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26 June 2009



So, you make perfumes. I may have to hate you now.

Sorry, but last Sunday I was visiting art center Retretti in Punkaharju. It's build in underground caves, and the airconditioning isn't so good. And we got stuck between to groups, both reeking with perfumes and colognes! I'm allergic to perfumes and we had to flee the exhibition and wait outside until both groups had left the place. Even after that the smell was still lingering around. If you don't know how it feels to have such allergie, I'll tell you. It feels like somebody lights a match and shoves it up your nose. Then comes the headache and nausea. And then it gets worse.

All this time I was wondering, why in hell these smelling oudores have to exist? I know, they were needed to cover the reeks of human body, in the ye-olden-days, when people didn't wash up, use toilet paper or bursh their teeth. But now days... Really, why? Can you tell me this? Please? Maybe if I understood the reason for these god-awful smells, I wouldn't hate the people who use them i public.


Where to begin! If you really want to talk in detail, maybe we should email :)

You ask "Why use perfumes when they were primarily used to cover bad body odours?"

The question itself is flawed; it's true that perfume through the ages has often been used to cover up bad smells, or mistakenly believed to actually cure ills (just like bad smells were thought to cause illness). But perfume has a long and fascinating history and many regard it as an art form or as a pleasurable experience in its own right. Your question, when presented to someone like me who obviously enjoys her sense of smell immensely, is a bit like asking a gourmand "Why bother flavouring your food and eating all those fancy dishes when you could survive on basic rations?"

There must be some smells you enjoy... maybe how a saunavasta (or vihta? ;) ) smells, or perhaps the smell of coffee, or some laundry detergents, strawberries, or newspapers...

All of these have a smell because of the same volatile chemicals that are present in perfume.

To me, perfume is a way to be constantly conscious of your sense of smell and enjoy it like you would eat a beautiful champagne truffle (and perfume doesn't make you fat! :p ).

There is a problem with modern mainstream perfumery. It's become same-y, often very cheaply made, often with horrendous short-cuts to the perfumer's palette and although there is nothing inherently wrong with using synthetic aromas (after all, the natural ones are made up of the same chemicals, just lumped together), the way many entirely synthetic mass-market scents smell can be boring and flat, or vulgar, obnoxious and harsh. Even I sometimes get a headache from some of them!

Luckily there are lots of absolutely stunning perfumes available - though many of them won't be in your local drugstore.

You can read a good summary of the cultural history of perfume here:


(The only thing I found a bit off with it was how the animal ingredients were handled. The article implied these are still commonly used. They are not. Some brands do use them, but not many. There are synthetic versions now widely available).

From your post, I can't tell what it was that those people were wearing, but it sounds like they had over-applied some kind of strong perfume. Bringing that into an enclosed space would be a little thoughtless! I don't think ANYONE would have enjoyed that.

But just to clarify; it seems as though your reaction could be related to the panic disorder. There are people who strongly react to perfumes with tight chest, breathing difficulties, nausea and headaches, just as you describe. There are three main types of reactions to substances:

1. Topical or other measurable allergy (for example nut allergy, or when a substance is applied on skin and it causes a rash, hives, etc).

2. Irritation etc (for example many of the substances that we use every day could be harmful when handled incorrectly in factory or other industrial settings. Simple detergents in your everyday shampoo could be harmful if the powder was inhaled direct from the drum at the factory, but present no such risk when blended into a formula and used at appropriate levels in shampoo).

3. The now renamed Idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI), also known as multiple chemical sensitivity. This has been shown to be related to panic-disorder. Many sufferers reject this scientific evidence because they don't understand how these disorders actually work. I suffer from panic disorder myself, and I fully accept that it is psychogenetic - that although the symptoms I feel when a panic attack occurs are extremely real and tangible, the cause is an unhelpful learned response that bypasses cognitive processes (a bit like Pavlov and his dogs). The good news is that this can be treated. Some stuff here you might find interesting:



I also REALLY recommend one of the most awesome books I've ever encountered: "What the Nose Knows", the science of scent in everyday life by Avery Gilbert. It explores this surprisingly little-understood sense in a fascinating and entertaining way:



Hmm... I get the point about spicing up your food and using perfumes. Although it took me a long time to get used to differend kinds of flavours. When I was a kid, my grandmom's carrotsoup was pretty much the strongest food I liked. It seems that I simply have a low tolerance for smells (we all know that flavours in food are really smells, sensed by our noses, right?). I've never liked artificial smells. This must run in our family, since I can remember my fater reacting to some perfumes with total rage! He gets angry when he smells certain perfumes.

