No bright ideas for Christmas gifts? Give them perfume. Everyone loves it, everyone uses it. You can hardly go wrong. Perfumes save us from the ultimate faux pas of offensive body odour. And they promise to overlay our aroma with lashings of purity, prestige and sexual prowess. As the television advert for Rimmel's new perfume states so vividly: with just a dab of Beat you will soon be making love to a handsome man, in complete sync with your heartbeats.
But what do perfumes contain? We do not know, because perfume-making is an unregulated industry. The formulas are considered trade secrets and the manufacturers are under no obligation to reveal them. But perfumes are, in fact, made largely from chemicals, many known for their toxic side effects. Of more than 4,000 chemicals used in perfumes, around 95 per cent are made from petroleum or coal tar. Many of these ingredients, such as ethanol, acetone, formaldehyde and benzene derivatives, known to every schoolchild from the chemistry class, cause cancers, birth defects, infertility and damage to the nervous system. Even chloroform and fabric softeners have been found in certain branded perfumes.
The Environmental Health Network of California carried out an independently funded analysis of one well-known scent and found it contained chemicals on the hazardous waste list and known to cause neurological problems. The network has filed a petition with the US Food and Drug Administration arguing that the label should warn consumers that the product and many of its ingredients have not been tested for safety.
But this is standard for the industry: chemicals in perfume are either not tested for human toxicity at all, or not tested to an acceptable standard. The US National Academy of Sciences considers perfumes, along with insecticides, heavy metals and solvents, as a high priority for neurotoxicity testing.
No wonder that some workplaces in the US and Canada discourage employees from wearing perfume on health grounds. No wonder also that, when recently I dabbed myself with a newly released perfume, I started sneezing and coughing and, a few minutes later, had a headache, a blocked nose, breathing difficulties and a sense of nausea. (I also gashed my toe when I dropped the stylish but ridiculously heavy bottle.) A quick survey of friends revealed complaints of dizziness, vertigo, rashes, irregular heartbeat and muscle and joint pains after using perfume. One friend complains of eczema behind the ears where she frequently douses herself with a well-known perfume.
Perfumes are bad for the environment as well as for our personal health. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the musk deer - whose population is down to between 400,000 and 800,000 - is being driven to extinction by the demands of the international perfume trade. Musk is one of the few natural ingredients used in modern perfume and it is three to five times more valuable than gold. Between three and five animals die in man's search for a single male that will yield a decent amount of musk from its "pods" or scent glands. Similarly, agarwood (also known as aloeswood, eaglewood and gaharu), another natural ingredient of modern perfumes, has been exploited to extinction. In the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia, the eight species of agarwood have already reached the point of no return.
But perfumes are, above all, a lie. The lie is revealed the moment you open the package. The boxed product presents itself as large and substantial. The actual bottle tends to the minuscule. Alexander McQueen's Kingdom, a perfume described as a "love letter", comes in a bulky square box. Within the packaging lies a miniature bottle shaped like a slice of melon.
And it's the bottle, not the perfume, that matters. Christian Dior's J'adore comes in an elegant conical flask, its narrow neck encrusted with a gold-coloured (plastic) band, holding a chunky, round stopper. Cerruti 1881 is a stylish, slim, spherical bottle with a silver band and marble top. Issey Miyake's L'eau d'Issey is housed in a conical bottle, with gleaming silver top. The bottle for Bvlgari's Omnia looks like two solid rings welded together at a right angle. Jean-Paul Gaultier topped it all by putting his fragrance in a glass torso, which itself was placed inside a tin can. Each bottle is carefully designed to become a collector's item - hence the roaring trade in perfume bottles on the internet.
Advertisements make outlandish claims. The simple use of Hugo Boss perfume, we are told, will free us from all moral constraint and enable us to make our own rules. The advert for Chance by Chanel suggests that the perfume will waft you away to Venice where you will meet the prince of your dreams: "It's your chance. Take it." Many advertisements show couples on the verge of orgasm. In one advert for L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci, a women bends to kiss a (penis-shaped) bottle of the perfume. Obsession, displayed in a series of surreal adverts, has been the theme of Calvin Klein's perfume. An advert for Poison by Christian Dior hints at murder and depicts a model with a deathlike face. In the current advert for Yves Saint Laurent's Opium, the model Kate Moss, wearing a black corset, appears in what looks like a drug-inflicted stupor.
