Friday, September 26, 2014

Fragrance Wars

The other day I realized that I had accidentally purchased disposable razors with scented handles.

Scented. Fucking. Handles.

As a society, we have apparently decided that it's not enough that every product we put on our body has a smell, now the tools we use to do so must smell as well. I am fanatical about avoiding artificial perfumes, but I never even thought to check goddamn RAZOR BLADE HANDLES.

Don't mind me, just heading to the shower.

There are plenty of very good reasons to avoid synthetic fragrances, but let's back up a minute and make the assumption that you, like many people, don't mind and maybe even enjoy perfumed products.

You step into your shower, where you use your Berry-scented shampoo, Lily Essences conditioner, Pink Grapefruit body wash, Mint Julep facial scrub, Cashmere Rain shaving cream (wtf?), and your stupid ass Venus razors with the "tropical scent" handles.


You step out into your bathroom and take a big whiff of your Clean Linen plug-in. You slather some "Pasión de Tango" deodorant, moisturize with your Rose facial oil, and spray a little "Fresh Fragrance" hair product into your hair for some texture. Gotta moisturize those newly-smooth legs, so you grab some Pumpkin Latte and Marshmellow body lotion (it's fall, after all!) Perhaps you're expecting your period, so you make use of a "Clean Fresh Scent" pantyliner, then wash your hands with some Crisp Morning Air handsoap and follow up with Berry Blossom hand lotion. Oh, and let's not forget a puff of Chanel No. 5!

You walk into the other room to get dressed - your laundry detergent claims to smell like a Butterfly Kiss, but you're not sure how that's even possible. Next it's time to slap on some lipstick that smells curiously of Gummy Bears, some Watermelon blush, some Chocolatey-smelling bronzer and Vanilla-scented mineral eyeshadow. When you come out into the living room, looking fab and ready to start your day, you realize that it's smelling a bit musty in there- but hey, it's nothing that a little Midnight Storm Febreeze won't take care of. Just for good measure, you light up a Summer Wish (equally perplexing) candle.

At this point, you smell like a Yankee Candle shop operating upstairs from a funeral home. You are the olfactory equivalent of taking everything in your fridge, putting it in a food processor, and calling it soup. Migraineurs scream and run at the first whiff of you. Airplane seatmates sniffle and dab at watering eyes. Dogs are confused by you.

But honestly? Unless you're actively trying to avoid scented products, this is probably the sort of stuff you'll end up with in your home. Fragrance is ubiquitous- it's in EVERYTHING. It is literally even in products marked "Unscented", I shit you not. (Men, you are not exempt- your soaps, shaving creams, colognes, deodorants, detergents, and god-help-you "body sprays" are just as bad. Though I don't think we've started scenting your goddamn razors yet.)

Of course, you can't smell these smells. Your nose is used to them, so except for that first powerful whiff when you open up the bottle or light up the candle, you don't even notice them. One of the most shocking things I learned when I gave up scented products was just how much EVERYTHING smells- once your olfactory receptors have recovered from their constant fatigue, you'll be amazed what you can smell.

So you don't smell particularly good to yourself, since you don't notice. Other people either also don't notice (being used to synethtic fragrance themselves) or notice and find you, frankly, unbearable (and that's if they're lucky and don't end up with a splitting headache, nausea, or congestion.) And all the while, the dang stuff is fucking with your hormones and slowly giving you cancer (among a jillion other things.)

So why? Why do it? Marketers want you to buy perfumed stuff because our olfactory memories are so intensely strong and linked to emotion- if you associate a particular smell with someone or somewhere you love, you'll want to smell more of it, and you'll pay money for the privilege. (It also nicely covers up the odors of the other nasty chemicals used in a lot of products- which is why "unscented" often...isn't.) Stores will pump scents into the air to affect your buying behavior and mood state - it sounds like some creepy Big Brother shit, but it's true. Restaurants will slap an air freshener into the bathroom outlet to hide the fact that it smells like pee all the time. They don't care if they're pumping you full of neurotoxins, just as long as you keep giving them money. Please, stop encouraging them!

There is a 0% chance that your handsoap smells like this.

