May 31, 2010

Perfume and Sensitivities

I am concerned about recent negative news about perfume and the movement to ban its use. The question whether perfume is toxic or not, or if so, how toxic, keeps rearing its head.

A certain percentage of the population feels life would be better for them without perfume, and feels they have a legitimate request when they say they want perfume banned in the workplace, or in public spaces. I often feel they must be talking about a lot of the perfumes that are very commercial and made with materials that irritate even me.

Issues of quality do matter, in perfume especially, just as they do in every other material thing to do with the body. Just as there is junk food and wine and great food and wine, perfume has a similar range, and everything in between. Similar also in what it does for your body and mind, how much you will truly enjoy it and how you can develop a taste for the subtleties and quality. Mass market anything can be pretty tough on a delicate system, though obviously many derive great enjoyment from these products, since their market is indeed massive.

Obviously, certain hand-made all natural perfumes are completely non-toxic, such as Aftelier, Roxana Illuminated Perfumes. Other achingly beautiful perfumes that are made by the famously great French perfumers such as Ellena, Duchaufour and Ropion for L’Artisan and Frederic Malle and Hermes and others most certainly must contain chemicals that would not be approved of by those who want to live an all-organic lifestyle. However, as we know, there is a vast difference between these artist's perfumes and mass market ones. The mass market perfume is often made to appeal to the very young, and so made as inexpensively as possible, or for the promotion of celebrity figures. In celebrity perfumes I think the resources are sometimes devoted mostly to the celebrity and their promotion rather than the quality of the fragrance, and therefore could be very heavy on the cheapest and possibly irritating ingredients.

There is strong evidence that perfume chemicals are not actually allergens, but can act as physical irritants (along with many other things) to the respiratory system of sensitized individuals who have chronic conditions such as asthma and emphysema. Fragrances do not cause asthma or emphysema, but sometimes from the rhetoric of the anti-perfume lobby, you might think so. I am also beginning to think that as with noise, or heavy traffic, or unfamiliar sensations, certain individuals are more reactive to any sensory stimulus, especially if they get stressed or anxious and are in a state of heightened alert. It could be that chemicals in perfume are the least of their worries, as compared to car exhaust, oil spills, food additives, plastics, pesticides, and water pollution.

I personally would never want to cause anyone else distress through perfume. Obviously the whole purpose is then defeated. Fine perfume is very dear and precious because of the materials and artistry of the composition, and its purpose is to increase beauty, certainly not to increase stress.

I have family members who are sinusitis sufferers and asthmatic, so I am well aware of such sensitivities, and possibilities of desensitization from respiratory conditions. I myself find I can’t do more than a limited amount of trying different perfumes in the course of a few hours, or I will get a migraine and even lose my sense of smell temporarily.

I know that my smell sensitivity and discernment changes dramatically from day to day, though scent for me is always a powerful mood elevator. The sheer beauty and evocation of sense memory afforded by beautiful perfumes has proved to be the most seductive of its qualities for me. Too much of anything will bother your system, even if you're healthy, such as food or alcohol or driving too fast or staying up too late too often. Too much perfume around can be bothersome, but I feel it is enough to ask people to be reasonable and not to overdo.

I began my interest in perfume by reading Mandy Aftel’s Essence and Alchemy and through her info getting raw materials to try on my own, as based on the recommendations in the back of her book, from direct suppliers. Through the perfume blogs and Sniffapalooza and generous perfumistas (especially Chayaruchama, the patron saint of perfume generosity) over time, I was exposed to many of the greats of the vintage perfumes and the classic European perfume houses, and the refined artists of L’Artisan, Goutal and Guerlain and many, many others.

I was bowled over by their exquisite quality and evocative artistry, and thereby came to accept chemicals in fine fragrance as part of the process, and as necessary for the expanded palette and particular scent qualities they impart. I know as one who has done painting and printmaking and photography, that many mediums require the use of toxic chemicals that you would certainly not want to drink, but that you can indeed produce something utilizing certain chemical means that after stabilization and completion will not be harmful to the consumer.

At the same time, there is the good example of Christopher Brosius of CB I Hate Perfume. He has a deep knowledge of man-made musk molecules, and other chemical ingredients. He is making very modern and beautiful perfumes available at a relatively affordable price, partly because of the incorporation of such man-made scent molecules along with natural elements.

