Story telling from Australia
Australian novelist Kate Grenville, best known for her outstanding book The Secret River, has just published The Case Against Fragrance.
At last, proof has arrived that I’m not completely bonkers, or if I am so are Kate Grenville and thousands of other people. None of us can tolerate synthetic fragrance.
It started for me more than ten years ago when a French lodger came to stay – only for a week – and every time she entered the house I wanted to gag. It was her perfume.
I used to love fragrance. I wore it exuberantly. I even worked for a PR company that promoted Paco Rabanne and Carolina Herrera, but over the years I’d worn it less and less. Living alone made it relatively easy to avoid. The arrival of the French girl marked a turning point.
She left but my reaction remained, and it quickly got worse. A squirt of perfume or a splash of aftershave could make my eyes water, my lips tingle, my nose run and my heart race. More worryingly, the smell of any product that contained artificial fragrance made me uneasy and agitated, in a way that was difficult to define.
I now realise it’s because I don’t ‘smell’ fragrance the way other people do; I experience it, and it’s a deeply unsettling experience. Perfumed soap, shampoo, washing-up liquid, fabric softener, air freshener – you name it – if it carries a smidge of artificial fragrance I experience an immediate sense of threatening toxicity. What other people find pleasant I find abhorrent.
Artificial fragrance is in so many things, from tissues, toilet paper and loo cleaner to make-up, sunscreen and hairspray. Try finding a hairspray in Australia without fragrance.
On bad days the reaction can be so intense that I ‘smell’ someone before I see them, like the night I volunteered to work behind the bar at a community theatre in Sydney. Standing in the foyer, ten metres away from the closed front door, I got a sudden whiff of what I thought was probably hair spray. I was alone in the theatre. Seconds later a fellow volunteer walked through the door, his hair gelled into multiple spikes. The whiff became a deluge and I could practically taste the gel as he crossed the foyer. After twenty minutes of agony I made an excuse and went home.
It’s fair to say I don’t go out as much as I used to.
I generally sit outside and upwind on Sydney harbour ferries; I often change seats on the bus; I wrap a scarf around my face in the cinema and I carry masks on long-haul flights. And yes, I’ve done this too:
‘…in cabs I sat in the back, asked the driver to remove the fragrance diffuser, opened the window and stuck my head into the slipstream like a dog, arriving bedraggled and windblown.’ Kate Grenville, The Case against Fragrance
Cab drivers don’t like it when you refuse to get in their cab because of a small green tree dangling from the dashboard. Even if they remove it people like me are still affected by the traces that remain.
For a long time I was too embarrassed to admit I had a problem. I said nothing, suffered deeply unpleasant evenings and always left early. When I finally plucked up the courage to admit what was happening I would always apologise for being so weird.
You know who your close friends are when they stop using fragrance, not because they want to but because they know how difficult it is for you. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.
I don’t make excuses any more but I still apologise because people find it odd when you suddenly move seats on the bus, stand back when talking to them or in the evening avoid hugging someone who might have put on a dab of perfume that morning. One quick peck on the cheek is enough to send me to a bathroom, frantically splashing water (not soap) to try and remove the smell.
When we go on holiday I call ahead to check the hotel doesn’t use plug-in air fresheners. I ask them not to use cleaning products and I take my own soap, shampoo, washing powder and pillowcase. If I forget the latter I stretch a clean t-shirt over the pillow, which is why some of my t-shirts don’t fit that well any more.
I can tell when next door’s washing machine is on the fabric softener cycle, I know if a delivery man is at the door before he rings the bell and the prospect of a workman turning up is enough to throw me into a lather. Workmen often wear aftershave because all that physical labour makes them sweat and they naturally want to cover the smell.
I could go on but you get the idea.
It’s not all doom and gloom by any means. Flowers are fine, I can sniff them to my heart’s huge content; likewise essential oils. By shopping carefully and reading all the small print on a label, I can still enjoy the scents of the natural world.
So thank you Kate Grenville, for bringing this issue to light, thank you Heath for sending me a copy of her book, and thank you to all my friends and family who no longer wear perfume or aftershave.