Issue 5.3: June/July 2002

The Nose Knows


story by Deborah Gushman
art by Scott Goto


"Please, be fragrance free," says the sign on the door of the fitness center at a posh resort near my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A flyer for the local tango center suggests "No Scents," as well, and I recently received an invitation to an all-female tea party which read, "Please, ladies, no perfume. I?m allergic!"

All this is like ambrosia to my nostrils, because I, too, have the misfortune of being allergic to artificial fragrance in every form. Perfume and cologne make my eyes sting, cause my throat to close, and in certain circumstances (like the time I unwittingly strolled past the Giorgio store on Rodeo Drive and was engulfed in a fog of super-potent scent) can even provoke debilitating nausea. I sometimes fantasize, selfishly, about living in a Utopian society in which scent was worn only by consenting adults, behind closed doors?which is to say, a world where I wouldn?t have to hold my breath while shopping for broccoli just because the produce man at my local supermarket evidently begins each day by immersing his entire head in a vat of Brüt.

Fortunately for me and my fellow olfactory sufferers, it seems that a whiff of change is finally in the air. Lately, I?ve been coming across more and more public places and gatherings where patrons or participants are requested not to wear fragrance. And it is no longer nearly impossible, as it was just a few years ago, to find make-up, beauty products or "personal care items" that don?t contain added scents.

Of course, the perfume industry is still a multibillion-dollar force to be reckoned with, and I realize that my dream of a blissfully fragrance-free America isn?t likely to come true anytime soon. So I am always grateful for life?s small (unscented) favors, which is why I was heartened to discover, on a recent research-and-shopping spree in Hawai?i, that the fragrance-free options in Honolulu are more plentiful and more appealing than ever before, for men and women alike.

Neiman Marcus
Needless to say, there are gallons of high-end perfume for sale at the ritzy Neiman Marcus store at Ala Moana Center, but there is also an enticing array of fragrance-free beauty lines. Each brand occupies its own little domain, staffed by exquisitely made-up women and a few impeccably groomed men. One of them, the ebullient Kristil Sun, is typical of the NM cosmetics staff: personable, helpful, full of information. Kristil?s glowing skin is an eloquent testimonial to the NaturaBissé line she represents, which includes the fragrance-free Sensitive Skin Regime. "Since I started using it," she confides, "even my little brown spots have started lightening."

NM also features my personal favorite for the past few decades, Clinique (about which more below), with its distinctive celadon-green packaging. A more recent passion is the marvelous Kiehl?s ("Since 1851"), whose simple presentation recalls an old-fashioned apothecary shop. Some of the awesome skin-restoring weapons in the Kiehl?s arsenal include Herbal Toner with Mixed Berries and Extracts; Washable Cleansing Milk; and the posh-sounding Imperiale Repairateur Moisturizing Masque, which is every bit as superb as the brochures claim.

Then there?s Chantecaille, named for founder Sylvie Chantecaille, who honed her cosmetic chops at Prescriptives for twenty years before going solo with her own enchanting aromacologie-infused line. The names tell the botanical story: Jasmine and Lily Healing Mask, Flower Harmonizing Cream, Lemongrass Shine Eye Shade, Papaya Lip Matte. Chantecaille?s concoctions smell delicious, but they contain no added fragrance. "Chantecaille products all have wonderful aromas that come from the plants and essential oils that are used in creating the product," explains a longtime Neiman Marcus cosmetics buyer. Other intriguing NM brands that feature unscented goodies include Awake, Crème de la Mer, and Sisleÿa.

Macy?s (formerly Liberty House)
I still remember what a thrill it was when Liberty House first started carrying Clinique products back in 1973. At last, a beauty counter I could walk past without holding a handkerchief over my nose! And from the beginning they offered those irresistible Clinique Bonuses: an adorable little bag or box containing samples of things you didn?t need at all, but were delighted to have. It was like a cosmetic Christmas stocking, twice a year. The biannual bonus system is still in effect, although the minimum purchase has kept pace with inflation, and the Clinique line has expanded radically since its rather modest debut. The latest "Owner?s Manual" includes everything from Environmental Cream to Bronzewear Tinted Self-Tanner, along with 264 colors to decorate lips, cheeks and eyes. Clinique (which, incidentally, was the brainchild of beauty genius Estée Lauder) is staggeringly popular with both women and men, worldwide. The company?s brochures boast that every four seconds, somewhere on earth, someone purchases a bottle of Clinique?s daffodil-yellow Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion.

Liberty House morphed into Macy?s in November, but the cosmetics lines have remained the same. In addition to Clinique, the new Macy?s also features Origins, an aromatherapy-tinged line of beauty enhancers and cosmetics with clever names like Eye Doctor, Kohl Mine and Underwear for Lashes. Origins? concoctions smell pleasantly botanical, but have no added fragrance. Macy?s also carries the trendy Prescriptives line, which is partially fragrance-free.

I used to joke that my idea of hell would be to spend eternity chained to a counter in the Liberty House men?s fragrance department, but things have changed there as well. I wasn?t brave enough to risk a personal visit to the realm where Polo and Drakkar Noir still reign supreme, but I did learn from former Liberty House marketing director Curtis Lee that Aramis (whose super-intense potions have caused me to flee from many a crowded elevator) is now doing a fragrance-free line called Lab Series. (Incidentally, a recent survey found that 52 percent of women are attracted to men who wear artificial fragrance, while 48 percent find it annoying?virtually even-odds statistics that leave me wondering whether to cheer or don a gas mask.)

The Golden Earth Marketplace store on King Street carries a number of fragrance-free products, including the German-made, plant-based, environmentally conscientious lavera basis sensitive. And while Sephora at Ala Moana Center is essentially a high temple of perfume worship, there are several refreshingly unscented beauty brands scattered around the store, including the ultra-botanical DDF and Naturopathica.

And let us never discount (except in the purely economic sense) good old Longs Drugs. Almay and Physicians Formula are the only entirely fragrance-free lines here, but a number of other brands offer beauty aids in unscented versions, including Oil of Olay, Neutrogena, Jergens and Ponds. Physicians Formula has a serious, no-frills air, while Almay?s ads are adorned by celebrity model Courtney Thorne-Smith, from Ally McBeal.

If my fairy godmother ever shows up to offer me three wishes for self-improvement, not being allergic to perfume will definitely be on my short list. In the meantime, the growing availability of unscented options comes as heartening news to me, and to millions of other unfortunate perfumaphobes. At least now we have some choices of our own in the cosmetics world, and that?s nothing to sniff at.