I do understand the fact that in Retretti (and in so many bublic places before this) there were several different, cheap and overdozed scents mixed together in closed space and it caused the overwhelming efect. But really, all I need is one passinger in bublic transportation who's had a perfume party in morning and I'm ready to commit a homicide. I'd prefer the smell of slaughterhouse to many perfumes I've been forced to encounter in my life.

Maybe I've never smelled a really good perfume. Or, I've never known when I've smelled such thing. Maybe good perfume doesn't stand out. It lingeres about the person, but only gives others good vibes, without them even knowing they are smelling something.

I do like some smells. Forrest, tar, smoke, tea, skin of someone I love... Rainy days in summer or snowy days in winter have their own scent. Rotting leaves in fall or the first smell of melting, sun baked roadside in spring. I also like the smell of blood (sick, I know). But these scents are not so easy to be found in perfumelabels.

And I'm also allergic to skincare products with perfumes in them. I get rash. Sometimes from skincontact, sometimes simply from the smell. I also have several food allergies, so there's only small psychological efect.

I'm sorry for my earlier comment. I do not hate you. I just sometimes get so fed up with all these broblems I have to face in life just because perfumes (or people who overuse them). On friday I have to take busride to Helsinki, and it will be 5 and a half hour drive in closed space, and I havn't yet been on in a bus where at least one old lady hasn't taken a bath in her old, cheap perfume that smells like something that is meant for insect extermination. And usually she comes in after me and finds her place right in front of me. Yay!

Niin, ja suomalaisten kesken; onko mitään ihanampaa kuin maaseudun isäntämiehet, joilla on vieläkin kaapin kätköissä Menneniä, jota sitten loiskaistaan naamalle ennen kaupunkireissua, deodoranttia taas ei tulisi mieleenkään laittaa...


You are so poetic in your description of scents! In fact, I think you may even have a latent scent-talent hiding under there. One of the main features of people who are olfactorily-talented is the ability to describe scents well.

Interesting about your father's rage-reaction to perfume. Rather than a genetic cause, I suspect that a lot of your perfume aversion could be to do with a learned reaction from your father (of course taste preferences can be genetic too; but your current mindset is much more likely to be a result of early conditioning!).

The conditioning works like this: over-reaction to something, say a spider, from a parent can make the young mind over-estimate the danger of a benign situation (or feel stressed and afraid and decide the cause must be the spider) and as an adult, a stress/phobia/panic reaction emerges.

Suggestion is surprisingly powerful in a number of scenarios (you can do your own experiment: next time you go to work, tell a random colleague at the beginning of the work shif that they look unwell. Keep asking them if they're allright throughout the day. They will be genuinely unwell by the end of the day. Okay, maybe don't do this; a bit unethical. My school biology teacher had us run this experiment in class back in the 80s!).

And smell is quite a primal reaction - it's almost as though our brains were hanging out from our nose. The olfactory system is connected to the most primitive part of our brain and therefore our reactions to smell stimuli can be quite strong. The olfactory system is located next to where our memories and feelings are processed. Smells can be powerful messengers!

Another thing that could be currently happening is that your work-trip feels stressful and the smells associated with it make you feel stressed. The above conditioned response from your father is feeding into the negative loop.

Ergo, when you encounter perfumes in other contexts, the smell alone can make you stressed and unhappy and even cause very real physical symptoms such as headache and nausea. Worrying can make you sick! (Stress is the chief cause of IBS too; it's incredible how debilitating such a condition can be. So many people don't understand that it's not "in your head" or "imaginary").

Skin contact allergies are a bit of a different issue, although it is possible to break out in a rash from pure stress.

In Avery Gilbert's book, he describes scenarios where people have been conditioned to find perfumes panic-inducing - exposure to extreme stress together with the smell association creates a Pavlovian response afterwards. Soldiers used to get told to wear cologne to cover up the smell of rotting corpses when they had the unfortunate task of clearing battlegrounds. This created a negative association with the smell of cologne, even when there were no decomposing corpses around.

