products in your home")

"Rates of skin allergies in children have risen dramatically over the past few decades."
Illogical argument. They have, because children are now screened for allergies whereas it was not customary before, because the tests have become much more sensitive and because the environment as a whole has been aggravated (including the air that we breathe).

"Billions of healthcare dollars are spent each year in the U.S. for treatment of these skin conditions".
True. But I suspect that this is actually encouraged by the pharmaceutical companies.

 "Chemicals used in fragranced products—such as phthalates—have been associated with reduced sperm count and reproductive problems."
So is soy and hormones in chicken meat and a hundred other things, but you don't see that kind of holier-than-thou attitude in the projects against them, do you? Besides phthalates are used in plasticizers, so it is the plastic packaging and the plasticizer in lotions and creamy products and deodorants and not the fragrance compound itself (the raw material off the perfumer's lab counter) that is at fault.


"A fragrance can be made up of dozens or even hundreds of different chemicals." 
Newsflash: EVERYTHING is made up of different chemicals! Chemical molecules are the building blocks of our universe. If the word "chemicals" hadn't gained such a skewed and faulty meaning, we'd be having a real conversation. Natural substances like rose oil, the coffee we drink every day and even organic milk and organic cotton are made up of chemical ingredients. I often review perfumes made of only natural essences, sometimes even organically produced. They're also built up of chemical ingredients, no less natural because of it. Chemicals as related to chemistry, please note, not as "man-made". But you see where I'm going.

"Among these chemicals are numerous known allergens such as geraniol, eugenol, citronellol." 
True. And these are perfectly legible ON the fragrance box or the personal care product for all to read. There's really no excuse! If you know you're sensitized to one of them, stop using it for Pete's sake; don't force us all to not have the option of having it around, just because you don't like it.

Here is where it begins to go seriously skewed and faux medi-savvy:
"Additionally, several hazardous chemicals can be found in fragrance: phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive harm; synthetic musks, which may alter hormone levels; and cancer-causing chemicals like styrene and methyl eugenol. But you won’t find these ingredients listed on product labels—you’ll just see the word “fragrance.”
Well, re: phthalates see above. Regarding musks, Scranton can be excused for not knowing about the latest musks used in the industry. Let me assure you I do, however and my data and credentials are clearly posted. In fact I have a detailed article about synthetic musks on these pages pinpointing any concern. It's easily Googleable too, so again there's no excuse. As to styrene and methul euegenol, I might bore you if I zoomed in on both, so let's just take methyl eugenol as a point of deconstructing the argument.

Methyl eugenol has been found to be related to carcinogenesis in lab rats. This does not necessarily mean that it would induce the same reactions and follow the same pathways for humans, as is common lab knowledge, and besides lab rats receive an inordinate amount of the suspect ingredient to monitor the reactions. What's more methyl eugenol is found in several natural essential oils too, and in actual foodstuff, such as in pimento, laurel, tarragon, fennel etc. Should we stop eating all these things? It's also found in high doses in tea tree oil, which had been hailed as THE natural remedy for everything a few years ago (remember?) by all the Mother Earth types. [Nothing wrong with the latter, just correlating the manipulative correlation]. Cancer on the other hand has been increasingly found out to be a genetic predisposition, meaning if you have the gene & pathway for a specific type you're almost bound to get it no matter how much you avoid "triggers" and vice versa. (I have a biologist relative in research at an esteemed institution, I'm not making this up). This is for instance why women with the gene for breast cancer and a history of it in the family sometimes elect for a preventative mastectomy, I'm told (This has been covered in several "health and fitness" magazines in the US as I recall).
 Additionally, it is to our (consumers') benefit and just as a precaution that the International Fragrance Association and the cosmetics & fragrances controlling bodies such as the CSSC are setting very specific ratios of suspect ingredients in the formula; for methyl eugenol, for instance, the limit is set at 0.002% in the fragrance compound, i.e. that means it is FURTHER diluted after that for ready-made fragrances! You'd have to actually drink the fragrance by the gallon for some time to even come close to the quantities used in lab rats and to have it built in your tissues.

"[..]you can almost never tell whether a particular fragrance might contain an allergen or toxic chemical that affects you".
As stated above, yes, yes you can, actually. The allergens are clearly listed on perfume packaging by law since 2000.

"One option is to choose fragrance-free products".
If only there were more available! I'm myself here stating that in my opinion the over-saturation of our daily life with too many scented products is a problem. It won't be solved as long as added scent is a functional necessity (see below) or seen as a sales vantage point. In order to really bring change in that area one needs to push the argument that too much added scent in household products is in fact repelling and would diminish sales. (Why should my floor cleaner smell of peaches?)

"Even 'unscented' products may contain fragrance ingredients as 'masking agents' to neutralize the inherent smell of other ingredients in the product".
Indeed. "Unscented" in fact is no guarantee there are no added aromatic compounds, in fact they invariably are because the inherent scent of so many ingredients would be insupportable otherwise. Still, if among those masking agents there is a known allergen/skin sensitizer the manufacturer is again required by law to state it in the label.