 If you know what you are doing, and care, you can make things that don't irritate people, even using such chemicals, to expand the range of effects available. The water carrier instead of alcohol gives it a gentler evaporation and a more wholesome immediate effect on initial application.

CB writes on his site how he has personally been very irritated by certain musk molecules, emanating from perfumed students in his yoga class, and so became very understanding of the problems people have with perfume when it is not made with care to address these kinds of issues. I also think that the agent of evaporation, such as the alcohol in perfume, or the liquid in diffusers, or the smoke of incense has an effect and can be irritating in themselves. Those types of perfumes can be better used at home or among friends who are not suffering from respiratory illness.

There are many ways that scent can be worn in public or at work without it registering excessively on others, unless they get closer than a foot or so away. In my experience, once the top most evaporative notes have burnt off, the mid and base notes hold much closer to the body, and there isn't a problem. To be on the safe side you can apply about an hour ahead of time.

The true naturals are very subtle and don’t throw far, and I know Mandy Aftel herself wears them on her face, because they are for her rather than anyone else, and because they are so expensive and subtle and fugitive. Perfumes that are not all naturals have different throw boundaries, which can be learned, and can be worn in smaller amounts, or applied an hour ahead to work past the top notes, or as perfumed soaps or lotions that cling to the skin very closely.

I find it alarming that through marketing and advertising, people are convinced that products that are very inexpensive such as BPAL or Body Shop are all naturals and therefore superior in some way to other perfumes. I would make a bet that there aren't any real naturals in BPAL at all, and if there are any in Body Shop they would be in an infinitesimally microscopic amount. If there were, they'd have to cost much much much more than they do. People also don't realize that in order for a product to be non-scented, a lot of chemicals have been added in order to block the scent of the ingredients, whatever they may be, good or bad, from your nose. Everything has a scent, even water. The sense of smell also alerts to danger, so it's not safe to try to live an anosmic life, either.

Essential oils can be nice, but these are single notes and not compositions or perfumes, and a very different thing, more in the line of aromatherapy, if you know what you are doing. I recall that Ropion used head space technology to get the dominant single note of the tuberose for Carnal Flower, but then tweaked it to take out the cloying aspect, and intensified other aspects to get more green freshness, which is the work of an artist with a feel for his materials and the result is beyond nature, new, subtle and of intoxicating beauty.

I think it is important to answer people's concerns about perfume, and work more consistently and harder to counter a lot of the misinformation and distortion, because most people don't have much experience with the different kinds of perfume being made today, and tend to believe what they read if it is cloaked in concerns for safety.

There's also been research to show that certain scents, such as vanilla, whether in natural or artificial form, cause a decrease of stress chemical levels in the body, and are soothing and mood elevating. I would expect the same could be said for many perfume elements, such as lavender, rose, jasmine, neroli, vetiver, labdanum, frankincense, and so many others. At this time, the lindens are on the verge of blooming and pouring out their fragrance into the Brooklyn streets, and it's one of the joys of life. I know it must bother some people, but I would not want to have trees cut down because they may cause allergies to flare.

Perfume is a very ancient art, and it would be a great loss to try to remove it from the modern world, especially now that it is turning into a true art form and a means of expression for so many talented individuals.

Peace sign above from freelayouticons.


Josephine said...

Provocative post. You're absolutely right - scent is all around us and the idea of eliminating perfume infringes on my right as a smelling human being. Perfume is indeed an art form and will endure as such. Thanks for sharing your views on this controversial topic.

Lucy said...

Hi Josephine,

Hopefully we can have a dialog with people and see if anything mutually agreeable can be worked out, at this point situation by situation. I can't imagine that this issue won't heat up even more over time, tho. Lawsuits with damages scare employers and I know that the CDC has banned all scented products of any kind in all its offices, which seems to give the pro-banners some weight.

ScentScelf said...

I think dialogue, and open practices with ingredients as well as what has truly been determined with reactions, are very important to this issue.

I have been trying to figure out how to respond to the extremists on either end..."I'll wear whatever I blame well want to" or "Don't even THINK of showering with a scented gel and then coming into our workplace"...because neither seems tenable, let alone reasonable.

I also worry about confusing the issue by setting up a paradigm of "natural" vs "synthetic"...people can have adverse reactions to natural ingredients as well as synthetic ones. Hence, the need for transparency in ingredients...and the need, perhaps, for outliers on the sensitivity scale to allow some leeway for the rest of the population.

