What is Fragrance?


Fragrance, or parfum in French, is a mixture of fragrance chemicals that gives personal care and cleaning products their distinctive smell. According to the International Fragrance Association, there are more than 3,500 fragrance chemicals used in a wide variety of products. Many of these have been linked to health harms including allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and reproductive disorders.

Fragrances are typically derived from a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients. The natural components, called essential oils, are obtained from plant roots, bark, seeds, leaves and flowers through physical processes such as distillation or extraction. The synthetic fragrance chemicals, called aromatic compounds, are manufactured through chemical processes. Some perfumes are also based on animal odors, including those of whales and the civet cat; however, today’s perfumes contain synthetic replacements for most of the important animal-derived materials.

Perfumes are grouped into 5 categories loosely based on the concentration of aromatic compounds: perfume, eau de parfum, eau de toilette, toilette, and cologne. Eau de parfum (or EdP) is a concentrated perfume with about 20-30% aromatic compounds; eau de toilette or EdT contains about 10-20%; and eau de cologne has about 2-6 percent perfume concentrate. Other forms of fragrance include scented soaps, hand creams and body sprays.

The scents that compose a fragrance are emitted at different times, forming the perfume’s “profile” or “character”. A fragrance usually consists of several layers of odorous substances that combine and evaporate over time. Depending on the chemistry and the ingredients, some fragrances will last longer than others. The first layer of odorous substances, the top notes, evaporates quickly and is often the most fleeting. The middle notes, or heart notes, are a mellow, more rounded olfactory experience, lasting about 30-60 minutes. The base notes, or the body of a fragrance, are rich and deep smelling and usually last for several hours.

Each perfume has a distinctive profile, and the composition of the scent depends on the natural or synthetic aroma chemicals that are used to create it. A single fragrance can have dozens or hundreds of ingredients, and the manufacturers are not required to list them on the product label because they consider their formulations a trade secret. Some of these fragrance chemicals, such as diethyl phthalate, have been linked to a range of health harms.

Fragrance-containing products that carry the EWG VERIFIED mark are free of these and other chemicals of concern, but many don’t. Even when a product is free of chemicals that may be harmful to your health, it could still contain fragrances made with a blend of ingredients including the more than 3,500 fragrance chemicals identified by the International Fragrance Association as potentially hazardous. To help consumers, EWG developed a fragrance scoring system that provides information about the potential health risks of a product’s scent.