The Case Against Fragrance (2017)

The Case Against Fragrance (published February 2017) is a departure for me and probably a surprise for readers of my other books. Why would a novelist turn her hand to a non-fiction book on the subject of fragrance? The answer is that my life is being increasingly blighted by the scents that are all around us these days. They're in perfumes and colognes, they're in shampoos and cleaning products and they're in air fresheners and room fragrances. All those things give me headaches that can make ordinary pleasures like going shopping, sitting in a cafe or seeing a movie no fun at all. I wanted to find out why. 

When I started researching, I'd never heard of anyone else who had an issue with fragrance. I thought I must be an unlucky one-off. It didn't take much research to find out I was wrong. In fact, studies (from the University of Melbourne, among other places) show that one person in three gets some kind of health problem from fragrance. Some people get headaches, as I do, but others get respiratory problems or nausea. Some get skin allergies. Some suffer asthma attacks. Once I started telling people what I was working on, they'd tell me their fragrance stories, and I realised there are a lot of us out there – it's just that we don't usually talk about it. 

But how can people get sick from fragrance? Aren't all those perfumes, scented personal products and air fresheners made from flowers? Once upon a time they were, yes. Not any more. These days, virtually all fragrances (apart from pure essential oils) are made from synthetic chemicals. Some of those chemicals are the same as naturally-occurring ones, but they're used in very un-natural concentrations. Others are modern inventions – molecules that chemists have devised and patented, producing substances that humans have never been exposed to before. Some of them can be linked not just to headaches, asthma and allergies, but to cancer and hormone disruption. Even the fragrance manufacturers acknowledge that some of their ingredients can cause health problems.

But surely we're protected by government testing and regulation? Unfortunately, it turns out that we aren't. There are no laws that make it compulsory to test fragrance ingredients for safety, so many of them are released onto the market without anyone knowing how they might affect us. The ingredients of a fragrance don't have to be fully declared on the label – they're exempt from truth-in-labelling laws because they're considered "trade secrets". And amazingly, the only regulator of the fragrance industry is the fragrance industry itself.

When I started investigating my headaches I had no idea about any of this, but once I'd learned some of the facts about fragrance I felt this information was something other people might find useful too. In writing the book I set out to gather together what's known about fragrance, and to present it in a user-friendly way. The research I did drew on the huge body of scientific research about fragrance that's been published in scholarly journals and other authoritative sources. I've included references, so readers can check the information for themselves.

Fragrance has plenty of powerful friends. The case for it is made every day. I've written this book to even things up a bit. I'm not out to persuade, just to inform. Using fragrance is a choice – civilized life is perfectly possible without it. But people need information before they can make that choice an informed one. One book isn't going to change the world, but I'm hoping it might do something to start the conversation.

You'll find more information about The Case Against Fragrance, and the events I'll be doing for it, on this site.

(Dr Carole Hungerford set me on the path towards this book, both in her conversations with me over many years about health-related matters, and in her books, Good Health in the Twentieth Century and Headache. I'd like to thank her and acknowledge her learning and experience, and her generosity in sharing what she knows.)

The Case Against Fragrance is published in Australia by Text Publishing.