Thanks for Not Wearing Fragrance


When I was little, my mother had a tiny, precious bottle of her favourite perfume on her dressing-table and for special occasions  she’d put a dab behind her ears.  That smell was associated for me with excitement and pleasure – Mum with her hair “done”, wearing her best dress and her pearls, coming in to kiss me goodnight.  

When I got old enough to have my own special occasions I also had my favourite perfume. I’d leave the house in a cloud of fragrance, feeling sumptuous and sexy. 

It took me quite a few years to put two and two together about what happened next. I’d feel sumptuous and sexy for half an hour, and then I’d get a headache. My eyes would get dry and sore. I’d get congested in the nose. Was it the strain of being sumptuous and sexy? No, it was the perfume.

It was a wrench to part with my beautiful little bottles and the glamour they promised. But my fun times out were a lot more fun without a headache.

A few years ago the headaches started to come back, and once again it took me a long time to see the pattern. I’d be at the movies, or a concert, or a book reading, and I’d be aware that someone near me was wearing a lot of perfume. After a few minutes of sitting in the cloud of their sumptuousness and sexiness, I’d have a pounding headache and feel as if I couldn’t breathe.

As one does, I thought it was just me. Perfume is such an innocent thing – all flowers and freshness. Then, as one does, I googled information about fragrance. What I found is worth sharing.

First up, it turns out that many people get headaches (or asthma or skin rashes or other disorders) from fragrance. Research from the University of Melbourne shows the numbers are significant – about one person in three. Even the fragrance industry itself is prepared to admit that many people can get sick from fragrance. 

Why would fragrance have such widespread bad health effects? It’s because fragrance isn’t made from rose petals any more. These days, unless it’s a pure essential oil, fragrance of every kind is made from synthetic ingredients. A lot of these are known to cause health problems.

It gets worse. Those chemicals don’t just cause short-term headaches and asthma. Some of them are carcinogens, and scientific studies show associations with cancer. Others are hormone disrupters. They can mimic natural substances such as estrogen, and skew hormone balances, which can cause many long-term problems.

At the same time, fragrance is now everywhere. Shampoo, conditioner, soap, deodorant, sunblock – all fragranced. Detergent, cleaners, clothes washing power – all fragranced. Bin liners, air fresheners, air-conditioning systems, taxis, department stores, even people’s houses – all fragranced.

Some of those sources of fragrance are hard to avoid. But perfume itself – as in the elegant little bottle on the dressing-table – is optional. If you choose not to wear it, I’ll be one of the many people grateful to you. You might be doing yourself a favour, too.