Monday, March 03, 2008

Dollars for scents…make sense?

Is it aromatic sense or perfumed poisons? Be aware, care and bare your identity in a whiff.

Working in a clothing store in Toronto, I have experienced perfume departments wafting through the racks in the form of customers, brusquely demanding service through their clouds of odour repellant. All that I can think is, “What are you trying to hide?”

It is a democratic world; anyone who's anyone can put out a scent. In 2006, department stores carried 1,160 different fragrances for women compared with 756 in 2002, according to NPD Group, a market research firm that tracks consumer product sales. Along with another zillion other perfume home products, we are living, breathing pungent bouquets of aromatic scents.

All these synthetic scents have billions of dollars of advertising behind them to tell us what these smells mean and would mean to other people. Although the messages can be varied-- from Latino superstar to underage nymphomaniac--one message is clear. Own a piece of aspiration—security, fame, wealth and/or sex appeal—in a bottle.

The science of smell is deeply rooted with our ideas of self. According a summer 1995 article in Brain Briefings by the Society for Neuroscience, olfactory information travels up to the brain where memory, emotions and conscious thoughts are processed. By taking advantage of this, advertisers have slapped on brand identities to scents to appeal to the customer—you.

However, underlying these intentions is that we can understand our identities by the choices of our consumption. And by buying (or not) into these products, we define ourselves, without saying a word, where we stand in mainstream culture.

The same NPD survey in 2006 also found that a growing number of women are choosing not to wear fragrance, largely due to fragrance fatigue as well as the worry of the effect of perfumes on others. Many people are concerned that their scents were leaving bad impressions or even causing allergies.

However, even if one chooses not to buy into the commercial perfume industry as a social concern, the real issue here is that scented products can be dangerous to health. In the Renaissance, perfumes were worn to cover up body odour. Today, fragrances are added to bad smelling toxic poisons to increase their appeal and thus their usage. An example is a product like Lysol bathroom spray. On the bottle it clearly states that it is toxic and that it should be inhaled directly. Scratching the surface a little deeper, doesn’t it seem a little incongruous that an air freshener should not be inhaled? What about over continuous usage over time?

According to the October 2007 Journal of Chromatography, the increased use and production of synthetic musk compounds, used to mask unpleasant odours, are being detected in the environment like lake trout and in human breast milk. Not only is synthetic musk unable to biodegrade, it accumulates in the food and reproductive cycle. In 2005, two Stanford researchers Luckenbach and Epel, have shown these musks have the potential to compromise the body’s immunity system over time. With growing concern especially from European public interest groups, some countries have banned the use of certain musks e.g. Japan.

An additional problem in body products is the use of perfumes. The perfume industry is highly secretive in order to maintain competitiveness. Government regulations require only the listing of chemicals that may be toxic. Although certain chemicals are under toxicity regulations, it does not take into consideration a person’s combined diet of perfumed products. In addition, if the ingredients are not known, how does one decide if it is toxic?

The health issues associated with scented products are immense, and some problems outlined above are the tip of the iceberg. If you still cherish the waft of a fragrant toss of hair, major supermarket chains have dedicated organic and natural areas in urban centres, while natural and organic stores are growing. Unfortunately, many ingredients listed on the back of many products do not denote if they are truly natural or synthetic.

If the product is organic, another guideline is to check for the certifying organization. Generally, according to a SPINS survey that analysed the growth of organic and natural bodycare products from 2006 to 2007, very few products meet strict USDA organic codes.

A good rule of thumb is that the shorter and simpler the list, the better. Long lists of components generally indicate artificial preservatives, petrochemicals and phtalates.

Instead of choosing a spritzer perfume with preservatives, which could be allergy inducing and react horribly in the sun, why not mix your own? Natural essential oils can be found at most natural food stores and this enables you to alter your scent as the mood strikes. Oils also tend to be subtler in fragrance and can be therapeutic.

Finally, perhaps we should consider the purpose of perfume itself. In most cases, it is a short term strategy to cover up bad odours. However, odours are usually messengers of bad diet, stress and lifestyle. Bacteria on the skin breaking down sweat cause the smells. By covering it up, not only are we absorbing chemicals through the skin, it is avoiding the real problem—an honest change in mindset.

A truthful evaluation of one’s diet and lifestyle may show a high intake of processed foods, insufficient fruits and vegetables or simply not drinking enough water. It could be deep-seated anxieties are not addressed and cause hormonal imbalances that result in smelly toxins.

If there’s one thing L’Oreal advertisers have it right, it’s their slogan, “Because I’m worth it.” Paying attention to diet and lifestyle choices is truly self-respect. Part of the process may be that we should accept ourselves for the way we smell, good or bad, and then work to be healthier and happier. This way to claim individuality definitely requires more work. But the results will speak for themselves and can only make us stronger, both mentally and physically. So I say--this summer, throw your scents out the window and breathe!