Tips for Going Fragrance-Free (or at least Freer)

  • Read the labels. As I mentioned above, "Unscented" is sometimes meaningless, but "Fragrance Free" or "Free and Clear" is usually okay. Still, to be safe, look at the ingredients labels- avoid anything that lists fragrance, perfume, parfum, or fragrance oils. It's important to do this even when shopping at "natural" stores or for "natural" products, as many things claiming "With Lavender Essential Oil!" will also sneak in some artificial fragrances as well. One of the grossest things about fragrance is that companies don't have to tell you what's IN them because it's considered a "trade secret"... it could contain pretty much any kind of nasty poison they want to include. 
  • Don't forget things like dish soap and laundry detergent! Laundry detergent is particularly insidious, and if you start un-fatiguing your sniffer, soon you'll realize just how bad it is- when I buy second hand clothes, I have to wash them repeatedly and let them air out in the basement for months before I can stand to wear them. (New clothes usually need at least a wash or two, but aren't as bad.) Vinegar in the wash water helps, especially if you soak it (baking soda helps too, but may cause it to fade a bit.) 
  • If you want smells, consider natural sources. Essential oils do give some people headaches (or sniffles) but by and large are much safer than synthetics, and more and more products rely on them instead of their chemical alternatives. They're much less "sticky," too- if you wash your hands with soap scented with EO, the scent will fade very soon after, whereas conventional soap smells can stick for HOURS. (Just remember- don't use EOs on your skin at full strength, dilute them with a milder oil! A little goes a long way.) Many beneficial skin oils and butters have lovely scents on their own- my current deodorant is made with cocoa butter and coconut oil, and while it's not very strong, my armpits definitely smell like some sort of delicious confection. Linens can be stored with sachets of dried herbs to help keep them from getting stale in the closet (or you can just wash them again right before you use them, if they've been away for a long time.) 

Hello, I am delicious, and oh so useful.

  • Even if you don't choose to ban fragrances from your life entirely, at least be picky. If you want to smell like your expensive perfume or fancy body lotion, you shouldn't be using 20 other products with different smells at the same time. Soaps, hair products, detergents, shaving creams, etc really do not need to have smells- all they do is cling and compete with whatever smells (deodorant, perfume, lotions) you are actually intending to put on. (And don't even get me started on scented make-up, wtf is THAT about?) Figure out what you actually want to smell like and eliminate the rest so you don't smell like potpourri vomit.

A Disclaimer:
Yes, cutting artificial scents out of your life will probably make you more sensitive to them. Walking past Abercrombie & Fitch will feel like chemical warfare, and if you're a hugger you'll soon learn what detergent all your friends are using. But the trade-off (besides all that "not putting poisons in your body constantly" stuff) is that a healthy, less-fatigued schnozz is much better for smelling good smells- things like actual vanilla, actual pumpkin lattes, actual clean air and autumn leaves. Given how entwined smell is with taste, I wouldn't be surprised if there were benefits there too.

(By the way, those scent names up there? All totally real products. I think Gain detergent wins for originality- Sweet Sizzle, Icy Fresh Fizz, Moonlight Breeze, Dreamy Desire..... and I'm always amused by scents claiming to be "Fresh" or "Clean Air." Oh the irony.)

Gas mask photo by Vivian Aubrey, butchered by me... she would never commit such crimes against Photoshop.


  1. I saw those the other day, so bizarre. I use a scented hand creme but thats about the only smell that comes off of anything I use.

  2. Walking into a perfumed bathroom for even a second will leave me a headache for hours. At my last job, I was told the right of others to wear enough perfume to be smelled from three cubicles away was more important than my right to not have headaches and nausea inflicted on me. The very idea that instead of a reduction of perfumed products on the market, they are scenting increasingly bizarre things (razors?!?) drives me batty.

    1. Bllllerg. I swear I hear more and more people complain about fragrances and yet they are in more and more places.

  3. As a purveyor of scented products, I'm so frustrated that the makers of fragrance oils don't need to disclose what is in them. I am always looking to choose-the-lesser-evil in the fragrance game, and it's hard to know which oils contain fewer synthetics. I offer products scented only with essential oils so the die-hard anti-synthetic customers can find something they like, too, but the selection is not as wide because in my research I was shocked to find out how many essential oils had negative health effects on certain people (pregnant, children, seizure-prone, low blood pressure) or were phototoxic (caused burns when exposed to sunlight) even when diluted. Do you have a reliable source for information on essential oil use that you could recommend?

    1. It's so tricky! Especially things like vanilla- I used to buy vanilla-scented stuff all the time, and I still love the smell of vanilla, but "vanilla EO" is just overpriced vanilla extract + jojoba oil (and whenever I've tried using the extract to scent something, the scent fades very quickly.) I'm afraid I don't have a very reliable source for EO information though I know there are some pretty extensive books out there (I keep meaning to buy one.) I've made the mistake of buying phytotoxic ones before (my beloved grapefruit) and that's such a pain. I use it for a facewash that I only ever use at night and rinse right off...but still.

      It's so stupid that the manufacturers don't need to disclose- people who manufacture food still have "secret recipes" while listing their ingredients, a list is not a recipe. I get the impression that the perfume industry is very old and very powerful :-P (And the stinky-detergent people are just riding their coattails.)

      (I will vouch for your naturally-scented products smelling amazing though!!)



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