There is then another statistics list of common products with added scent. I'm not refuting those either. The article closes with the wish for more allergens being disclosed (rest assure, Alexandra, they are, and at an increasing pace, if you follow our IFRA & perfumery restrictions posts here), that safer substitutes for the "toxic chemicals" are introduced (ditto) and the plea to fill out a petition or such. Not surprised here; there would be no point in not proposing "action", the whole premise was a polemic from the very start.

Bottom-line: Even if beginning on a noble founding block, after a certain point this kind of "picketing" rhetoric becomes unsupported & self-fed. A life almost fascistically devoid of some little pleasures is a life not worth living. You might get to reach a 100, but would that be a good thing? It reminds me of the old joke about a man going to his doctor and asking "If I don't smoke, don't eat fatty food, don't drink and don't fuck around, will I get to reach 100?" To which the doctor replies "It's doubtful, but it would certainly feel that way".
If overpopulation is the gravest problem of our planet right now, from which other malaise stems out, perhaps our individual vices are a small bolt in the grander evolution scheme. My little perfume use hobby is small potatoes compared to the aggravation of the planet. I use it in my own home and on myself and I won't impose it on you if you don't come within my personal space. And if you convince me you do have a medical problem with it, rather than just use it as a put down because it's so easy to, I will considerately adjust my use.

I realize that after this article I won't be very popular with the Rodale people (or even some readers) and that my thesis can be deemed long & boring, plus that I'm using a personal space to deconstruct someone's argument here instead of taking it there; but that's democracy to you and the restraints of the commentary function on most web platforms. At least no one can accuse me of being populist or sycophantic. You can bet there will continue to be discourse as long as people are willing to argue the finer points in a smart and civilized way.


  1. Well said! I love a well-formed argument and will choose it any day over fear-inducing dogma. Plus I'm sick off all the public service health announcements I get sent by friends who haven't yet realised that 'don't believe everything you read' also applies to the Internet. Thanks for taking the time to deconstruct that article and if the writers aren't appreciative of it, losing their favour hardly seems like any loss.

  2. Maria13:53

    Thank you so much! A pleasure to read. Simplification is a form of anti-knowledge, and it's said to see it promoted by people who should really know better... Thanks again for infusing sanity, knowledge and sense into discussion!

  3. As a woman who can no longer even attend church because of the chemical bath floating around in the air, I am near despair. I realize mcs (multiple chemical sensitivity) is my problem. It means I can no longer go to restaurants, concerts, movies or travel by public transportation. I am essentially cut off from any sort of public life. I applaud you for realizing that the pleasures of fragrance should only be indulged in private, but the madness of adding synthetic fragrance to every product out there has got to stop, and if a little fear-mongering can do it, I'm all for it!

  4. Thank-you for this thoughtful piece. I am grateful for a voice of reason and logic. If people want to promote a scent-free world, they are free to do so, but the use of bad science to do so makes me want to shriek. I will continue to enjoy perfume, tea, wine, chocolate and cigars in moderation (most of the time) and feel sorry for those who chose to forgo life's pleasures. If that makes me sound smug, guilty as charged...

    Keep up the fine work.

  5. I am so sick of over zealous people who want to ruin all perfume! Quit buying it if bothers you. People are now seeking and paying lots of $ for vintage! I don't want my perfume loves to be ruined by synthetic. I will not quit wearing perfume. The world has gone mad and over the edge with being politically correct. PLEASE complain to someone else! This is a great passion of many.

    1. Gracie21:44

      It isn't just politically correct to abstain from scents while out in public because many people are sensitive to these smells to the point of actually getting sick. If someone has dowsed themselves in perfume I can't stay in the same room. My sister in law is far worse, she can barely go out of her own home anymore, if she does she pays for it for a few days after. Some shampoos and dryer sheet residues are worse than others. Essential oils don't bother me but my SIL's condition is worse and she can't tolerate some of them either. I'm of the belief that she tried oils that have been adulterated as some of the cheaper ones are but I'm not about to take a chance to test my belief on her.

      Most people now accept the fact that they can't smoke in public places, I'm looking forward to the day when people stop with all the chemical scents. I make my own soaps and haven't used dryer sheets in decades. There is no need for them, anyhow clothes smell better when hung up to dry.

      So please keep in mind that its a great passion of many to be able to go out of the house and not be sickened by other people's use of chemical scents.

  6. Gorgonzola,


    This reminds me: I read the other day about a giant baby delivered vaginally in the UK. Don't recall the weight exactly (but it was supposed to be enormous by my standards). The odd thing is they were saying the baby was delivered 6 weeks ago, but the photo they were showing was clearly depicting a baby with hair growth of at least 12 months. I mean...I can accept the weight and everything (even the claim that the baby was oxygen-deprived for 5 minutes and yet its brain functions weren't seriously impaired) but the hair on its head said another tale. Unless they were using stock photos, but there was a caption mentioning the parents' names etc. so...
    Funnily enough the commentators below dissected everything about the article, public health system in UK, parenting and doctoring etc, EXCEPT for the odd photo!! :-D

    Anyway, this long example was merely meant to reinforce the sage advice "don't believe everything you read, ESPECIALLY on the Net" unless you bring forth your logic, critical sense and common sense.

  7. M,

    indeed oversimplification sometimes can be anti-knowledge, so well said! I feel that without confusing we should strive to give solid information offering the reader the option of forming their own conclusions.

