Fragrance is the combination of organic compounds that emit a distinctive smell or odour. It can be derived from fragrant essential oils and other aromatic compounds from plants and spices or from synthetic aroma chemicals. Cosmetic fragrances applied to a person’s body to produce a pleasant odour include perfume, cologne, aftershave and deodorant . The word ‘fragrance’ on a product label often covers dozens or even hundreds of chemicals whose combinations have been linked to various health problems, including hormone disruption, skin irritation and allergic reactions, asthma, and reproductive harm in both men and women. Fragrance chemicals have also been found in the atmosphere, forming fine particulates that contribute to ozone pollution.
Perfume is the most recognizable type of fragrance and has been worn since ancient times. The ancient Etruscans were great lovers of adornment, and their spirit is embodied in the goddess Lassa (the naked winged woman holding a perfume bottle). The Romans were equally passionate about smelling good, using perfume to enhance their athletic performance in competition and bathing in scented water before combat. Even the gladiators used scented oils to prepare for a fight. Once Christianity rose with its austere attitudes to adornment, however, the popularity of perfume declined. By the mid-nineteenth century, when germ theory was popular and people began to understand that odors from filth carried disease, scenting had taken on a negative public image. Perfume reclaimed a reputation as an opulent adornment for upper classes, and scents became gender stereotyped, with sweet floral blends deemed feminine and sharper woody notes like pine and cedar regarded as masculine.
Scent has been linked to feelings of attraction and arousal, to memory, mood and emotion, and to cognitive function. Perfume can increase self-esteem and confidence, reduce stress and anxiety, and help with concentration. Several studies have shown that pleasant scents stimulate the limbic system, which is involved in emotions, and that these effects can be long-lasting.
The use of perfume is a personal choice, and individual preferences differ greatly. Nevertheless, research suggests that a person’s sense of smell can be affected by their age, emotional state and lifestyle. The fragrance of a person’s clothing, hair and skin is also important to their personal scent.
The single word ‘fragrance’ on a product list usually covers dozens, sometimes hundreds of chemicals whose combinations have been linked by numerous studies to a wide variety of health problems. Some of these are hormone disruptors, like phthalates, which can harm the reproductive system, and others are known allergens, such as diethyl phthalate. The federal government regulates some products that contain these fragrance chemicals, such as perfumes and colognes, but it doesn’t regulate all of them, including personal care, cleaning and household goods. Consumers can check the Skin Deep database to find out what is in their fragrance, and whether any of these chemicals have been linked to health problems. It’s time for the federal government to protect us from these harmful chemicals in all of our everyday products.