Perfumes are one of life’s simple pleasures. Yet, a lot of people believe them to be dangerous and are fighting to ban them from all public places. But these attacks on perfumes are nothing new. Already in the Victorian era, perfumer Eugene Rimmel was refuting them. Here’s what he says on his “The Book of Perfumes”, published in 1867:
Eugene Rimmel defends perfumes
Discarding, however, all curative pretensions for perfumes, I think it right, at the same time, to combat the doctrines of certain medical men who hold that they are injurious to health. It can be proved, on the contrary, that their use in moderation is more beneficial than otherwise; and in eases of epidemics they have been known to render important service, were it only to the four thieves who, by means of their famous aromatic vinegar, were enabled to rob half the population of Marseilles at the time of the great plague.
It is true that flowers, if left in a sleeping-apartment all night, will sometimes cause headache and sickness, but this proceeds not from the diffusion of their aroma, but from the carbonic acid they evolve during the night. If a perfume extracted from these flowers were left open in the same circumstances, no evil effect would arise from it.
All that can be said is that some delicate people may he affected by certain odours; but the same person to whom a musky scent would give a headache might derive much relief from a perfume with a citrine basis. Imagination has, besides, a great deal to do with the supposed noxious effects of perfumes.
Dr. Cloquet, who may be deemed an authority on this subject, of which he made a special study, says in his able Treatise on Olfaction: — “We must not forget that there are many effeminate men and women to be found in the world who imagine that perfumes are injurious to them, but their example cannot be adduced as a proof of the bad effect of odours.
Thus Dr. Thomas Capellini relates the story of a lady who fancied she could not bear the smell of a rose, and fainted on receiving the visit of a friend who carried one, and yet the fatal flower was only Artificial.”
Were any other argument wanting to vindicate perfumes from the aspersions cast upon them, I would say that we are prompted by a natural instinct to seek and enjoy pleasant odours, and to avoid and reject unpleasant ones, and it is unreasonable and unjust to suppose that Providence has endowed us with this discerning power, to mislead us into a pleasure fraught with danger, or even discomfort.
What science says
It seems incredible that a fake rose would make someone faint, but a recent study has found out that expectations influence our reaction to perfumes. Scientists exposed two groups of people, all affected by asthma, to the rose-smelling odour phenylethyl alcohol. Those told it was therapeutic thought it smelled nice, while those told it could cause mild respiratory problems reported increased airway inflammation.
That’s not to say that allergies to fragrances don’t occur. A lot of people are, undoubtedly, allergic to them. But, in our chemophobic era, it is easy to believe some substances are more harmful than they really are, and, unconsciously, react accordingly.
It also seems that Rimmel was too quick to discard the therapeutic effects of perfumes. Scientists have recently discovered that we have olfactory receptors all over our bodies, and that when exposed to certain aromas, they can help us heal. Fascinating, isn’t it?
If you’d like to read The Book Of Perfumes, which discusses the history of fragrances in various eras and continents, visit archive.org.
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