  8. L,

    I sympathize with your plight. Multiple chemical sensitivity must be scary, especially considering that many wholesome and natural objects would pose challenges for you. I wish I had an answer. I also wish there could be a sort of anti-sensitivity medication you could take; my plea would be towards that end instead of a total ban. Then again I haven't been in your shoes, so I can't judge (who can?). :-/

    In the end, if people show consideration to each other (on both ends of spectrum), a small but significant good can be easily accomplished in this very complex life we're living.

  9. Euphrosyne,

    I stand exactly by your beautiful name which in etymology relates my feelings re: perfume to a T! :-)

    The most important thing IMHO is not to direct the reader when doing a "mass" expose. The facts should be clearly separated from the opinions and there should be no sophistry "tricks". As Umberto Eco says If you reproduce a news snippet in the form of 'a vicious dog has bitten an innocent pedestrian' you're already nuancing the news"

  10. G,

    like tobacco fetishists, I predict we will one day be hiding in underground "sensoriums" (similar to dungeons) to sniff at our heart's content.
    Pavor eius non me terrea should be emblazoned on our crest and be the recognizing insignia to one another in the "cult".

    ;-) :-D

  11. Anonymous16:52

    Dear Elena - I wish that everyone would read what you have written so eloquently and sensibly. You are the still small voice of calm.

    I have a friend who has been a teetotal, non-smoking vegetarian all her life and avoids any product with what she calls "nasties" in it, especially fragrance; and yet she has ended up with two forms of cancer. Tellingly, her brother also is a sufferer. She thinks I am mad for being a perfume and cosmetics user, but I believe, as you do, that we should enjoy our lives. I just wish that certain people and organizations wouldn't jump on this particular bandwagon and try to ban anything and everything!


  12. Well sad, as usual.

    Ironic that this type of thinking then somehow morphs into the banning of natural substances like jasmine or citruses. But it's probably too much to hope that people impervious to science somehow understand the connection.


  13. Anonymous21:01

    awesome job! this needs to be published in a mainstream magazine for the "average" person to see!


  14. palmward04:12

    Oddly - I am one who has certain sensitivities and asthma as well, but it doesn't take long to recognize the combinations that cause a reaction. There are frags that I find abusive but...guess what? I don't use them or play around with them in my biz.
    It doesn't mean I should throw one out (as toxic a process as THAT is...) when someone else might very well be waiting to find that exact bottle.
    Sure - I'm positive that there have been unwitting mistakes made over the years in the development of the art form, but do we throw out Rembrandts because he used lead as the underlayment for his paintings? I didn't think so.

  15. Miss Heliotrope05:29

    I like the comment above (Jillie) - I am another non smoking teetotaler who for my grown up years has eaten carefully, organically when I can afford, not much meat, lots of veg & fruit. Ive walked most days, done yoga, meditated. I have terminal cancer.

    I have found & started playing with perfume since my diagnosis - it gives me great pleasure & enjoyment & I adore wafting deliciously around the house, the drs waiting room, and coffee shops. It can improve many days.

    What I hate the most about the whole "this will give you cancer" type article, is the subtext that you must have done something wrong to get it - been a BAD PERSON or you wouldnt be in that state. If only you had eaten more broccoli or lentils or not used that Mitsouko (am wearing today), you would be pefectly healthy. (Some of the anti-smoking ads seem to have made people think everyone with cancer has deliberately gone out & got it - like it's tatoos)

    It's a load of crap. Even those of us without much family history of it can just happen to have the nasties. Ask my specialists...

    Thank you for this article, & the sanity it provides.

  16. Anonymous08:59

    Miss Heliotrope - I am so sorry to hear your news, but glad that you are getting such a lot of pleasure from wearing beautiful smells. You put into words the thoughts I have about the culture of blame and guilt, and how it must be your own fault for getting cancer. Scare-mongering should be banned, not ingredients! Thank goodness for people like Elena who can put forward facts.

    My best wishes to you, Miss H, and long may you waft fragrantly. x


  17. It is difficult to accept an illness or disaster without blaming it on something. It seems that if you find the cause, you'll be able to control it. The sense of uncertainty and lack of control is overwhelming.
    BUT while it is a struggle that everyone is familiar with, and deals with it in his/her own way, it is perilous as a ground for “expert” opinion and article. It spreads fear, misunderstanding, and increases the anxiety of not being able to control the existence. It obliterates the basic goal of “Mother Earth” aspirations.

  18. Bravo! Thank you! There ought to be a 30-minute tutorial on YouTube on How to Read a Scientific Article. That might help prevent mindless replication of weak arguments. But it should be followed immediately by a 30-minute tutorial on How to Read a Quasi-scientific Article. Knowledge can go by that name only if it's allied with Truth.

  19. Ariadne14:43

    Thank you for this very articulate and well founded article. I too would like to see it published more broadly.
    I would also like to encourage that a skin rash should be investigated as a symptom of something other than exposure to fragrance. Steroids (OTC nasal sprays for one) are a far more common cause of rashes, as is chemotherapy and an undiagnosed illness.

  20. Anonymous16:02

    Hi E!

    Thank you for writing this and for the time you put into it.

    I hope many more people will read it and share it.


