Sick and Tired: Why Fragrance is a Feminist Issue

I’ve been on eight planes, 10 rideshare cars and two rental cars in the last three weeks—and in 50 percent of them, my head began to thump, the glad in the left side of my throat began to swell, my sinuses filled with mucus and I became hazy within minutes because someone was wearing perfume or cologne.

(alexey turenkov)

Humans have been perfuming themselves since ancient times, but the nineteenth century production of synthetic compounds is what really created the industry—and which poses a massive problem. Recent scholarship documents that there are three types of neurotoxins—phthalates, synthetic musks and sensitizers—and that perfume and cologne contain them.

“These compounds accumulate in the environment and wildlife, thus serving as a source for secondary exposure in humans (in addition to direct exposure following application),” according to Pinkus et. All. “Not only do these sensitizers activate the nervous system in humans through primary exposure of application to the skin, but we also get exposed to them via the environment and wildlife habitats.” Their research further notes that “Galaxolide and Tonalide, both synthetic musks, are two of the most common fragrance ingredients found in fish from rivers and lakes in the U.S. (Chicago, Illinois; Dallas, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Phoenix, Arizona; and Westchester, Pennsylvania) and in Germany.”

If synthetic musks are in the water supplies of cities that make up the majority of sites for manufacturing—for example, Coty cosmetics manufacture in Phoenix, Jovan has been manufacturing in Chicago since the 1960s and Perfumes of the World, based in Dallas, Texas, makes Dior and Calvin Klein fragrances—that means that we don’t just have contact with these neurotoxins when we smell them or apply them. If we live in any of these locales, we are exposed to them every day, in our water and in our environment. 

I am chronically ill with severe allergies. As I get older, my body cannot stand these neurotoxins, and reacts violently to them.

Multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), which manifests with the very symptoms I described earlier, is defined as a “[s]yndrome where individuals experience adverse, often debilitating, acute and chronic health effects when exposed to any amount of an offending substance.” MCS have become the subject of several lawsuits since the early 1980s, and in the process of adjudicating these cases, trial lawyers have noted the importance of providing accommodations to their clients—such as making sure depositions occur in rooms with good airflow and without chemicals, not immediately; presenting them with documents containing fresh ink or toner; or making sure people working with these clients be fragrance free, including the absence of dry cleaned clothing or scented laundry detergents, colognes and perfumes.

This all begs a few questions. Why do people insist on wearing cologne and perfume in enclosed spaces? Why don’t airlines, rental car companies, rideshares and public transportation ban fragrances? These are communally shared spaces that we pay to have access to, and we should have a say in whether or not we expose ourselves to environmental neurotoxins as consumers.

This week is the National Association of Women’s Studies conference in San Francisco—and I am already hoping that my transportation is not filled with debilitating neurotoxins.

If MCS legal disability advocates understand these environmental micro-aggressions as part and parcel of the accommodation structure for highly allergic clients seeking justice, then we as a society can and must learn to live without the neurotoxins that cause these debilitating conditions. I know that it means taking on multiple billion-dollar industries, but feminists like me are physically suffering because perfumes permeate our environment uncontrollably. Until we do something about this as a feminist disability issue, we will teeter on the edge of managing our illnesses in a context that is truly avoidable.

Let’s not mince words. Let’s #BanPerfume instead.


Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández is a professor at Emory and Charles Warren fellow at Harvard. She received her doctorate degree from Cornell University in English, with a graduate minor in Latina/o studies in 2004. She is the author of Unspeakable Violence: Narratives of Citizenship Mourning and Loss in Chicana/o and U.S. Mexico National Imaginaries.