Why we should ban perfume in public places, says CLARE FOGES

Why we should ban perfume in public places, says CLARE FOGES

  • Clare Foges says she suffers with ‘fragrance aversion’ a strong reaction to scents
  • READ MORE: I’m a beauty enthusiast and I’ve found the perfect £10 dupe of Le Labo’s £157 perfume – it smells exactly the same

It was a big moment in my young career. As a 20-something political aide in Westminster, I’d been chosen to accompany a minister on an official visit, riding along with him in a sleek government car.

But five minutes into the two-hour journey, I knew I had to get out — and fast. In an Oscar-worthy display, I began clutching my stomach and moaning quietly before declaring that, unfortunately, I must be in the early stages of a violent stomach bug so would have to be let out of the car immediately.

Why the emergency? Was the driver drunk? Was the minister a lech? None of the above. The problem was that he reeked — not of body odour, but of pungent aftershave.

For most people, being in close proximity to someone smelling of honeysuckle and patchouli may be sublime. For those, like me, who suffer with ‘fragrance aversion’ — a strong physical reaction to the ingredients in modern perfumes — it is torture.

For those, like me, who suffer with ‘fragrance aversion’ — a strong physical reaction to the ingredients in modern perfumes — it is torture

As soon as the scent curls its way up my nostrils, a pressure begins in the head, a mild throbbing pain growing the longer I am around it. If several hours pass in the company of someone marinated in Chanel No5, a serious headache is a dead cert, as is nausea and light-headedness.

Not all scents are equal. I can tolerate the fruity ones (just about), but sniffing floral scents is akin to sticking my head in a tightening vice. As for woody scents like vetiver and amber: why not just hit me over the head with a blunt object?

I’d rather inhale deeply from a bucket of rotting fish, the bluest cheese or the smelliest gym socks, for at least these vile-smelling things don’t cause me pain the way manufactured scents do.

So I was secretly delighted to read that a restaurant in London, Sushi Kanesaka, has now banned diners from wearing fragrance. Finally, a meal out where I would get to enjoy the food for once! (Although the £420-per- person menu might give me a raging headache instead.)

I haven’t always been this way. As a teenager, I owned a precious bottle of Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers that I would spray on before discos. 

In my 20s, I dotted my flat with scented candles infusing the air with vanilla and grapefruit. It was only in my 30s, when I was pregnant, that the problem began in earnest.

Notes of jasmine, tuberose and ylang-ylang made my heart race. At one house party, I had to make my excuses and leave because the smell of the plug-in air fresheners was making me gag. During two subsequent pregnancies the scent aversion grew stronger and in the years since it has never gone away.

One theory for this is that pregnancy hormones, particularly oestrogen, can affect the way our brains process unknown scents, in part as a protective mechanism over our unborn child. But most mums recover quickly in late pregnancy, when the baby is fully developed and less vulnerable, or at least post-partum.

I haven’t always been this way. As a teenager, I owned a precious bottle of Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers that I would spray on before discos

I sadly did not and I’m not alone. A 2019 study of adults across the UK, U.S., Australia and Sweden found that a third of us suffer with fragrance sensitivity.

Commonly reported effects include migraines, rashes and asthma attacks. Shockingly, nine per cent have taken time off work because of illness related to fragranced product exposure in the workplace.

Research suggests that strong smells can make the blood vessels in the brain dilate and contract, causing headaches. Another cause may be irritation of the sinuses, or inflammation of the trigeminal pathway, the nerve which carries sensory information to the brain.

There is no real cure, so perfume phobics like me must cope however we can. Long after the pandemic I still wear a mask. I’ve also become a skilled mouth breather. On trains, on buses, next to a co-worker who has gone a bit heavy on the Thierry Mugler Alien, I breathe out of my mouth in a way that mostly shuts out the smell.

This may make me sound like Darth Vader with a head cold, but needs must. I once worked with a lady who smelled as though she showered in Coco Mademoiselle each morning. 

Whenever she approached my desk I would suddenly find an urgent errand to attend to, dashing off to escape her head-spinning forcefield of jasmine and vetiver.

Research suggests that strong smells can make the blood vessels in the brain dilate and contract, causing headaches

After months of this, a colleague relayed that Perfume Lady thought I was rather rude. In an attempt to mend bridges I wrote a delicately-worded message explaining that my problem wasn’t her, but her perfume. 

She gave me a wide berth after that and who can blame her? Telling someone you loathe the way they smell is hardly the best way to win friends and influence people.

Alas, for me, the battle continues at home. I am married to a scent addict, a man who will not grace the aisles of Tesco Express without first dousing himself in cologne. For him, a dash of scent in the morning is as essential as brushing his teeth. 

For my sake he does not apply it in the house, but hours later I can smell it on him at 100 paces. ‘Have you been spraying it in the house again?’ I accuse, as hotly as if he had been caught with a bag of cocaine and several ladies of the night.

Needless to say, my husband finds these nose-twitching tendencies maddening. Last week, on seeing me gasping for air after he had sprayed on some deodorant, he finally snapped: ‘For God’s sake, it’s not mustard gas!’

To him, my aversion is puzzling. Who could fail to love the scent of crushed roses or orange blossom? But the sobering truth is that the ingredients in most perfumes have not been gathered from country gardens but created in a lab.

Trade secrets legislation means that companies are only required to put the word ‘fragrance’ in their ingredients list, but behind this harmless-sounding word is a list of up to 400 chemicals.

Many commonly-used ingredients in scented products are absolute horrors. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters that can even decrease the IQ of children whose mothers were exposed to them during pregnancy. 

Benzyl acetate and limonene are known carcinogens. Camphor can cause nausea and muscle-twitching. Methylene chloride has toxic effects.

Telling someone you loathe the way they smell is hardly the best way to win friends and influence people

So worried am I about the effect of these chemicals that if my children have been cuddled by someone wearing heavy scent I must immediately scrub their hair with wet wipes, followed swiftly by an emergency hair wash.

My husband thinks such behaviour is borderline insane — but if the chemicals in scent bother me so much, what are they doing to them long-term? 

To my mind, it’s time our scent-addicted society woke up to the potential dangers in these tiny particles — and the impact it’s having on millions of us.

Dr Katy Munro, a senior headache specialist at the National Migraine Centre, suggests that ‘considerate work colleagues should avoid wearing perfumes’.

Fine in principle, but as I found with my Coco Mademoiselle-loving workmate, this is easier said than done. 

So I’d go further and argue for a ban on perfumes and aftershaves in the workplace, in hospitals, schools, public transport and all confined spaces where we have no choice but to breathe each other’s air.

Some might see this as an infringement of their right to express themselves through the medium of bergamot and rose, but what of we perfume phobics’ right to inhale oxygen that is as clean and untainted as possible?

Those sensible folk in Canada are already ahead of the curve, with fragrance-free policies covering hospitals and some government offices, too. 

The Canadian Human Rights Act even recognises scent sensitivity as a disability, with all the protections that apply to any other disability.

It’s high time the UK followed suit and went fragrance-free where possible. 

And while we wait for action from on high, a plea to all those who like to walk around in a cloud of musky sweetness: please, think of the silent sufferers around you. 

Surely a little dab behind each ear will suffice?

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