  21. Ellen21:55

    There is a woman in my choir who tells us not to wear fragrance because she is 'allergic." On an especially hot morning, she was asked if we should also stop bathing, using deodorant, hair spray,toothpaste, mouthwash etc. That, of course, didn't include the furniture polish, the flowers on the altar or any number of other potential respiratory irritants. I wonder just how many of those products she had used as well. I'm sure its difficult, if one has this problem, but I think it is easy to blame fragrance unwittingly without taking into account the tremendous number of background environmental irritants present in everyday life. Why is it that as a society we inevitably want to throw the baby out with the scented bathwater. I protest!
    Loved your article. I wish more people read carefully, especially the garbage which we are supposed to accept as "science."
    Fragrance will continue to remain one of my great pleasures.

  22. Anonymous00:45

    Well done on an excellent and well informed article. Like many posters here, I despair at the standard of reporting on science data.

    Most of us (well, definitely speaking for myself) just don't have the training and knowledge to know how to question scientific findings or information that's been passed around 100 times, is outside of context at best, or scewed for market and profit reasons at worst.

    The misuse of words such as 'toxic' 'energy' and 'chemicals' is frustrating to me at times and must be quite infuriating to anyone with a scientific background.

    Of all the things that might trigger cancer (and I agree of course it's largely an inherited genetic influence) perfume I'm sure would be low on the list. I'm not from a scientific or medical background but I do feel that the quality of life, and the food you eat or air you breathe are likely to have more impact on whether or not cancer is triggered.

    I'm aware that many tests have been carried out (not sure of sources off the top of my head but they are available through medical institutes and so on) which indicate that stress affects our immune system, as does an unhealthy lifestyle.

    Having worked as an arts curator for hospitals in the UK, I’m fully aware that anything which positively stimulates the mind and senses is, by definition, healing, perfume included if people choose it as such, I know I'm not alone in finding that it adds much to my quality of life!

    I do really enjoy the high quality of information that I find on this website, brilliant.

  23. Anne21:19

    I followed the link on that blog to the hypothyroidism article (since a lot of my family - including me - has either Hashimoto's or Graves). It was impressively inaccurate.

    I hate how it's so often perfumes that are treated as the issue rather than plastics and hormones in chicken meat and floor cleaners that smell like peaches, as you mentioned. Probably because it's easier to just ban fragrances, as well as the fact that they're luxury items so it's totally ok(plus I think the fact that they're luxury items more heavily marketed to women than to men, at least in the US, makes them seem even more frivolous) rather than fix the underlying environmental issues.

    We had a beautiful email from the health people at work a couple weeks ago about how there are chemicals in perfume that you can't smell (not meaning olfactory fatigue so you don't realize how much you're wearing, which would have at least made sense) which cause bad reactions in people, and hence you shouldn't wear perfume at work. There are so many things that give off chemical fumes that you may or may not be able to smell which are probably equally bad or worse for you, but I see no one complaining about, say, all the plastic that gets microwaved at lunch.

    She may be right about the ratio of male-to-female allergy sufferers, though, since since in general immune disorders seem to be more common in women. (Not that improves her article, however).

  24. Liisa W22:57

    The naturalist fallacy at its best.

    The other day, one fashion designer was asked how she keeps fit or something and her answer was I wouldn't ever use anything that has a chemical bond in it. I'd laugh if it wasn't so sad. Water is a chemical too, people.

    As for allergies, I'll repeat myself again: people can be allergic to just about anything so it's impossible to prevent all allergic reactions.

    And an aside: In the EU, chicken don't contain added hormones, just their natural chicken hormones, feeding livestock with growth hormone has been banned for decades and meat is tested for presence of growth hormones. Should anyone wonder why the chicken grown for meat grow so much meat in so short a time, it's a combination of generations of selective breeding, optimal environment and food which contains the right nutrients.

    Also, rats, the lab sort or those gutter types, are not people. The strain used for the testing, and the treehugger doesn't provide a citation, am I right, so it might be just the good old Someone on the internetz wrote..., might be genetically predisposed to tumor growth.

    A friend of mine wrote an article where she took a Freudian approach to the obsession with all things natural and clean and explained it in terms of anal fixation, after all, it starts with unscented or 'unscented' detergent and ends at enemas because someone on the internetz said that one's guts are full of accumulated evil dirt. Anal fixation or not, who am I to judge, but there is certainly something very obsessive in all that, with a heap of masochism thrown in. Protestant morals, maybe? That every pleasure and deviation from some ideal standard is bad and should be eradicated regardless of the cost and common sense. Perfume, bad, cleaning products, good, as they're cleaning products. I'd prefer my cleaning products less scented... I don't have a clue whether entirely unscented stuff would just reek and whether getting truly unscented dish soap would lend itself to changing into Opium dish soap by adding a spoonful of said perfume... whatever would be better than fake peaches.

  25. Jillie,

    thank you for your kind words. Sanity and reason should prevail over panic and hysteria, I always say.

    To be frank, I do have people with the same condition in my environment and there is overriding evidence of what you say: absolutely no correlation with their lifestyle choices. They didn't do anything "wrong" or had anything "wrong" inflicted on them, as far as we know.

