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.
I am now 67 and have had a problem with fragrances for as long as I can remember since a child. My Mother’s perfume haunted me and I couldn’t face walking into pharmacies or big department stores where all the French perfume is displayed at the front. Then the craze of ‘essential oils’ was worse for me – and these ‘phenols’ burnt the mucosa around my lips and mouth. I had ‘burning mouth syndrome’ for years until I retired and now spend most of my time at home and can avoid shopping malls and have less social ocassions. Men’s aftershave is even worse!!! I would love to know if anyone else has the ‘burning mucosa’ and ‘burning mouth syndrome’ and what they have discovered helps to calm down this sensation. Sometimes I’ve even had to take Panadol for the pain – as the burning is so intense. Helen
Dear Helen, In forty years of seeing only food-sensitive patients your symptom is very rare. However having adverse reactions to perfumes does occur in most patients, and some are equally distressing. Those often reported include headaches, migraines, nausea, difficulty breathing, mood changes, settling to sleep, sleep, dreams, and all the other changes in the brain that are part of ADHD in children. These are like yours in that the perfume from the air is touching skin somewhere, particularly in the nose [with its direct contact with the brain]. For you they irritate your mouth mucosa causing the burning sensation. Mouth discomfort in some people can also relate to particular foods. Some patients tell me they can tell by how some food feels in their mouth whether they are likely to have a reaction [ particularly reflux] if they swallow it. One man was clear about feeling tingling and realized that meant to stop that food. I am sure you wish that was your reaction to perfume!! I presume you have followed up all medical options, and no particular medical problem has been found. If that is the case I have very good news for you.
The important idea to realize is that perfumes, and flavours in food, have much in common. And the even more important idea, is that if you reduce the amount flavours in your food, your tolerance of inhaled perfumes improves greatly. Many food sensitive people report that once on the low chemical diet they manage a variety of perfumes, and other smells, much better. This information can change your life! You will enjoy reading the Articles on the site, particularly “What’s smell go to do with it? https://foodintolerancepro.com/category/food-intolerance/whats-smell-got-to-do-with-it/
Also read supersensitivity in food sensitive people https://foodintolerancepro.com/category/irritable-bowel-syndrome/supersensitivity-in-food-sensitive-people/
You can investigate your diet using my book Are You Food Sensitive? which describes the whole process in detail, and includes an awareness of the role of flavour and smell. If you can find a local accredited practicing dietitian to help that would add to what you find out from your own Family Sensitivity History, added to all the information in the book. I would really love to hear from you after you investigate your diet. Having a strong reaction to perfumes is a good indicator that the low chemical diet will have a positive effect, so I would be consider starting without delay, if I was you.
D'anah Wallace says
Sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing it.