You say "Maybe I've never smelled a really good perfume". Quite possibly not - or rather - maybe you've never had the opportunity to smell ones that you could get on with and even adore. I doubt you'd enjoy most of what's in a normal Finnish department store, but you might enjoy some organic perfumes by Melvita (or other similar brands that have entirely or chiefly used natural raw materials) or you might like "CB I Hate Perfume" http://www.cbihateperfume.com/

You could even enjoy the smell of ELO's controversial "Secretions Manifique", which turns most people off as it combines floral notes with a metallic blood-note and a whiff of something marine-like.

The forest-smell is somewhat recreated by Neil Morris in one of his scents, inspired by Finland http://www.neilmorrisfragrances.com/vault.html (Dark Season)

The earthy smell of good, fertile soil is mixed with notes of bitter chocolate in Serge Lutens Borneo 1834.

If you like jasmine tea, there are many perfumes that you might end up falling for, the smell of tar can be recreated in perfume by use of birch and cade notes, etc. (These are also often used to give a "leather note" to scents - which goes back to materials used in tanning).

And from a Finnish scent-recognition point, as an expat over here I had a real sensory trip when I sniffed Bond No9 "New Haarlem". It's "kahvi ja pulla"; the scent of being in a typical Finnish coffee shop with filter coffee on the burner and a big korvapuusti right next to you. Either that, or the smell of your shirt when you've spilled cappuchino on it. (Depends who you ask and on each individual's scent associations). For me it's the Finnish coffee shop. :)

There are many things that you might not only tolerate but fall in love with out there. Hope you will one day be open to experiment.

You are likely to already be enjoying some perfumer's handiwork. Some of the products you use may well have been fragranced to mask the smell of the raw materials. Many fragrance components are known allergens or skin irritants, so obviously you have had some bad experiences there. But it's highly unlikely you are categorically allergic to all scents (the smell of a forest doesn't make you come out in a rash for example! There will be thousands of volatile chemicals in the air to create that smell and yet you are fine with all of them!). Usually for convenience, it's best to try and find products that you're happy with and stick with them. I wouldn't automatically exclude products just because they smell of something though.

Some of the things you encounter every day might even be enjoyable to sniff, but you've not paid conscious attention before. Though your list of favourite smells suggests you have noticed quite a lot!

I don't know anyone who enjoys the sorts of smells one encounters on public transport. For me it's when someone has doused themselves in a cheap body spray/deodorant, or a young teenage boy has poured half a bottle of cheap aftershave on, or when someone has been on the booze and curry the night before and their sulphurous, cadaverous, alcoholic breath wraps its malodorous fingers around everyone who comes within a few meters off them. Not to mention being on the London Underground and having your face shoved in someone's armpit (and at that point one might be grateful for some body spray, but no, it's always someone who doesn't believe in deodorants and you're literally faced with a sweaty patch).

Ja joo, Mennen... mun vanhoihin mokki ja vanha-ukko muistoihin Suomesta kuuluu myos Tabac original (josta muuten ihan tykkaan, vaikka on se aika tujua kamaa kylla).


This is starting to get a bit long. Maybe be should continue in e-mail?

But I wanted to clear few things. My allergies for beauty products with perfumes is rather real and non-psygological. I haven't yet found out witch perfumes are the worst ones, since they are always labeled just 'parfume'. I used The Body Shop's Almondy Hand Cream for some while, it didn't irratate my hands and I liked the smell. But if I scrached myself or touched my eyes and some of the stuff got in, I got a skinreaction from that.

When I was younger I used perfumed stuff because I was too poor to buy expencive allergie-tested stuff. Today most of my skin- and haircare and make-up are non-perfumed. I can use mildly perfumed products for example in hair saloons or when visiting friend for a sauna and forgeting to bring my shampoo and skin-lotion.

I'm also very aware of the psychological effects concerning allergies. I'm totally allergic to strawberries. I can't eat them, touch the leaves and even the smell of them is off putting to me. Well, the eating and touching are real effects, the smell issue is only in my head. Of course, I'm so bitter when everyone else can eat those cursed things and the sweet smell of them lingers about whole summer. So I hate even the smell of strawberries and tend to get rash in my face just for thinking about eating them.

