Strawberries in the Desert

Story telling from Australia

The Case Against Fragrance

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.


Kate Grenville, photographed by Darren James – – for ANU/Canberra Times

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.





17 comments on “The Case Against Fragrance

  1. Eliza Waters
    February 10, 2017

    It is getting more press over here as well. With 85,000 chemicals in use today, we are reaching toxicity earlier in life, our tolerance exhausted. My brother-in-law had to make the unpleasant decision to ask his two sisters-in-law not to wear perfume, which sadly they still do and he no longer comes to family events. It can be a wedge for families. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • debhuntwasinbrokenhill
      February 10, 2017

      You get it Eliza, I remember reading your own post about chemicals. How sad that your sisters-in-law aren’t more understanding, I’m very fortunate to have such compassionate friends and family.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eliza Waters
        February 11, 2017

        You are indeed. I think many people don’t believe it, it’s an idea that they have never heard of before, so they reject it. “It’s all in your head.” They don’t seem to understand that it is REAL. sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Maggie Wilson
    February 10, 2017

    It’s a curiosity, isn’t it… If you had a peanut allergy, I would imagine friends and family would cooperate more readily. There’s something about fragrance that makes it more personal.

    Liked by 2 people

    • debhuntwasinbrokenhill
      February 10, 2017

      Some people feel they’re not ‘dressed’ without perfume. Personally I’d prefer to see them naked. I’d be willing to join them if it meant no more perfume!!

      Liked by 2 people

      • larryzb
        February 10, 2017

        Ha-ha. 😉


      • Jack Burke
        February 10, 2017

        Hi Deb. Yes I wouldn’t think of going without deodorant but of course this upsets peopled such as yourself. I hope you know me well enough to tell me if anything I wear effects you.


      • Carricklass
        February 10, 2017

        Well now Deborah – some people naked might hit other senses just as unpleasantly.

        Your friends are understanding about your reaction to perfume because you are worth it….. sorry a cheeky reference. Seriously, you are worth it and you certainly aren’t the only one to have reactions. I think the rest of us do in lesser degrees. My overwhelming hate is those things that puff out ‘fragrance air’ every so many minutes. Remember June Thomas – she had one which really made me gag. I thought it was just me.

        Keep on educating us and so glad you are blogging again, they brighten up my day.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. debhuntwasinbrokenhill
    February 10, 2017

    Of course I would Jack, and I would never ask anyone to go without deodorant, including me! I’ve sourced a special brand that doesn’t contain artificial fragrance 🙂


  4. debhuntwasinbrokenhill
    February 10, 2017

    Ha, love that cheeky reference Mary, good to hear from you, how’s the quilting? How’s your studying? Hope your powering ahead with it all, and enjoying it too. Yes, the thought of some people naked might be too distressing for words, although I’d pay money to see He Who Shall Not Be Named without his pants 🙂


  5. rthepotter
    February 12, 2017

    Not as badly affected as you, but some heavy perfumes are at least as offensive to me as someone smoking.


    • debhuntwasinbrokenhill
      February 14, 2017

      There must be a particular ingredient in some perfumes because although I react to all of them I react like a scalded cat to some of them. Claws drawn if the wearer comes anywhere near me!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. bkpyett
    February 14, 2017

    I agree, Deb! Am thrilled to use a natural crystal deodorant with no perfume. The only flowers I can’t abide inside are lilies. The look magnificent, but I either throw them out or give them away! When we visited Flinders Island, Tasmania, we went in a car with a hanging smelly thing, it was overwhelming! I couldn’t believe how anyone could choose such a dreadful adornment!!


  7. debhuntwasinbrokenhill
    February 14, 2017

    Ah yes, cars. Hire cars are always cleaned between hires – which makes sense – but that generally means a liberal spray of something toxic as well. I call in advance and ask them not to. I usually have to clean the seatbelt too, because someone before me will have worn perfume or aftershave. A first world problem I know. And my excuse for hardly ever cleaning my car!


  8. candidkay
    February 15, 2017

    This makes sense to me. My children’s doc said my youngest is a “super taster” and asked me if I can taste the nuances in things. I absolutely can–to the point where I can taste the chemical a fast-food joint puts in a burger to simulate a grilled flavor. I guess you are a super-sniffer:).


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This entry was posted on February 9, 2017 by and tagged , , , , .

I'm a writer based in Australia with a passion for gardening, remote places and people with a story to tell.

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