When Women Don’t Relinquish Fragrance

Guest post by By Heidi Utz

Several years ago, I posed to my women’s group a simple question: Can we ask members not to wear fragrances here? A hush fell over the room, then a silence so vast you could have heard a vial of Obsession drop. The same sweet women I’d grown to respect morphed into a pack of rabid wolves. No perfume?! It was as if I’d proposed giving up coffee, sugar, and styling gel in one fell swoop.

Since then, I have spent much time puzzling over their response. Are we so addicted to our scented products that the very notion of relinquishing them strikes terror in our hearts? Or is it more that the perfume industry has done such a stellar job in marketing its wares? Even in Santa Fe, where a comparatively high level of health-consciousness exists, we’re still susceptible to those redolent magazine ads, featuring the young and glossily naked in their evidently perfume-induced attractiveness.

But what if perfumiers, like chemical producers, were forced to include in their ads the manufacturer’s safety data sheets (i.e., the very interesting ways each spritz affects your liver)? Sound far-fetched?

Once hard-liquor ads were TV staples, and the Marlboro man strode freely around the range without that nasty Surgeon General’s warning pasted to his Wranglers. As with smoking and drinking, this, too, is an issue with major health implications. It has gained so little exposure only because the chemical industry maintains such a powerful arsenal of lobbyists, faux medical evidence, and hypervigilant fact-suppressors that even physicians cannot become properly educated on the topic.

Most major pesticides are, believe it or not, sold by pharmaceutical giants. Now, there’s a form of ambulance-chasing I’d never even considered. Thus, each year, their lobbyists routinely present in state legislatures forged “medical proof” that people cannot be chemically sensitive.

The top 20 chemicals used in most commercial colognes include acetone and ethanol (central nervous system depressants on EPA and other hazardous waste lists), methylene chloride (banned by the FDA years ago in paint and varnish remover), and ethyl acetate (a narcotic and respiratory tract irritant that induces anemia, stupor, and even liver and kidney damage).

Most of these agents have been proven to cause central nervous system disorders like Alzheimer’s, ADD, dementia, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Of course the $20 billion perfume industry doesn’t advertise these facts. They’d like us to believe that the symptoms we feel in direct reaction to their products are merely “female hysteria,” a psychological malady. After all, how could a vat of toxic chemicals it took years to coax into smelling remotely like a flower be bad for anyone? The fact that people react to scents with respiratory difficulties, body pain, heart irregularities, headaches, inability to concentrate, fatigue, rashes, poor coordination, and even seizures is just a silly urban legend, like the albino alligators in the sewers.

I was not always a perfume nazi. Back in the 1990s, I was living a relatively healthy life and often slathered on a bit of the smelly stuff. Like others in my demographic, I’d been a bit taken in by the marketing tactics claiming that my desirability, sexual viability, and even femininity lie in my smelling “pretty.” However, in my late 30s, I suddenly began to experience symptoms ranging from severe dizziness to constant congestion to violent nausea to a depression so great I pondered suicide daily. Because I could barely get from the beginning to the end of a sentence, work became nearly impossible.

With the aid of several environmental physicians, I finally realized that I had been living in a house filled with mold. My entire immune system collapsed, and I became sensitized to chemicals, foods, metals, pollens, and just about everything else on the planet. In one month I dropped 25 pounds because I could tolerate only a few foods. I became able to smell fragrances from across a yard—and they made me dramatically ill. It has taken me 3 years to partially recover, yet my heart still races when I sit next to someone wearing more than a drop of cologne.

Unfortunately, I am not alone. A 1997 New Mexico Department of Health survey found that 16% of respondents reported chemical sensitivities. Perfume affects not only MCS sufferers, but also those with asthma, migraines, allergies, and other afflictions.

Considering that the number of chemicals we carry in our bodies constantly increases as new products are developing all the time, it’s a problem that’s only going to get worse. And given that our current administration wants to toss even more breaks to chemical manufacturers—while shredding environmental regulations—we’re going down fast.

Even in places known for their healthier lifestyles, such as Santa Fe, scents are still ubiquitous. I have begged the manager of my health spa to post a simple sign requesting that women refrain from using hairspray or spraying cologne, only to get glared at as if I were asking him to ban sit-ups.

women and fragrance 1

Restaurants seem not to notice that it’s hard to eat when we’re choking on the $4.99 Pepe le Pew special their server’s wearing. Almost every pharmacy in town sells perfume. (I guess they just can’t make enough profit selling alcohol and drugs.) And people think nothing of showing up reeking when going to a movie theater, concert, class or other tight space.


Yet, thankfully, awareness does seem to be growing. Several local doctor’s offices have clearly posted signs asking patients to avoid wearing scents. Other healthcare providers offer educational pamphlets about the dangers of perfume. One fitness center boasts fragrance-free workout areas. And a few churches request that congregants refrain from wearing scents.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the day that swoon-worthy perfumes are as frowned upon in public places as cigarette smoke.