  26. M,

    the funny thing is that people make a plea for "natural" when in fact many natural substances are even more likely to invoke a reaction exactly because they're so naturally complex! If we opt for a natural way of life it's not as to minimize "allergies" (that would be unfeasible), it is because we appreciate the life-force of the living world and the aesthetics of that choice. I think most natural perfumers agree on that score too.

  27. C,

    thank you for saying so.
    Who knows, maybe my next magazine article would veer into these directions. ;-)

  28. Palm,

    my point exactly and you said it in such an economical way, bravo! Thanks for sharing your experience and your logic with us. Going too far is always the danger of beginning such a polemic.

  29. C,

    thanks for your touching story and sharing it with us (well, I knew, but the rest perhaps did not).

    As you so succinctly say, like with many other things in our mass-communicated modern mentality, there is an overwhelming notion of the "importance" of lifestyle choices into our health and well-being and into our projection to others. Obesity is largely blamed on the "wrong" choices (when in fact several sufferers are suffering from medical conditions that make it extraordinarily difficult to lose the weight), cancer is blamed on bad eating-smoking-non exercising, poor appearance is blamed on not trying enough etc etc.
    You know, sometimes, this skews things into making people feel like a failure, when in fact it's not *always* their fault (or the fault of their environment), you know? I mean, would these people say to a diabetic "come on, with the right, healthy choices and avoiding the wrong things, every pancreas can produce enough insulin?" I think not! So why is it so different on other things?

    I have a relative who was an amateur athlete, very healthy, never a problem or serious illness, was always restrained in his food intake, never drank, never smoked, had a very committed, happy marriage and healthy children he saw grow up how he liked them to. Guess what? He had a double by-pass on his heart at age 55! Everyone was wondering WHY. After that I pretty much decided I'm going to live my life the best I can; we only get one of those after all.

    So, raising my cup to you and to your enjoyment of the moments which bring you pleasure; they're precious!

  30. Idomeneus,

    To be honest, I think that this rhetoric really aims to regain control, hence the polemic towards "action" (these things are nothing if not followed by fierce petitioning). But to what degree control is exerted? Once you realize you have no control, it is the moment that you begin to reassess your life and derive more truth from it. (at least I think so and believe me, I like a modicum of control too!)

  31. Tqm,

    maybe that would be very useful. Alas, press a few sensitive buttons on people and they tend to believe you no matter what. And truth isn't always welcome, nor one-sided. ;-)

  32. Ariadne,

    thank you, that's sweet of you to say.

    You know, I'm starting to believe that fragrance is just so easy to toss as being so frivolous and non important/necessary, therefore much more important issues are bypassed so as to give the impression that something is "being done" to address the malaise of people!

  33. Dawn,

    you're most welcome!
    (and off to write that email I promised!)

  34. Ellen,

    thanks for sharing and for your kindness.

    Garbage dressed as science is my pet peeve. It's funny because when people hear about my studies they always bring up these kind of articles (they seem so accessible) which are ultimately totally misleading. And inaccurate.

  35. Rosestrang,

    well, to be frank with you, I don't really think one needs to be specifically trained to evaluate a pseudo-scientific article, in most cases (I agree that on finer points expertise is handy). The earnestness is usually a dead giveaway and I think most smart people regardless of training can discern that. ;-) :-)

    That said, I also agree with your totally logical point that perfume is low on the list of triggers for serious problems. I mean, just how much perfume does one "consume" (even second-hand) in one lifetime? Compared to the food we eat, the air we breathe etc. it's small potatoes. But like I said above in my reply to a commenter, this is a perfect excuse for administrations/organizations/officials to show being "concerned" and letting other major issues flying off the radar.

    And yes, stress is definitely a bad influence on our health. It's been proven I believe with quantitative data.

  36. Anna,

    I'm sorry to report that it was AFTER I followed the hypotheroidism article that I decided I needed to write this one addressing the other issue. :-/ :-(

    As you so wisely say, perfume is easy to target exactly because of the reasons you mention. There's something of a pure, wholesome, bordering on Puritanical view on perfume which stigmatizes it as "fluff". Therefore, why should we tolerate it, if there's even suspicion that it might trigger a reaction? Then the whole caravan gains a camel too much and set off in the sunset venturing father than it anticipated...

    I should think that banning microwaves would be much more of essence. I know there's research on it, and nothing is conclusive, but I also know that some research of it had been conducted/commissioned by interested parties (as is common after all for other researches as well).

    And for what is worth, I don't doubt the statistics per se (though that in general -not in this particular case,- might also be skewed according to how a question is asked). I doubt the way the statistics are interpreted.

  37. Liisa,

    hurray!! A kindred spirit!! Thanks for chiming in!

    (and who are you? it's been a long time)

    Fashion designers...sometimes I wonder if they actually sit down and think before they say something. ;-?

    Indeed allergies are greatly unpredictable. Not only are they unpredictable as to what might trigger one (despite the RAST & patch tests and such, they're not conclusive), they're also unpredictable in that they might "hit" when a saturation of a previously accepted substance reaches a point. So, really, if you know something avoid it and if you don't, say your prayers because we're all vulnerable like that. You know?

    Next, the absence of citations is the mark of the mass-marketed, accessible article that says absolutely nothing. There is no corroboration, no solid date, nothing, just some vague statistics ripe for the interpretation we want to give them (for instance I can think of a million things to say about the women ratio...)

