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Perfume for Kids? : Exploring the Controversy Surrounding Scents for Small Children

July 10, 1988|PADDY CALISTRO

ONCE UPON A time, freshly bathed babies smelled only of talcum powder. Toddlers were occasionally redolent of peanut butter or Play Doh, but never bottled fragrance. Recently, however, a new category of perfume products for small children has appeared. Response from consumers, the media, pediatricians and psychologists has been mixed, with several experts expressing dismay at what L.A. psychiatrist Mark S. Goulston terms "needless items that could cause more harm than good."

Trygg Engen, author of the behaviorial-science text "The Perception of Odors" and an expert in children's olfaction, is specific in his concern. "If fragrance masks an odor in the environment, it could prevent a baby from getting important information. Odors are the basis for attachments. An odorant on the child could interfere with bonding, whereas perfume worn by the mother mixes with her natural chemistry to become a unique smell recognizable to the child."

Another consideration is contact dermatitis, which can be caused by ingredients in fragrances and cosmetics, according to Dr. David Whiting, a clinical professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. "One of the most common sensitizers in adults is fragrance," he says. "Why introduce them to children?"

But Susan Meyer, a spokesperson for Tartine et Chocolat's Ptisenbon, a fragrance line for infants and children, says such worries are overreactions. She says there have been no complaints about the products, which have sold in Europe for two years. Her statement is echoed by Marlene Hare, fragrance buyer for Nordstrom, South Coast Plaza, where Ptisenbon has been a "resounding success since its launch in March." Hare says Nordstrom would refund the price ($30 for a 100-milliliter bottle) if anyone claimed that a baby had a bad reaction, but "there have been no returns."

A boys' cologne called Gregorys, introduced in 1986, is more controversial. Its ad shows a toddler leaning against a miniature Mercedes. Scent creator, Randy Perini, says the photo was "not intended to send out a sex-symbol message but simply to grab attention." Some of the attention was not favorable. A buyer for Fred Segal Baby, who asked not to be named, calls the ad and the scent "too adult," adding that the store has sold only four $15.50 bottles since November.

Objections to children's fragrances in general are voiced by Goulston, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. "Fragrance has always been associated with eroticism. Given the fact that children today are so much at risk of molestation, it would seem irresponsible to make a child more of an object of arousal."

There is less risk, he says, if the fragrance is given to a child "within the framework of play." The new "Perfume Pretty" Barbie, for instance, is packaged with a bottle of child's scent, yet it is marketed as a toy.

Outside the playroom, though, putting scent on kids may be an act of overkill. Goulston cautions: "Parents would do well to analyze who they're really buying perfume for."

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