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