by Hannah Bullock
Brief Synopsis of the Socialized Meaning of Scent
As a woman and a college student, I am socially and biologically impacted by social stigmas, consumerism, and gendered expectations; the implications of these factors are highly visible in my every day life. However, many people (including myself just a few months ago) are unaware of invisible environmental factors that can negatively impact individual and community health. One such example is the regular use of fragranced products (i.e. hand lotions, perfumes, cologne, shampoo, etc.) that may contain endocrine disrupting chemicals, which are harmful chemical compounds that have been proven to effectively mimic or antagonize hormone systems and alter various developmental pathways (Gore, et.al). Furthermore, the fragrance industry is rapidly expanding the types of scents that are available for purchase by consumers (“Growth Upturn in the Global Fragrances Market”). However, what these companies often fail to disclose are the “secret recipes” of their fragranced products, which can include any combination of thousands of chemicals (Joseph). The long-term health implications of continual or severe exposure to various fragranced products is masked by the conflation of cleanliness and attractiveness with “good” scents. My inspiration to create and disseminate a survey related to experiences with and knowledge of fragranced products was a direct result of my limited awareness—or even ignorance–of the harmful health implications of chronic or acute exposure to fragranced products prior to working with CSW. To investigate my peers’ awareness of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (a condition caused and exacerbated by chemical exposure) and the potential harmful implications of exposure to fragranced products, I did what any ordinary undergraduate student could do: I designed and conducted my own survey and analyzed the data that I collected.
Considerations and Survey Development
During the preliminary developmental stages of the survey, I considered several plausible variables that had the capacity to provide valuable information. Several fellow undergraduate researchers helped disseminate the survey; therefore, it was necessary to create a script for the research assistants to maintain the continuity across all researcher-participant interactions. I also recognized that the way in which the questions were worded may impact responses. To combat the production of response biases, I made sure to include clear and concise questions followed by a series of pre-established, unambiguous responses from which participants could select (i.e. “Yes,” “No,” “Not Sure”). The use of pre-established, as opposed to open-ended responses, allowed me to observe the presence of trends within the data. Finally, taking into consideration how busy and distracted college students can be, I kept the survey brief while still including a significant amount of useful information. The final product was a survey that contained a total of four demographic data items, eleven questions with preselected answers, as well as an opportunity for participants to include additional comments related to the content and/or the survey itself.
Before evaluating the survey data, I developed primary research questions and a series of hypotheses regarding the prevalence of exposures to (and effects from) fragranced products as well as general awareness of MCS and current fragrance-free policy initiatives. The main objective of this study was to ascertain whether there is a need for a fragrance-free policy on UCLA’s campus based on students’ responses. I anticipated that my sample would contain more female than male participants, due to the existence of several societal stereotypes that associate gender identity to scent and sensitivity. These stereotypes include the assumptions that women are more sensitive than men; that men’s expressions of sensitivities effectively de-masculinizes them in various social contexts; and that women experience greater pressures to conform to beauty norms—norms in which “pleasant” or “attractive” and artificial scents signify success and good hygiene. Furthermore, I predicted that among the individuals who reported to have adverse reactions to scented products, headaches would be the most frequently reported symptom. Finally, I hypothesized that, of the undergraduate students who participated in the survey, the majority are unaware of MCS and current fragrance-free initiatives on UCLA’s campus.
We collected data at 4:30 and 5: 30 PM, just prior to the beginning of the dinner meal period, at four major dining halls on UCLA’s campus (Bruin Plate, Bruin Café, 1919 Café, and Rendezvous). The research team handed out free CSW pens as a small token of appreciation for participation.
To maintain confidentiality, the Center for the Study of Women cannot publish the preliminary survey results. However, I am planning to expand the study with the proper approvals and publish my findings in the future.
Discussion and Conclusions
In what ways are these results meaningful and how can you, the reader, integrate this information into, and make small changes within, your daily life? Everyone is affected, to some degree, by fragranced products whether you are the consumer, bystander, or victim of exposure to fragranced products. However, I am not suggesting that the only logical solution is to eliminate fragranced products from your life entirely. I am merely encouraging you to recognize that your choices and personal reactions to fragranced products, whether positive or negative, affect your coworkers, family members, as well as others within your social network. Upon the continuation of this research, I plan to expand the survey to construct a more diverse (with respect to age, gender identity, race/ethnicity, etc.) sample that is representative of the larger UCLA student community. After the proper approvals, I will disseminate the survey at different locations on UCLA’s campus (i.e. outside of cafés, libraries, and student centers). In addition, it is probable that I will transition the survey to an online platform; I anticipate that this will allow my team and I to reach more of the student population, members of a technologically knowledgeable generation.
How can you get involved regardless of whether you directly experience adverse effects to fragranced products? As a community member, you can educate yourself on the dangerous, long-term implications that fragranced products can have on your health, as well as the importance of maintaining appropriate levels of the use of fragranced products to assure the safety and well-being of others.
Hannah Bullock is an undergraduate student studying Human Biology and Society. She was part of the Chemical Entanglements Undergraduate Group in Fall 2017.
Joseph, Brian. “Is ‘Fragrance’ Making Us Sick?” Mother Jones, 1 Feb. 2016, www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/02/toxic-chemicals-fragrance-cosmetics-safety/.
Gore, A C, et al. “Executive Summary to EDC-2.” Endocrine Reviews., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 28 Sept. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26414233.
“Growth Upturn in the Global Fragrances Market.” Euromonitor International Blog, 28 Dec. 2016, blog.euromonitor.com/2008/02/growth-upturn-in-the-global-fragrances-market-1.html.
Huang, P C, et al. “Characterization of Phthalates Exposure and Risk for Cosmetics and Perfume Sales Clerks.” Environmental Pollution (Barking, Essex : 1987)., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2 Nov. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29102888.