Beauty of the Aroma (in the nose of the beholder)

By Amy Miller

You either hate it or you love it. That’s what people say about cilantro (I love it). And root beer (I also love it). And apparently patchouli. (I’ll have to get back to you on that one.)

Even though I came of age in the 60s and 70s, and even though all the other 50-something women were in the know and even though I consider myself well-versed on fashion trends – well, okay, that’s not true – I had no idea of what patchouli was.

Clearly it was a perfume of sorts, a scent. And I got the idea that it was not of the Chanel variety, but rather something for earthier types. But other than that I was in the dark.

Turns out that patchouli oil, which is often used in perfumes, comes from a plant native to southeast Asia. Descriptions range from “musky” or “spicy” to “wet soil.” One friend who is firmly in the “hate it” camp said it “smells like dirt.” All this from an upright, bushy, evergreen with fragrant leaves and violet-dabbed white flowers.

Turns out patchouli isn’t the only scent that can bother people. EPA notes that the perfumes in scented products are complex chemical formulations that may adversely affect the health and/or comfort of others, especially those susceptible to asthma.

The agency has some Ms. Manners advice on avoiding the offending scents without offending the carrier: “Explain that you have adverse reaction to ‘something in the perfume’ rather than saying it’s the perfume that affects you.”

Also turns out the factories that make these complex chemical formulations that become our perfumes are subject to numerous environmental laws. Like any other factory using chemicals, they are regulated by the Clean Air Act; Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know act, and Clean Water Act.

Patchouli actually became known as the hippie scent even before the US EPA was created. But hippies weren’t the first to take it out of the jungle. King Tut was buried with 10 gallons of patchouli oil. The Chinese, Japanese and Arabs thought it had aphrodisiac properties. And clothing sent from Asia was scented with patchouli because the smell supposedly kept away moths. The plant’s been used to treat skin inflammation and scars, headaches, colic, even depression. Today it’s in paper towels, detergents, and air fresheners, as well as perfume.

And after I have whiffed patchouli-infused perfume I will let you know on which side of the fence I sit.

More info: Why EPA doesn’t regulate use of fragrances indoors

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, eight chickens, dusky conure, chicken-eating dog and a great community.