The Fragrance-Free Movement Is Happening And I'm Trying To Cope

Did nobody else know that this was a thing?
Publish date:
September 30, 2013
fragrances, perfumes, scents, issues, fragrance-free movement, laws, scent-free places

Growing up, my mom would always try to avoid the mall. Not because of the crowds or the high cost of parking or the stress of too many options, but because of the scents.

My mom was and always will be part of a large constituent of people now labelled as “scent-sensitive”. She would walk by a store like LUSH or through the cosmetics section of a department store and literally have to hide her face.

“It’s just so strong,” she’d say, complaining of headaches and nausea. Maybe this is the reason as a teenager I became so completely obsessed with fragrance.

I have a different sort of hypersensitivity to scent. Some people make memories visually, or by taste or sound, but I log away my nearest and dearest moments with a signature smell. Theme parks reek of sugar and artificial waterfalls, Halloween has a strong haze of smoke and rotting leaves, my parents' home smells like laundry detergent and stainless steel, etc.

This philosophy of scent and memory also carries into my personal scenting practices. I can’t stop collecting perfumes, and in doing so, I tie each new bottle to a particular feeling or emotion, something it comes to represent to me forever.

Over the years I’ve acquired over 14 “signature scents” to help shape my life. They’re just as important to me as the photos in my phone or the songs in my iTunes, which is why when I started hearing about the fragrance free movement here in Toronto (and elsewhere) I felt so sad.

Here’s the gist of the movement: scents are chemicals, and many people have sensitivities to those chemicals that can cause side effects like headaches, nausea, and dizziness, so there is a push for (and some successful implementation of) a scent-free policy in public spaces. So far this mostly means hospitals and offices, but it’s quickly spreading to schools, transport vehicles like planes and trains, and even parties and dance events. The policy isn’t just limited to perfume and cologne either, it also includes:

  • Soap
  • Cosmetics
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Laundry detergent
  • Hair products like hairspray
  • Candles and air fresheners
  • Some diapers, feminine hygiene products, etc.
  • Cleaning products

You get the idea: anything scented.

I don’t doubt the chemical toxicity level of artificial scents is staggering and terrifying; in fact, some of my favorite scents from over the years have had a deadly chemical poison smell under all the rose and vetiver, and one even turned into some horrible green sludge when I left it in the sun too long.

But still, I love them. My horror at the idea of a scent-free world probably mirrors what heavy smokers felt when laws against public smoking were first put into place. It’s a sort of cosmetic-related existential crisis: what would my experiences and memories be without scent?

But after reading about the endless dangers of scented products, I started to believe that maybe I didn’t really want to be spraying a cocktail of unpronounceable ingredients directly onto my skin everyday either. That being said, I was so not prepared to give up the joys of that freshly cleaned laundry scent on my sheets, or pass up on my favorite compliment ever: “You always smell so good!”

So I searched frantically for a compromise.

Every guide to fragrance-free policy-making I have come across not only demonizes artificially scented products, but insists shoppers research to make sure their products aren’t labelled “unscented” but have in reality been chemically de-scented, or that the scent is being masked by an unscented-scented scent. Yeah, it’s intense.

Personally, I think these expectations are a bit extreme. Obviously the guy with a whole canister of Axe sprayed on every inch of his body in the elevator is a problem, but is it really so dangerous to use a small spritz of scent here and there? What if the hospital you need to rush to for your baby’s birth is scent free and you don’t have time to shower? Or your scarf is holding onto the remnants of last night’s musky going-out-dancing fragrance and you’re on your way to a meeting at a no fragrance office?

So I’m sorry if it’s selfish, but I like to smell like roses and violets and cedar sometimes, and I feel better when my clean hair reeks of marshmallows and not nothingness. But I don’t feel great poisoning myself and others either, so I’ve made a different sort of switch. I am no longer buying artificially scented products, but instead, replacing them as they empty or expire with all-natural fragrance.

Though organizations like the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety and the David Suzuki Foundation warn against this route because some people are allergic to natural plant-based scent extracts too, I think this borders on too touchy. After all, lots of people are allergic to all sorts of foods, but we don’t remove them from the diet of the world. We adapt, compromise, and respect one another’s wishes and sensitivities. And me, well I find new ways to smell pretty, even when my Chance by Chanel is outlawed.

What do you think of fragrance-free spaces? Are you for or against them? Am I being an ignorant jerk?