    Lab work is notoriously taking a lot of time and the methods used are also notoriously significant in accessing the results (there are different results with different methods which makes it all so very interesting within the scientific community).

    I would very much like to meet your friend or read what she/he has written because it's so VERY true sounding. Protestant morals seem to be riding the politics in Europe right now, what with the "punitive" measure of North vs. South and all that jazz and it makes me seriously pause and think.
    A dose of healthy masochism is perhaps what differentiates man from animal (only human beings are willing to displeasure themselves in order to attain something higher than instant gratification or biological survival), but when we take this as a springboard into a self-sacrificing Jesus-tale of crucifying ourselves in the hopes of earning heaven, I'm afraid we're deluding ourselves. Because what is heaven on earth and why should quid pro quo be the way to do it..

    The "detox" fallacy especially has made bucks for hundreds of businesses to the point that I want to tear my hair out! Plus it possesses all the high marks of masochism with its humiliation nuances and rather displeasing sensory facets. And the cleanliness ("next to godliness", which please note is a saying in anglo-saxon languages, it's phrased differently in our own, for instance) is a metaphor for shedding your sins, becoming devoid of "burden" (accumulated burden at that!). So the cleaning products do sound holier than thou and the humble perfume like the devil's handiwork (after all, it was historically so often tied to witchcraft and the like).

    You know, there's a simple argument about the fallacy of doing detox which no one mentions, but it's so very easy to think of, really. Toxins were in the environment since forever (don't get me started, people were manipulating lead for Pete's sake) and the human body has the means to self-detox just fine, thank you very much, as attested by every doctor worth his diploma. Otherwise, the human race wouldn't have been able to survive, right? Remember colonic irrigation? That's one hell of a dangerous practice (disrupting the electrolytes in the body and possibly inducing comma and heart attack in some cases!) but it is still being brandished as 'healthy' and a good way "to really detox". Egads!!!!

    As always a pleasure to read your witty and to the point arguments! Thank you!!

  38. The deleted comment was advertising spam from someone selling something irrelevant (obviously they thought the post was a good match)

    But I am copying-pasting the content of the message sans link, BECAUSE IT REPEATS SO FUCKING IDENTICALLY WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT:

    [Deleted author] "Well, I have experienced having rashes or itchiness as a result of a beauty product. And so, I started to be very careful in choosing and buying a product, I stick to the ones that I usually don't have a reaction to, and I also make it to a point that there aren't too chemicals in it. It is much better to use organic products, healthier and more effective."

    Riiiiight. The rhetoric has been learned by heart and repeated at the drop of a hat. I rest my case....

  39. Anonymous17:55

    I need to sit down later and read your thoughtful post due to its length, but just wanted to comment that I lived in a dorm with some very smart people who swore by organic produce but also thought that meant you didn't need to wash it. Had to explain to them what the organic fertilizer probably was and why they still might need to wash it. It's funny how people perceive "organic" and "artificial" and it's funny how many largely synthetic-based perfumes (which most of them are) are sold in high end retail stores by SAs that explain that they're 100% natural. I won't even get into junk science and bad methodologies. It's worse when politicians recite these studies.

  40. Anonymous18:22

    LOL geraniol, eugenol, citronellol are all found in food and plants! Rose oil, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, right?, LOL what is this Alexandra woman talking about? And you're right, they DO label the known allergens and irritants and restrict the levels of suspected compounds.

    Only compliant is you made me click on this woman's site and thereby directed my web traffic there. Unless my browser is filtering them, I believe she has 0 comments on this article. I will not add one.

  41. Dear Shrine

    An excellent piece.

    The very crux of this issue seems to me to be proportionality.

    Surely it is absurd to allow the sale of cigarettes and yet ban certain perfume ingredients on the very debatable (to say the least) evidence of their cancer causing possibilities?

    Furthermore, this labeling of fragrance ingredients as "chemical" versus "natural" is equally as bizarre.

    As you point out both are chemical in the truest sense of the word, equally both (as used in perfume) are the result of a process of chemistry!

    If only some of the holier-than-thou brigade knew how their 'natural' essential oils were actually extracted!

    Finally the question of personal responsibility and societal benefit.

    If one has an allergy (as I do) then one has a responsibility to avoid the cause of the reaction. In my case, oddly, carrots.

    It's no use bleating on that all carrots should be banned. Likewise I have an allergic reaction to some pollen - should the offending plants to be removed from the face of the Earth? No, of course not.

    I just want ingredient lists of food stuffs and people not to stick wild grass in my face.

    Surely the same basic rules apply to perfume.

    Labeling and personal responsibility and respectful behviour on the part of those who do indulge should be more than enough.

    A slight tangent there, but even if there are the small health risks for some people that are claimed, to me it still wouldn't be reason enough to justify the ham fisted approach by regulators and the scare tactics deployed by campaigners.

    More power to your elbow.

