What is Fragrance?

Fragrance is a mix of chemicals that gives products such as perfume and cologne their distinctive smell. It can be made from fragrant essential oils derived from plants and spices or synthetic aromatic compounds. Manufacturers of personal care, cleaning and other products aren’t required to list fragrance ingredients on their labels. The industry can use more than 3,500 different chemicals to make these scents, and some of them are toxic.

Perfume is the artful blending of certain odoriferous substances in the proper proportions to create a pleasant odour, often called a “scent.” This process dates back thousands of years and is documented in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, Roman, Carthaginian and Islamic texts. Perfume was originally applied as oil-based ointments and was used in religious, burial and daily life rituals. It was also an important status symbol among the elite in Egyptian society and was depicted on decorative art such as paintings and sarcophagi.

The modern perfume industry is divided into five main groups loosely based on the concentration of fragrant compounds. The most concentrated, called parfum (fr: extrait), contains about 20-30% of fragrance ingredients. EdP, or eau de parfum, is roughly half as concentrated and EdC, or eau de toilette, is roughly a third as concentrated. Other than the amount of perfume ingredients, there are no major differences between a parfum and an EdT within a particular perfume house’s range of perfumes.

While natural materials are the most popular fragrance raw material, many perfumers employ some synthetic materials. These are typically used to provide odour characteristics that cannot be readily obtained from a plant. For example, calone is a synthetic compound that provides the fresh ozonous metallic marine effect commonly found in contemporary perfumes. Orchid scents can be reproduced using synthetically derived odour materials such as linalool and coumarin, rather than the expensive natural extracts that would be required.

A perfumer’s choice of raw materials is also determined by their availability and price. The cost of certain materials can rise depending on the season, when a material is harvested and how it is extracted. In addition, a perfume’s aroma can differ from supplier to supplier due to the way a material is grown, harvested and processed. For example, the oil from a jasmine flower can vary significantly between a Morocco-grown and France-grown plant. This is because of how the plant is fertilized, how it is watered and its extraction method.

Natural materials are also prone to adulteration and substitution. Unscrupulous suppliers can add a more desirable ingredient into the plant to boost sales or profits. For instance, a supplier might substitute Indian jasmine for Grasse jasmine, or a perfumer might replace the oil from a rose with a cheaper musk to reduce production costs. This can result in a perfume smelling slightly different from one product to the next, even when the same dilutions are used. In order to ensure consistency, perfumers rely on the international fragrance standards set by IFRA.