About Heidi:

I’ve been a professional writer and editor for the past 32 years. I have served as an editor for Outside Magazine, National Geographic Books, Mothering Magazine, Trend Magazine, and John Muir Publications, and have published hundreds of features in publications including Outside, Mothering, Trend, and E: The Environmental Magazine; and online at NPR.org and BuddhistGeeks.com. I am co-author of the book Montezuma: The Castle in the West (UNM Press, 2002) and have completed four children’s books.

fragrance free group 1

This article originally appeared in Crosswinds, a weekly newspaper in Santa Fe, NM.

14 responses to “When Women Don’t Relinquish Fragrance

  1. thank you for posting this Linda. everything you do is great. What a wonderfully clear exposition this is.

  2. Landon Creasy

    Great thoughts here. Heidi’s plight matches that of my wife. A few additional points here:
    -laundry products are a huge contributor to the chemical environment; Gain is the product of the Devil.
    -scent-free policies are a great step but until they are actually enforced they don’t really amount to much.
    -companies that produce fragrances are permitted to hide their ingredients as trade secrets as “parfum” or “fragrance”. Axe, for example, reportedly has over 150 chemicals in it.

    Great work happens on this blog! Keep ’em coming!

    Landon Creasy

    • Thanks Landon.

      I agree about the laundry products, and they are one of the biggest causes of my disability. (yes, ordinary supermarket laundry products keep me housebound and barely functional, unable to work or shop or go out or do anything outside my home, and often inside too when the winds blow the neighbours laundry exhaust fumes this way)

      IFRA (the fragrance industry trade group) has been working hard to oppose any regulation of any of their products. Most of their fragrances are developed as and qualify as drugs, but I don’t know how to get the FDA to regulate them when IFRA spends billions lobbying against it.

      The EPA has been developing a new safer products certification, and one of the branches is a fragrance free certification, so that all products that receive this, must be free of ALL fragrance chemicals.

      IFRA opposes even this small move too… as if they haven’t already contaminated everything that exists here in North America (I don’t know how bad it is elsewhere, but I hear stories of people not being able to find things as simple as fragrance chemical free toilet paper even in Australia) 1st, 2nd, or 3rd hand fragrance chemicals are everywhere now.

      What are all these fragrance chemicals hiding???

      And why are teenage boys being sold inhalant products (like AXE or LYNX) that can affect their brains and reproductive futures?

  3. I swear I have had exact same thoughts of 99% of this post. Thank you for writing this.

  4. Excellent article. It seems like such a long time since laws have been passed to protect the individual. It is bizarre that legally you’re not supposed discriminate against someone with MCS but there are no laws preventing the cause of MCS.

    • What’s worse, most of the laws actually protect those who cause MCS/ES 99% more than they protect people who are disabled by MCS, or pregnant mothers and unborn children.

      Pediatricians are now, finally, advising women of childbearing age, especially those who are pregnant, and those with young children, to avoid fragranced products… It has come to light (again) that some common fragrance chemicals are causing male reproductive deformities, lowered IQ, among other things…

      So, whose writing these laws anyway?
      And why are they protecting short term toxic profits over human and environmental health?
      Isn’t it time to change that?

      • I just read that it took 60 years — that’s longer than I’ve been on the planet — from the time a doctor showed proof that transfats are killers until the FDA decided to institute a ban — well kind of — you can still petition them to keep using them. We are supposed to be the “smartest” species — find me another species that takes 60 years to decide to stop trying to make themselves go extinct.

        • Add asbestos, smoking, lead, mercury, benzene (which is in some fragrances and air “fresheners”), formaldehyde (which is also in fragrances and everyday products), and there are more…

          But the problem is probably more that humans are trusting, that we don’t want to believe anyone could allow products and materials so evil and harmful to be sold to us for profit while we have to pay for and suffer all the damages.

          Most humans are taught to fear those in power, and are afraid to stand up or speak out for what is right, and that what each one of us does, doesn’t matter in the bigger picture, so that is how the profiting polluters get to continue to get away with what they are doing.

          • So true. We need more people to believe that having fresh air can be done and is the normal way to live. We’ve only had all these synthetic toxic chemicals for a few hundred years or less. We’ve had a world that is relatively balanced environmentally for millions if not billions of years. People have stopped listening to their bodies and started listening to advertisements instead.

  5. I have been hiking in the mountains and passed a woman whose “fragrance” from shampoos/body lotion/cosmetics announced her presence before we saw her! I hope that people will begin demanding fragrance free products. And sadly, the time it takes to get some chemicals removed from products has not changed – one reason there is a call for revision of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act.

    • Fragrance and pesticide clouds often announce the presence of humans everywhere, even in nature! And the really shocking thing is that the fragrances used in pesticides are actually regulated by the EPA as having to be safe for use in pesticides, but the fragrances in products designed for human use are not regulated at all!

  6. Great story about your women’s group. Women love wearing their perfumes, and men love wearing their colognes. If only they knew the harm they were causing.

    I wrote a short essay (450 words) called “The Moral Argument Against Fragranced Products.” If you would like to read it, I am open to any feedback: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/fragranced-products/

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