If you are sensitive to food chemicals you have probably noticed that you react to some smells as well as to food. If perfumes bother you, whether they are good quality, or the ones you try to avoid in the cleaning aisle in the supermarket, there is a useful book that will add greatly to your understanding. Or if you are sensitive to the many chemicals in your environment you will also be very interested in the detail about the chemicals she investigates. The book is “The case against fragrance”, by Kate Grenville, hot off the press this year.
Kate tells her own story. She is a good writer, giving us a great picture of how sensitivity to perfumes really affected her life. After a virus her reactivity increased, just as sensitivity to foods can. If you are very sensitive you can relate to her need to remove clothes that smell, to recover after exposure to too much of the wrong perfume. She tells her journey gaining more knowledge of others with similar problems, and then she tells us about her investigation of all the often-secret ingredients in fragrances.
She tells of people who were able to request attention to perfumes in the work place. She shows that an overview of problems with perfumes in the population is lacking, as different people don’t get the same symptoms, so she provides this overview. While reactions to perfumes may be distressing they are not seen as a particular medical problem. When she discusses migraine she does mention that red wine, chocolate and oranges, and paint and petrol, may also be triggers, and when she discussed asthma she mentions house dust mites, infection and stress, hinting at my concept of the ‘Total Body Load’ but in this book she gives us the detail on perfumes. The overlap with allergy is also mentioned when she reminds us that people can have skin dermatitis where perfume comes in contact with the skin.
She delves into the chemistry of what is in perfumes, and you will be interested to hear just how much of it is not naturally derived, and just how much we are in contact with in our modern lifestyle. Her investigation provides many interesting facts such as learning that some fragrance chemicals change to become more rancid in air or light, so have an antioxidant added. It is interesting to wonder if the chemical changes when foods begin to smell rancid, are due to similar chemical changes.
Kate explains the miracle of how our noses know smells, and how much may be subliminal. She talks of babies who were experiencing pain, who had less distress when exposed to the odours of their mother’s milk, that to the smell of another woman breast milk. This makes sense to food sensitive people as we know that flavours from the mother’s diet do arrive in her milk, so it is different to the milk from others.
In looking at the ‘sick building syndrome’ she discusses the compounds in building materials, and in some fragrances. She takes the reader through the governmental bodies that look after the safety of compounds in our environment. Thousands of compounds can be included without being tested for safety, except where they are dealing with the workers dealing with large amounts. You can read the story of an artificial musk compound found to cause degeneration of the myelin sheath around neurons in the mouse, so it was banned.
You can read more about how the international Fragrance Association is its own regulator. They use the Quantitative Risk assessment, which sets out to find the quantity of a substance that puts you at risk. It considers the amount the consumer is exposed to and how much that compound affects health. It was interesting to learn that the IFRA prohibits the use of fragrances in toys or other children’s products where there is a likelihood of mouth contact. Kate discusses the need to consider that a baby’s skin can absorb around three times more than an adult’s and the implication of this with all the perfumed products often used.
Kate goes on to discuss concerns that some fragrance compounds may be toxic, carcinogenic even hormone disrupters. The second half of the book considers this other aspect of perfumes which can be said to be the “public health” problem. That perfumes may cause headaches and other symptoms in a number of the population is of concern to a sensitive individual, but when the effect may be a problem to the whole population it becomes a public health problem. [We see this separation where food additives are concerned. An additive can be used unless it is shown to be carcinogenic.] She points out that those who get symptoms straight away from perfumes are the lucky ones in this respect. Those who are exposed to large amounts over years might not be as lucky.
Kate has collected a wide variety of information adding up to very interesting reading. It is a comfort to those who have some reaction to perfumes to know they are among many, and her investigation is an awareness raiser about the unintentional experiment that is happening with the wide use of perfumes in so many products, over the last 50 years.
Those of us who are food sensitive are usually aware of smells. This book is a very useful addition to our understanding of everything to do with fragrances. As a dietitian specialising in food chemical sensitivity I found it fascinating and recommend it to you.