‘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.

7 responses to “‘The Case Against Fragrance’ by Kate Grenville

  1. *Snap!* “I am not a scientist, and neither is she”. Exactly. I am always wary of amateurs who ‘research’ their ‘issue’ and then produce a pseudo-science book about it. I’m even more wary when a celebrity does it, even when it’s an author whose fiction I have admired.
    And you can see from the comments at The Conversation that people have no idea about the difference between intolerance and an allergy. No one who had a genuine allergy to anything would sit next to it, if they thought it could provoke an anaphylactic reaction requiring an urgent dose of adrenalin to avert death.
    Sometimes (according to *my* amateur research, which has no more value than hers does) that intolerance is more about disliking something than a physiological reaction to it, feeling tense about disliking it, and getting a headache from their own feelings than the product. See:
    “Much of North American research into scent sensitivities comes from the
    Monell Chemical Senses Center, an independent, nonprofit scientific institute
    in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where researchers study taste and smell.
    Pamela Dalton, a psychologist at the center, says that simply telling people
    that an odourous material is going to cause an adverse reaction is enough to
    make the test subjects feel poorly, even if the odour is entirely innocuous. People who have one adverse reaction to a scent, or who associate a scent
    with adverse reactions, can develop anxiety about being exposed to fragrances in future instances, she says. “When it comes to scents that are
    used in air fresheners, or someone else’s perfume or carpet freshener or
    that sort of thing, there is an element of loss of control that I think plays in the
    sense of personal space and that their lungs are being invaded,” Dalton adds. “I think that heightens the anxiety about the exposure.” This anxiety can cause real physical symptoms, including elevated heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, increased stress hormones and hyperventilation. It can also cause people to isolate themselves for fear of coming into contact with a trigger scent. ” http://www.cmaj.ca/content/183/6/E315.full.pdf

  2. On the surface this topic may be dismissed as a First World Problem, and maybe even after deeper consideration it really is. Don’t know, don’t care because life is relative and, relative to me, this is a relevant topic. 🙂 I have always had a mild (psycological?) aversion to fragrances that became quite a physical problem for me while juiced up on chemo when I was being treated for leukemia. Many hospital techs and food service assistants doused themselves so heavily in perfumes that would linger in smell and in effect, meaning my painfully nauseous reaction to it, long after they, these human fragrance bombs, had left my room. Signs on the door stating no perfume wearers were to enter didn’t help. Nor did the hospitals stated policy against the wearing of strong fragrances by its employees. If anyone must wear perfumes/colognes its effect should not be smelt/felt outside the wearer’s intimate zone; otherwise, it potentially becomes an annoyance to many and an actual hazard to some. Great post. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Thank you for commenting. It’s interesting that you make the connection between your chemo – a time when your whole body would have been under assault and the smell of the perfume worn by tech and service assistants. Not that it’s anything like the same situation, but I remember when I was pregnant I was hyper-sensitive to the smell of garlic on people, and to the smell of cold in refrigerators. I strongly oppose the way they used to offer perfume squirts when you were going through the interminable shops to get to the departure lounge at an airport. Everyone heading through was just about to sit in an enclosed space drenched in a perfume they didn’t normally wear. (I don’t think they do this any more??)

  3. Not having read Grenfell’s book, I don’t know if she talks about ‘fragrance’ in soaps, suncreams, cosmetics, etc as a chemical which can cause skin allergies, but it is an aspect not mentioned in this discussion. A friend (who had far more severe reactions than me) eventually found a skin specialist (scientist) who did the usual allergy test by putting a grid on her back and scraping her back with various chemical components of soaps, detergents, etc, including preservatives and fragrance. The square with the fragrance scrape showed a very severe reaction, as did the squares with certain preservatives – the ones with the very long scientific names. It was only after eliminating these chemicals (and fragrance) from her household cleaning, washing and cosmetic products that the really debilitating skin allergies she had cleared up. The specialists I attended never worked it out, and I never got anywhere with my skin problems, so I followed the advice my friend was given. My blurry and itchy eyes cleared up a lot, and the recurring fiery red lumps and bumps on my face have largely gone. Both of us had the experience of having sun cream with preservatives and fragrance react with our steel glasses, leaving a perfect outline of the glasses on our face in raised welts around our eyes. We wear plastic framed glasses now, and use suncream without the preservatives and fragrance that cause problems. Soapless and perfumeless shampoo has helped me a lot. Some perfumes will set me off sneezing, but I dare not get perfumed soap on my hands or I will sneeze for the rest of the day, and inevitably rub my eyes and make my eyes inflamed and itchy. My friend and I have had to learn the long chemical names of preservatives in order to identify them on product labels. A shorter name would help us a lot. Suggesting that allergies are psychological is blaming the victim.

    • That’s one of the things that troubled me about her analysis- that she seemed particularly hung up on substances that provided perfume as an additional element, but not necessarily with the chemicals that were used in the base product. Although- and she’s right- products are required to list all the ingredients, but ‘fragrance’ is used as a vague and opaque term that gives no details at all.

  4. ‘Fragrance’ has the virtue of being easy to spot in a list of chemicals in the ingredients. According to one website I looked at ‘fragrance’ may refer to any of about 5,000 chemical compounds designed to provide a pleasant smell, but is vague and opaque because they are a trade secret. The site provided a link to this document: https://www.aad.org/forms/policies/uploads/ps/ps-chemical%20identity%20of%20fragrances.pdf So it is not Grenfell being vague and opaque, it is the industry – but at least they are forced to put ‘fragrance’ in the list of ingredients, and it is enough to give a warning. And it is not widely known – two skin specialist weren’t able to figure out what was causing the line of itchy red lumps across my forehead, it was my non-scientific friend. My friend went to multiple skin specialists until she found one who tested for chemical allergies. Grenfell is doing Australians a huge favour bringing attention the problems caused by preservatives and fragrance. More credit to her if she is not a scientist.

    • Sorry- I may have misrepresented her. That’s exactly her point- that companies are able to get away with stating ‘fragrance’ without actually specifying the chemicals used because they are, as you say, a trade secret.

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