Modern perfumes are not just any old lie - they are a fundamental lie. Almost everything about them, from the contents to the packaging to the advertising, is false. They represent the worst form of cultural fundamentalism. Like all forms of fundamentalism, these perfumes emphasise purity, often reflected in their names: Eternity, Feminine, Blue Water, Red, Nude. And like all varieties of fundamentalism, they promise safety and security, comfort and fulfilment, identity and self-definition. Just as every form of puritanism is about power and domination, modern perfumes, too, are essentially all about power.
Perfumes and empires are as close to each other as scent and emotion. Europeans went east in search of frankincense and myrrh as well as gold. The "silk road" from China carried as much scent as silk. These oil-based perfumes were derived from the distillation of flowers, which made them a bit heavy, but also gave them their incredible intensity and depth. Their names reflected their principal ingredient - Jasmine, Rose, Henna, Saffron - and they were used for therapeutic purposes as well as to smell great.
Colonialism, however, defined everything "oriental" and "traditional" as inferior - including eastern perfumes. Modernity demonised them so much that they all but disappeared, even from non-western societies. Industrially produced perfumes are supposed to be "cleaner", "sharper" and "lighter" than traditional perfumes, which are often described as "intense", "dull" and "heavy".
At the beginning of the 20th century, the perfume market was dominated by the French - a reflection of their cultural and economic power. Later, American perfumes gained the upper hand. The £7bn market is now dominated by largely synthetic American and French perfumes - duty-free shops in even the most dilapidated airports find space for these concoctions at the expense of local products.
So what is to be done? Should you never buy or use perfume? I am not saying you should go around smelling unpleasant. Nor am I against perfumes per se. Their seductive power is as old as Cleopatra and it would be foolish to deny the role they have played, and continue to play, in our culture. The point is that modern perfumes are as ubiquitous as junk food and just as unhealthy.
As Patrick Suskind's brilliant novel Perfume demonstrated so well, it used to take roughly six to seven years to produce a new perfume, and it included more than 200 different components - including, in some cases, human faeces. The designer perfumes of today contain fewer than 50 or 60 ingredients and are often made within days, if not hours. That is why every designer, fashion guru and celebrity - Liz Taylor and Luciano Pavarotti, for example - now produces a perfume.
Perfume should be enjoyed in its natural state, the way it was intended. In which case, nothing is more natural and fragrant than one's own sweat. That is the real repository of pheromones, the lodestone of all animal attraction, which perfumiers seek to synthesise. Nature has not produced a superior aphrodisiac, nor have industrial laboratories. So why not cut to the chase and use all those leftover designer perfume bottles to harvest your own sweat?
But if that does not appeal, there are real alternatives to the familiar brand names. Look to history, and to the east. The empire is striking back; traditional perfumes are recovering their lost prestige. Buy attar - the Arabic, Persian and Urdu word for "scent", "fragrance" or "essence". Attars are still made in the way perfumes have always been made in the Orient. They are a complex composition, containing hundreds of different components, of such everyday natural ingredients as lemon, orange, rosemary, ginger, grapefruit, musk, peppercorns, mandarin peel, fig leaves, rose, jasmine, honeysuckle, watercress and bamboo. They contain no alcohol, water or fillers; and unlike western perfumes, which go off within a year, they last for several years. To appeal to modern visual sensibilities, they now come in exquisite designer bottles.
But if your appetite for industrial scent is insatiable, there is still hope. Thanks to techniques such as gas chromatography, it is now possible to match any fragrance with the same or better oils. So you can have the exact smell and feel of your favourite perfume - Estee Lauder's Beyond Paradise, say, or Dolce & Gabbana's Sicily - digitally duplicated in traditional perfume oils.
These oil-based perfumes won't give you prestige, increase your sex drive or knock your identity into shape. But they could do you a world of good and do good for the world. So for the sake of your health and sanity, forswear the designer pongs this festive consumer season. Stay away from those immaculately groomed women at the perfume counters in department stores and duty-free shops, trying to entice you with lethal colourful fluids in designer bottles. Think of another present - or get the perfumes I have recommended.