I also get rash from stress, or rather, stress makes my more allergic. If I'm fine, I can eat other stuff that I'm allergic and get away with it. When I'm stressed, keep those citrus-fruits, red berries and tomatoes away from me you hear! And of course, if I like someone, he's or hers perfumes don't bother me so, but if I dislike someone, I probalbly go around telling everyone how disgusting her perfume is.

And finally, you mentioned people who smell like lots of things (after-shave, curry and stuff). I've always wondered this: Some people, they get up and dress (their clothes have been washed with scented formula, and their clothes carry this scent), they put on their make-up (that has perfumes in it, or even several different smells if they are using different labels) and put up their hear (more smells, plus the shampoo and conditioner they've used last night). Then they put on perfumed deodorant, and top this all with... ta-daa: more perfume! What? I can sometimes smell the whole world of cheap, artificial scents coming from some woman, who's livng in a world of perfumes, and has obviosly lost her sense of smell since she must overdo it so baldy...

Well, you can see this is a real pet peeve for me. I am really consious of smells and I have made it a pit of a problem for my self by aggravaiting myself. It would be interesting to find a perfume I'd like to wear, although I wouldn't use it everyday, more like for special occasions. That 'kahvi ja pulla'-perfume sounded interesting :)

But I prefer to smell like my life. I dress simple, my behavior is very straight-forvard and my home is more practical than clean. One cannot smell her own scent but I hope it would smell like good but simpel food and tea, paper, cotton and wool and just a bit of animal (my cat takes care of that by spreading her hair all over my clothes). Well, I probalbly smell a bit sour and sweaty and clinical (because my body-lotion is from the pharmacy).

If you like, I'd like to continue this over e-mail. It's good to practice my english (sorry for all the typos and mistakes in grammar) and this is an interesting topic, since you are the only person I know who can give me such interspect in this.


"Allergy tested" and "hypoallergenic" are meaningless marketing phrases. Every cosmetic product has to be allergy tested. Every ingredient used in cosmetics in the EU has to be approved for use in cosmetics and there are safety reviews and regulations that manufacturers must follow.

However, products specifically targeted for sensitive or allergy-prone skins can sometimes be a little bit different: they try to minimise the total number of ingredients in the product (because fewer ingredients in the formula overall lessens the likelihood of irritation). One of the easiest steps to take is to remove perfume. This sometimes creates the myth that perfume is an evil, categorically irritant ingredient. Manufacturers capitalise on this easy idea by labelling their products fragrance free.

Many ingredients used for making perfume are known irritants and have restrictions. Many essential oils (particularly citrus ones) have specific restrictions about sun exposure, etc. So it's absolutely possible to get a rash from a perfumed product or perfume. However, it is highly unlikely for someone to be categorically allergic to all aromatic materials. There are probably some commonly occurring ones that you are allergic to. In fact, it'd be interesting to see the chemical constituents of strawberries http://bit.ly/iafPE and look at which of them you are allergic to (just from a geeky angle; I'm sure this would have no practical application whatsoever). Tomatoes, for example, contain phenyl ethyl alcohol (2-phenylethanol), which is a lovely and extremely widely used "flower shop smell" aroma chemical. It goes to thousands of fine fragrances and product perfumes. And so in that sense it's a good idea just to minimise exposure and to avoid products that have caused you a rash. I wouldn't automatically reject something just because it is fragranced though. If possible, ask for trial sizes or samples.

There are so many misleading concepts out in the cosmetics industry; it's quite bewildering! I'm writing a book about this topic. :)

Lots of Finns share your attitude about pragmatic personal hygiene, dress sense and housekeeping. I believe this could be due to the harsh climate - perhaps Finnish generations have genetically favoured people who aren't into frivolous things. Maybe it's been a "waste of energy" to put valuable resources into stuff that isn't connected to survival? :) Add the Lutheran cultural attitudes to it and a desire "not to be like the Russians" and suddenly it makes sense why many Finns prefer to stay simple. Even I have many very typically Finnish taste preferences, but I think my Karelian roots and/or hippie upbringing have influenced me rather a lot too.

Your English is excellent, so don't worry!

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