What is Fragrance?

Fragrance is a mixture of chemicals that gives a perfume, cologne or aftershave its distinctive smell. It can come from natural, plant-derived fragrant essential oils or synthetic aromatic compounds. A perfume can also contain other ingredients to improve its marketability or shelf life such as colorants and preservatives. The single word fragrance covers dozens or sometimes hundreds of chemicals found on the ingredient lists of beauty and cleaning products as well as in cosmetics, hair care products and some foods. Many of these fragrance chemicals have been linked to adverse health effects.

Using the music analogy, fragrances are composed of sets of notes that create a harmonious scent accord. The top notes, which evaporate quickly, make a person’s initial impression, usually within minutes of application. Middle notes, which linger for 20-60 minutes and are comprised of less volatile molecules, help to mask the initial odors from the top note and add depth. Base notes, which are large, heavy molecules that last 2-4 hours, provide a lasting impression.

The fragrance industry classifies perfumes into families based on the aromas of their aromatic components. These family classifications are only loosely defined, and a perfume can often have aspects of several different families. For example, even a perfume named for a specific flower will have subtle undertones of other flowers. The use of the term family is a marketing strategy that helps consumers recognize and buy a particular scent.

Perfumes are classified into 5 main groups loosely based on their concentration of aromatic compounds: Eau de parfum, eau de toilette, eau de cologne, eaux de gèrance and extrait. Each of these perfumes has a slightly different blend of ingredients that contribute to the overall smell. Generally, the higher the percentage of aromatic compounds, the more expensive the perfume.

The term fragrance can be confused with the words odor, redolence and scent. All of these words refer to pleasant odors but scent more specifically implies the odor of growing things such as flowers or plants. The terms odor and redolence are more general, suggesting that they apply to all odors that people like.

Most perfumes and colognes include fragrance in addition to other chemicals that improve its marketability or shelf life, such as colorants and preservatives. They may also contain surfactants to help them spread evenly on the skin and improve absorption. Some perfumes also contain a moisturizer to keep the skin soft and smooth.

Many perfumes contain chemicals that have been linked to adverse health effects, such as cancer and respiratory problems. Despite the negative health impacts of some of these chemicals, current laws do not require manufacturers to disclose these chemical ingredients on the product label, so that companies can keep their fragrance trade secrets. The fragrance industry does set its own standards, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) and Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). These organizations also test fragrances for safety to ensure that their use will not negatively impact public health.