I'm with goal when wearing scent is not punitive. I don't wish to offend, either, though if an offense is inadvertent (coriander? CORIANDER? my nasty uncle cooked with coriander!!), I don't wish to be blamed.

I wonder what forum (or forums) would be productive for carefully exploration and effective dissemination of discussion resulting from this topic? Perhaps starting here, in the blogs...and then...???

Lucy said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, SS/Trish. Yes, there is a middle way, as there always is, but compromise tends to displease both sides from the extremes, so I expect there will be ongong confrontation, unfortunately.

Personally I try to just ask people to tell me if they think I am emanating too strongly, and I modify if it turns out I am. I don't want to fight about it. I prefer to prepare the discussion ahead of time. I do think it is important to continue to educate the public as much as possible. I was reading recently how beneficial it is for your brain and limbic system to surround yourself with good smells. It makes you happier. I think that shows it's what the body and brain wants, really. I think most people know that already, instinctively. But we will all have to do what we can as individuals to balance the discussion. I think more postings from across the range of perfume bloggers would be helpful, and more frequently on this particular topic, will then start to show up in searches regarding perfume and toxicity issues and then there will then be more of a range of information available to people when they do searches on this issue. Right now all you get is the side that wants to ban all perfumes of any kind everywhere.

Yes, it would be nice to have ingredients labeled on the products, more fully. Why not, don't people who make food have to do the same? People who know they have issues with peanuts and strawberries, for example, know enough to avoid them but don't expect them to be banned as products for everyone else.

ScentScelf said...

Sometimes the middle is the challenge, no?

Food folk do indeed have to do the same. Given that the FFA knows from food issues, it wouldn't seem to be such a stretch. And given that the FDA doesn't regulate cosmetics, it shouldn't be such an onerous proposition.

But sometimes any change feels like a burden. (A corollary to the middle sometimes being a challenge...)

BTW, my limbic system is sending happy messages to my brain RIGHT NOW. Gotta love a good waft. ;) (double btw...I'm not Trish, but honored to be confused with her...)

Lucy said...

Sorry dear SS, I think I have had Hawaii/Portland/on the brain these days, for some reason. Alternate universes!

Yes, I know it would be a big pain to put those labels on packaging, but even the shampoos manage to do it. It could be done on boxes, if there is such packaging. I don't know if many actually read long lists of ingredients but it gives people who are vulnerable to something or other a good handle on what they are dealing with, and they can also then request their friends and even co workers to abstain (around them) if they notice something uncomfortable. Then it would also be a bit easier to negotiate with the militant perfume-ban promoters. Something the manufacturers have to work out for their own sakes as well as ours. In the meantime, we can keep singing the praises for the beauty of perfume, and its benefits, for the rest of us. I have also read that those who lose their sense of smell entirely (living in a smell sterile world) get depressed from that alone...

La Bonne Vivante said...

Hey! I loved this post so much, I have saved it in my files for inspiration on rainy days. You are so thoughtful and thorough in your defense of perfume. I have linked it into my blog today so others can see it too. Thanks so much

Yours, LBV

chayaruchama said...

As usual, you tilt the prism in as many ways as you can-
In order to cast light upon each facet.

This will be an on-going dialogue-
IF we are fortunate enough.

It is not a battle to be 'won', but a conversation to be 'had'.

Sadly, regardless of natural vs. synthetic, the reality is that anyone can become sensitive to any thing-
For any reason.
At any time in their life.

I become distressed merely thinking about the possibilities of litigation, etc.

That something of such great beauty and well-being should be legislated, is simply Orwellian.

Michael Hutchence, of INXS, cited his anosmia after a devastating accident ,as leading to anhedonia.
He couldn't bear it; and he took his own life....

Lucy said...

Thank you LBV -- your site is lovely, and I am so glad you are speaking on this issue too. I think those of us who love fragrance would be truly bereft if we ever had to do without it because of "rules" beyond our control, it would be like a ban on music for me, I know.

Lucy said...

C/I, yes, the sense of smell and its pleasures are so closely tied to emotion, I can well imagine the brain imbalance that might occur if it were taken away. They say it is tied to emotion directly into the brain far more than any other sense, because all the others are mediated by the mind first before being experienced in the core. Trying to maintain a scentless life would require taking away a direct connection to so much life and experience.