    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

  42. Excellent article!
    As it's also very well argumented, I don't see a reason anyone should have bad feelings regarding it. POssibly should wonder about the quality of their research though. ;)

    I'm with Perfume Dandy, I mean, I said this a million times already. If every chocolate can warn against the possibility of containing peanuts, I don't see where is the problem with perfume/fragrant products.
    I also agree there should be a wider selection of non-fragrant products to choose from, but from completely selfish purposes - I don't want them to clash with my perfume. ;)

  43. Natasha17:15

    Dear Perfume Shrine,

    Once again, you bring us a thoughtful post with such eloquence! All these fear mongering about chemicals here and there! I love how Alexandra Scranton mentions about allergens like geraniol are included in products. She conveniently forgets to say that these allergens are already stated on the box of the product. If you're allergic to something, avoid it! I'm allergic to seafood and peanuts but you don't see me petitioning to ban all seafood and peanut products! No, I read the ingredients list and see if any of those allergens are included in it and don't buy it if it has. Why call for a complete ban?

    I have two friends who were raised on an organic and "natural" only lifestyle by their parents. However, it seems that they get sick a lot, coming down with the cold very often. One of them tried to take curry once (her family finds curry to be unhealthy and has banned it from their household), and she developed acne the next day. She then uses this as evidence that curry is very unhealthy. Such a strawman argument! I told her about Indians, where curry is a staple in their diet and I don't see them getting maladies from all the curry they eat. She remained silent and flabbergasted.

    Anyways, I'd rather live my life with pleasure. I only live once after all. I gain so much sensory pleasure from perfumes and its sad that such over zealous behaviour will deprive me of it. It's bad enough my Mitsouko doesn't have oak moss, now you want to take it away from me too? And articles like these that have so many inaccuracies can be very damaging, especially in this age of social media. It can be spread on facebook and many other platforms. As the saying goes, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.

  44. Anon,

    at your convenience. :-)
    An acutely relevant observation, in the meantime, thank you for it!
    I guess the beauty and the disaster of data is that it can be used this way or that way.

  45. TPD,

    thank you.

    You see, with the state of the EU right now, I'm not surprised that small issues such as this are gaining an enormously overblown significance over other major issues. If one is seeing striving for something really small, at least they're seen as trying!

    I'm also a pollen induced allergy suffered (every spring with regularity). I can understand how people feel, but I still can't bring myself to wish that pollen and flowers and grass should be eradicated off the face of the earth, you know?

    In the end, I think it's again boiling down to education. If people were more educated on those issues (what is natural, what is artificial, how are things produced) and -yes, I'm going to throw blame on the industry here- if the fragrance manufacturers hadn't insisted on feeding us half-truths and lies for so long then people on the street would have no danger of being proselytized to this or that polemic.

    But again, that takes some education, not cries off the rooftops in a hysterical manner. And the former is more difficult (and less popular) than the latter. That's the whole crux of it, alas...

  46. Ines,

    thank you honey!
    BTW, has the "thingie" promised reached you yet? ;-)

    I suppose that the fact that allergens are clearly mentioned on the packaging of perfume has escaped the author's attention, or else they're talking about other products (though those too come under the requirement of stating allergens, so if they're mentioning "fragrance" it means that the compound used to render that fragrance in the product does NOT contain the known, regulated allergens). I don't know what's so hard to grasp!

  47. Natasha,

    thank you very much for your kind words.

    Your arguments are solid. There are two polar opposites on this argument it seems and both sides of the argument like to press their point with maddening force, as I had years ago stated on these pages apropos the restrictions of 2007. Logic would prove that a median way would be the best way. (But that doesn't sell books and articles, I guess)

    The misinformation that is spread on the Net lately is gaining epic proportions (exactly thanks to social media) and we need to strike these Cyclops whenever we can, otherwise we'll all get blind.

  48. The "thingie" was waiting for me when I came home yesterday!
    Thank you so very much! :) I look forward to trying both.

  49. Liisa W22:20

    demanding work is demanding.

    Said friend is a fermentation geek, writes often about her billions of pets, and she's a psychologist by profession, with quite a theoretical streak. She wrote a long angry rant about various nonsensical diets and detox regimens with a Freudian intro with a bit of focus on the anal phase of psychosexual development. Which is googlable; rest of her article was about crazy cleaning regimens because being clean from the outside isn't enough, one has to get rid of imaginary parasites, molds, deposits of ugly rotting matter in one's guts, her point being that the symptoms today ascribed to toxins du jour were once described as neurasthenia and the cure was good food, long walks and fresh air, today it's colon cleanses, laxatives, coffee enemas and what else because being clean even from the inside isn't clean enough without some unpleasant ritual.

    Yeah, toxins. It's about the dose, good example being alcoholic beverages. One can die of ethanol poisoning but millions of people have their glass of beer, wine or spirits without dying or suffering some dire consequences.

    As for economy... that's a big can of worms and although I could go on and on forever, I don't think I want to.

  50. Anon,

    you're absolutely correct! One would think twice about eating more than about spraying a perfume, right?

    Anyway, the lack of comments on Alex's post doesn't indicate "silent indifference" to me by readers, but surely a tight-fisted moderator control? I'm certain there would have been a dissenting voice. ;-)

  51. L,

    you have inspired me to Google!

    I agree that this fixation on cleanliness is surely an old business and it just takes different forms. To be so obsessive-compulsive about such things surely can't be beneficial in the long run. Like I said, there's a streak of masochism in it too. Perhaps even a hint of Christian belief of"sacrifice" too. (=if I suffer good things will come to me).

