Fragrance is a mixture of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents in liquid form to give the human body, food, objects and living-spaces an agreeable scent. It is used to enhance appearance and evoke memories, emotions and moods in the user. Today, we use more than 5,000 different fragrance chemicals in diverse products ranging from perfume and cologne to scented candles and soaps. Most of these chemicals are not disclosed, and many have been linked to serious health problems including allergies, dermatitis, reproductive and developmental toxicity and cancer.
The term “fragrance” can be misleading, as the word is also used for a range of non-perfume perfumes and scented cosmetics, like aftershave, deodorants, hair spray and air fresheners. Some of these are regulated as drugs by the FDA (the Federal Drug Administration) and may be advertised as being effective in treating particular conditions, such as stress or muscle aches.
There are two broad groups of fragrance ingredients – those extracted from natural raw materials, and those synthetically manufactured. The natural ones come from roots, bark and flowers of plants gathered around the world; they are often processed by distillation or extraction techniques. Some are obtained from animal sources, such as ambergris collected from a whale or the musk of a civet cat; nowadays synthetic chemicals that mimic these smells have become the standard .
Perfume has been in production for thousands of years, starting in the days of the Pharaohs, who valued perfume and considered it to be a gift from the gods. It was subsequently developed by the Romans, the Persians and the Arabs, and later made into a science by the development of analytical chemistry. The art of making perfume was further refined in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the first perfume bottles were introduced.
Modern perfumes are created in laboratories to create a specific scent, and they are classified into 5 different types loosely based on the concentration of their aromatic compounds. The highest concentration is called parfum or extrait and has the strongest scent. Its main constituents are usually eucalyptus, jasmine and rose oils. The middle notes are a combination of a variety of flowers, spices and herbs; and the base note is typically woody or musky, and is derived from a range of materials including oakmoss, labdanum and cedarwood .
A perfume ingredient list might contain over 100 chemical components. In addition to the actual fragrance chemicals, the list will include stabilizing agents, emulsifiers, preservatives and dyes. Fragrance chemicals are sourced both from natural and synthetic raw materials, but the vast majority of them are manufactured through industrial synthesis. As a trade secret, the exact chemical formulations of most fragrance products are not disclosed on the product packaging. Consequently, it is difficult to determine the toxicity of these chemicals alone or in combination. This lack of transparency is an important factor in the rise of allergy-causing fragrance chemicals, which are not required to be listed on product packaging.