The Truth About the Fragrance Industry

Written by Leanna Serras

Perfumes and scented oils have been used since the beginning of human history and its use has been recorded as far back as the ancient Egyptians and ancient China. The use of scented oils and perfumes were used in religious ceremonies and as a pre-love making ritual, which is not much different than our uses today.

Some scents were retrieved by extracting the gum and sap from trees, as in the case of Myrrh, or from the steeping of petals or leaves from the Rose plant or any other aromatic plant. Trade routes were based on the trade of scents, in the form of spices, essential oils, and rare plants from which perfume could be made. It wasn't until the 19th century that the perfume industry as it is known today became apparent. Advances in chemistry at this point in time allowed for larger distribution and larger amounts to be made. Prior to this, perfumes were made in small personal batches at home.

Regulation of the Fragrance Industry

The fragrance and perfume industry is regulated by the FDA and GRAS, as well as being self regulated by internal organizations like the RIFM and IFRA.

The FDA requires that the ingredients of a product be listed on the label, but in the fragrance industry ingredients are trade secrets so it is not required. The FDA does ban the use of about 10 chemicals in the use of cosmetics but that is where their portion of regulations stops.

GRAS stands for "generally recognized as safe" and has been in use since the 1850s. Any substances used after 1958 must meet strict guidelines and testing to be sure that they are safe. GRAS is really an industry regulation and not an FDA regulation. The designation in GRAS shows that the ingredients are safe to use in fragrances.

The RIFM, or Research Institute for Fragrance Materials, was formed in 1966, in an effort to provide research on commonly used fragrance materials. The organization performs toxicity tests and allergy testing, as well as phototoxicity testing. After testing, the results are sent to the IFRA, International Fragrance Association, for evaluation. The IFRA then determines the safe use of the material.

Health Effects of Fragrance Chemicals

Fragrances are, by definition, chemical organic compounds that are released into the air through vaporization which is why humans can smell them. They are used to scent the air and ourselves but can pose health risks in the form of dermatological and neurological issues and they can decrease the indoor air quality. Some individuals, such as asthmatics, can have severe reactions to scents which can lead to hospitalization. Migraines can also be caused and triggered by the use of fragrances. As humans use more of these fragrances, the instance of these problems and concerns rise. Air quality can affect any person exposed to high concentrations of chemical fragrances and can cause flu like symptoms in some cases. Some people experience allergies after being exposed to scents. These adverse effects are caused by a lax industry standard on the testing and research of the materials used in fragrances.

Chemistry Lesson

Fragrances use organic compounds, both natural and synthetic, which are volatile in nature. Volatile means that they are vaporized. They are composed of ethyl alcohol and a percentage of essential oils which contains the organic scent compounds. Fragrances are diluted in ethyl alcohol because the essential oils in their concentrated form can cause skin irritation as well as respiratory problems. Many perfumes are now scented by using synthetic fragrances and compounds not normally found in nature for the lower cost of development. Fragrances are built with primary and secondary, or supporting, scents to produce the final fragrance intended by the perfumer. In addition, blending agents and fixatives are added to maintain the scent over longer periods of time.

Fragrances and the Workplace

In recent years companies and corporations have instituted "scent free" workplace policies that limit the use of perfumes and scented cosmetic products as some co-workers have had severe reactions to them. The companies wish to keep the indoor air quality high as it keeps their employees healthy and productive. Many products, not just perfume, are being limited in the workplace to help clean up indoor living conditions and environments. More of these policies will be likely as more perfumes use synthetic scents and compounds that have not been fully tested.

The fragrance industry has been in existence for hundreds of years and provides the population with wonderfully scented discount perfume and cologne. The industry regulates itself with minimal interference from the FDA which creates concerns in the materials used in developing the fragrances. Some of these fragrance chemicals, but not all, are harmful to humans and animals in enclosed areas and can lead to respiratory, skin, and sinus problems.