  52. Ines,

    glad, got your email and replied. :-)

  53. Anonymous00:49

    Great article! There is a strange attitude towards perfume right now, but I had no idea anyone was actually trying to ban the use of certain ingredients because they are "chemicals." Seriously???? Aside from the fact that everything on & in the planet is made from chemicals, for example the air we breathe, the idea that so-called "natural" ingredients are automatically better for you than "chemicals" is crazy. No one in their right mind would drink a cup of hemlock tea, or potion of belladonna. Polonium is also all-natural but I wouldn't recommend it as a supplement. Thank you for your blog, I am looking forward to reading more of your articles.

  54. Anonymous06:02

    My mother sent me that exact article as an explanation of why she would not be purchasing any perfume for Christmas this year. I have recently become more interested in perfume and included a few new favorites on my holiday wish-list. The article itself suggested that you send it to your loved ones. This really upset me. It's one thing for an individual to purchase what they want to purchase. It's quite another to tell another person that they are misguided and endangering themselves by choosing to wear perfume if they enjoy it.

  55. Anonymous16:02

    This article made me laugh!! 'Because we eat hormone fed chicken, sick beef and come in contact with a thousand other pollutants on a day to day basis, why worry about a few, itty bitty (potentially) harmful chemicals?' Oh wait! 'EVERYTHING is made up of chemicals' hahaha. So they are good for you. Or at least, not too harmful, apparently. So why don't you down some bleach with your coffee? You probably already are lol. Pesticides have been found in Breast Milk now, which according to the FDA, does not accumulate in the body. Trust your government! The logic… the point of the article was this: PEOPLE ARE UNAWARE OF THE THINGS CONTAINED IN THE PERFUMEs THEY ARE ABSORBING THROUGH THEIR SKIN. Nobody else advocates for their health, so we slam the people who say CAUTION because governments wouldn't allow deceitful practices. Ever heard of GMOs? Ever seen them in the news? Been around since 1994. I enjoy your other pieces on this site. Decent info. Thanks!

  56. Anon #1,

    if you allow me, I will quote you. :-)
    Thanks for your comment and for reading and for your kind words.

  57. Anon #2,

    to whom your mother sent the disproven article to justify not purchasing perfume.

    So well said. But you know conspiracy theories are popular for a reason: they prey on our feelings, our feelings of wanting to be "in the know", our alarm at "what else are they hiding from us?", our rebellion "against a nanny state" and our "concern for our loved ones" ("if not for you, do it for your children!)
    They also heavily rely on spreading.

    So thanks for bringing this to the foray.

  58. Anon #3,

    thanks for taking the time to read and for your vote of confidence on the rest of my site.

    I think you're confusing other more sinister things with the ingredients in perfumes which account for an extremely minimal absorption from the skin. GMOs and heliotropine are two completely different things, one is way out of league in comparison to the other, so it is only further confusing to suggest they should be conflated.

    When an article in the press uses bad science to prove a point (that might hold value in a different set of context, under different set of concerns) I consider it my job to use good (well, good as a term is redundant) science to disprove it.

    BTW, the world "chemical" in your comment, similar as in lots of other articles online, seems to have lost its original meaning. Most of us who do not indulge in online lynching (like the article I disprove does) use it to mean "chemical substance" or "chemical compound". That can be nature derived, it's not only man-made, you know.
    Please read the Anonymous comment 2 comments above your own for clarification on that.

  59. Anonymous22:29

    This quite an interesting read. Thanks! I know I am chiming in late to this post, but I wanted someone's educated opinion on something regarding Methyl Eugenol. I'm interested in Nahema extrait (yes, I know, discontinued!!! but older bottles can still be found here and there). Interestingly, Guerlain in-house perfumer Thierry Wasser referred to it as a "weapon-of-mass-destruction" because it contains so much rose oil, hence methyl eugenol. You can read more here:
    I guess the IFRA got what they wanted after all. Anyway, seriously, does this mean it is a BAD idea to use Nahema in extrait form? How risky is it? I actually find myself really wanting and being terrified of using it at the same time! I was wondering how diluted it would be. Anybody have an educated opinion about this?
    Again, great article!

    1. Thanks!

      Since you're reading her and over at persolaise you should have known that Wasser was talking tongue-in-cheek and that no one died of methyl eugenol. It is not really riskier than eating a chilli pepper in your food. That should do it.

  60. Anonymous15:01

    I have been working my way through various older articles and have enjoyed them enormously.
    This one is both fascinating in its own right on the subject of perfume but - as of late 2017 - it is also terrifying prescient about techniques that now seem to be used to misinform and mislead virtually everyone about everything. We live in a world in which disinformation and fake news are massive and horrifying problems and the US has a president backed up by a base who are proud of their ignorance and whose views are shaped by the lies they are willingly fed. This may seem to involve drawing massive comparisons but this is just what I found myself thinking as I read this….
    On a more factual note, there is no mention here of research showing that increasing problems caused by allergies may actually be linked to excessive cleanliness and to reduced exposure, as children, to the world and all its 'chemicals.' It is no longer usual to make mud-pies for example and children do not play outside as much. Even 20 years ago when picking up my son from school when he was just doing a half day and I was reluctant to drag him away I caused a sensation by making daisy chains, it turned out that in a class of 20 plus no other child had ever seen, or made, a daisy chain.


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