Fragrance is a word that covers dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of chemicals on the ingredients lists of personal care products. These products include cleansers, scented soaps and lotions, air fresheners, hair sprays, felt-tip art markers and candles. The chemicals in fragranced products can be absorbed through the skin or by inhalation and can cause irritation or trigger allergies. They can even disrupt hormones and cause long-lasting effects like rashes, headaches, asthma, depression and anxiety.
The word is derived from the Latin fragrantis, meaning pleasant or sweet-smelling. The related words perfume and scent are often used interchangeably, but fragnance has more specific connotations of the smells produced by flowers and other growing things, and can be described as a mixture of many different odors or notes, such as those in a rose. Other fragrance terms include redolence, aromatherapy and olfactory art.
People have been using fragrance for centuries. The ancient Egyptians made oil-based perfumes from a variety of plants, and recipes for these perfumes appear in temples and on tomb walls. The modern use of fragranced products in everyday life can be traced back to the 9th century, when Islamic cultures introduced new raw materials to perfumery.
Currently, there are no laws or regulations that require companies to list all of the chemical ingredients that make up fragrance. The word perfume is often substituted for fragrance on product labels to hide a cocktail of ingredients, as well as to protect the trade secrets of fragrance manufacturers, who are self-regulating. This creates a huge loophole in ingredient transparency, as the fragrance industry often chooses to ignore studies linking its chemicals to serious health problems, including cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and sensitivities and allergies.
When fragrance is used to describe a scent, it is often combined with adjectives such as sweet-smelling, floral or woody. For example, one might say, “These flowers are so fragrant.” The word can also be used ironically or humorously, as in, “My socks have a very fragrant olfactory aroma.”
Perfumes contain a blend of perfume and cologne chemicals, plus solvents, stabilizers and preservatives. Fragrance companies purchase these mixtures from perfume houses, which specialize in developing them.
Some fragrance ingredients are treated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as drugs if the manufacturer claims that the perfumed product is intended to treat or cure an illness, such as easing muscle aches. This designation can result in stricter regulatory guidelines and labeling requirements for over-the-counter drugs. It can also trigger a more rigorous risk assessment process, which includes hazard identification, dose-response testing and exposure assessments. In addition, the FDA can require recalls and ban products that may be hazardous. The FDA does not have this authority over other types of fragranced products, such as laundry detergents or fabric softeners. The International Fragrance Association and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials set voluntary standards that many countries use to regulate the safety of fragrance ingredients.