A few days ago I was reading an article in the popular news media about “14 ways your beauty products are damaging your health”. The same old culprits were trotted forth, with little or no evidence that any of them actually were damaging anyone’s health. Every point had a disclaimer saying that the substance in question may or may not damage anyone’s health, because there are no conclusive scientific data. One of the strongest statements had to do with fragrance, which the article suggested would make anyone sick who came in contact with it, and should be avoided at all costs.
I’m really tired of reading “the sky is falling” lists, so I thought I’d put together a list of positives regarding the potential healthy effects of fragrance.
1. Many fragrant materials are anti-bacterial, antifungal, and/or anti-viral. This has been known for ages, but is generally dismissed nowadays as too low-tech to take seriously. What really strikes me is that ever since I’ve been making perfumes, I haven’t had a single cold, flu, or other respiratory illness despite being constantly surrounded by coughing, sneezing, feverish, sniffling students and colleagues. Can it be that breathing perfume protects against colds and flu? That was the rationale behind pomander balls and other scented amulets that were worn back in the days before scientific microbiology. People probably observed that breathing vapors of resins and spices tended to reduce the incidence of airborne sickness. Spices have always been used, not just to make food taste good, but as preservatives that prevent growth of bacteria responsible for spoilage, probably because people observed that highly spiced foods kept better than bland foods, especially in warm climates. Sometimes anecdotal evidence is correct and people instinctively do what’s good for them.
2. Pleasant fragrance can improve mood, and a positive mood improves overall health. This is probably the most obvious health benefit of perfume. Some scents just make us feel happy, contented, relaxed, comfortable, enthusiastic, capable, powerful, or exhilarated. The specific scents that do this are different for each person, so it’s worth experimenting to find what fragrances produce positive mood effects. The experimentation itself should be a fun process that improves mood.
3. Pleasant fragrance can counteract negative situations. My most memorable use of fragrance in this context was when I was staying in an airport hotel because I had a ridiculously early flight the next morning. The room smelled so moldy and disgusting that I wouldn’t have been able to sleep unless I’d happened to go out on the street, see some lavender growing in a flower box, and pick a big batch of it to take back to the room. I put it as close to my nose as possible when I went to bed, and managed to sleep soundly until the alarm went off in the dark of the late night/early morning. If fragrance helps you sleep, that’s good, because too little sleep is bad for your health. Being in a stressful situation of any kind is bad, and obnoxious odors are definitely a source of stress. Even if they can’t be eliminated, masking them with something you like seems to help.
4. Fragrance can enhance interpersonal interactions. This is what all the advertising says or implies, and it’s true. The human touch is healing. Anything that involves being close to others in a good way boosts health, so using fragrance to attract others to come close or to enhance close encounters is a good thing.
5. Fragrance is a wonderful placebo. Even if its not physically doing anything obvious, if you think it’s helping you, it is. If you think it’s making you attractive, you probably feel attractive, and that makes you attractive. If the people in medieval Europe thought fragrance was mystically helping prevent the plague, it probably was, or maybe it was just repelling the fleas that carried it. If you wear a fragrance that you think makes you confident, you will be confident. Now I need to find THE fragrance that makes me think I can write a blog post every day come rain or shine. That would be the best placebo ever!
[photos adapted from Wikimedia, painting by Guillaume Seignac ca 1900]