Daily Archives: April 9, 2017

‘The Case Against Fragrance’ by Kate Grenville


2017, 173 p & notes.

The genesis for this book was Kate Grenville’s own increasing sensitivity to the fragrances of perfumes, room fresheners, cleaning products and cosmetics.  She found herself overwhelmed by the perfume of a fellow audience-member at the opera; she reeled back from women’s scent at book signings and book festivals, and covered her face with her scarf as she sprinted through scented hotel lobbies.  (I must confess that part of me whispered “first world problem” at this stage.)

It was when she went looking for an accessible, user-friendly book about fragrance that she found there was none. This, then, is the book she wanted for herself: “straight-up, reliable information- a book for the general reader that gathered together what people knew about fragrance” (p. 13). She turned to published studies in scholarly journals where she could, and used science reviews funded in the interest of public health by the United States, EU and other governments.

This book aims to balance things out, not by trying to persuade, but by presenting some of what’s known about fragrance.  Armed with a bit of information, readers can make up their own minds.  Using fragrance is a choice, and my hope is that this book might give people the chance to make that choice an informed one. (p. 15)

Yes- but there is a tone of the wagging figure that pervades this book.  Her studies- and they are exhaustive in this footnoted but confidently and engagingly written book – make much of the chemical complexity of the products she is examining with the full, multi-syllabic names written out in full, as if to emphasize their foreignness. I found myself reflecting, though, that the whole world examined at molecular level like this is a convoluted jumble of unpronounceable and convoluted terms.  I turned to my fragrance-free moisturizer and its tongue-twisting list of ingredients, and it sounds just as chemically-daunting as the fragranced cosmetics and perfumes she describes.

I am not a scientist, and neither is she. I don’t know how to talk back to her description of these studies and the conclusions she takes away from them.  For that reason, I was interested in Ian Musgrave’s (Senior Lecturer in Pharmacology at University of Adelaide) commentary on the book in the Conversation. While generally positive about the book and especially its accessibility, he provided qualifications about some of the claims in the book, especially in relation to hormone disruption.

Yes, it is true that fragrance is produced and pushed by industry, and supported by its own lobbyists and funded research bodies. It is true that we layer one fragranced product over another, probably skewing any tests of side-effects conducted on a single product alone by compounding it with countless other similarly-fragranced products.  Yes, I agree that, just as we look back in bewilderment at how meekly we accepted having cigarette smoke blown all over us, one day wearing a strong perfume will be seen as similarly inconsiderate.


I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge website.