What does “Fragrance” even mean? | Ingredient Alchemy Lab #3

Dear Quest Followers, You surely have spotted it on the back/bottom of your perfume bottle, hand cream, shower gel or laundry liquid once: “fragrance” or “perfume”?


Ever wondered just what it might be?

Follow me into a mystery thriller…

For the record: A healthy Quest has never felt as fun-free before. I do all I can to make my Healthy Beauty Quest a cool and funky one, but I am about to give up on this one.

You see – I’m a perfume LOVER. I’m not into scented products, but I love me an elegant, heavy juice.

Noses are my heroes. I know all about the new launches (well, the relevant ones) – I can dwell in comparisons of Chanel N°5 with the new… See, I’m already getting off topic!

And below’s just a little part of my humble collection. I love those beautiful bottles to pieces. Add about twice as many bottles I keep in my clothes closet, and a huge box with small sized travel editions, minis and samples I buy bought in heaps to test novelties or rare editions.

Lolita Lempicka, Costume National, by Kilian, Caron – I love them juices sweet and mellow. How the girly Vera Wang made it into the collection, I don’t remember, but it’s a very decent one.
Tom Ford, Van Cleef and Arpels, Patou (Forever was discontinued pretty soon after launch, but I keep a bottle), Serge Lutens, Thierry Mugler, Bulgari

Nevertheless, once I started getting involved with the healthy beauty (I will tell this story someday), it turned out pretty soon: Perfumes aren’t exactly the sweethearts of health.


As soon as I started looking up the ingredients, it turned out that while certain things were declared, some were not. And things that were declared, turned out possible or known allergenes. Especially the colourings weren’t all roses.

Fragrance, be it in a perfume or in fact in anything with a scent (from a soft lipgloss to a fabric softener), always remained mentioned as, simply, fragrance. I checked. Look:

The most transparency was obtained with some organic companies who would either add an asterisk (*) and say “from organic essential oils” or declare the essential oils right away. This doesn’t mean, however, that the most transparency always meant the most safety: A human body can take offence at pretty much anything in nature. Yours Truly is allergic to aloe vera, go figure.

To make me feel even more lost on my Quest, newspapers as well as authorities kept bombarding me with painful headlines like “perfume will make you infertile”, “hormone disruptors in body lotions”, “your perfume is killing you”, along with “scents to be banned from workplace” and “chemical sensitivity patients: no handshakes please”.

This left me with a headache. Or, as your friendly neighbourhood geek would say, buttquite-the-opposite-part-of-body-hurt.

And after the ache was gone, I had one question left – I sure know I can live with unscented care products, but: Can I wear perfume?

This question could be answered if I found answer to these three heaps of questions:

  1. Stuff that I found declared in perfumes I use wasn’t toxic except for some colouring agents – in fact, the fragrant part was either harmless or allergenic (from heavy and known to weak or suspected). Where did the awfully toxic stuff come from?
  2. Did it come from the mystic “fragrance” part? But then it can’t be all the same “fragrance” everywhere, so: What’s “fragrance” for?
  3. And if “fragrance” can contain toxic chemicals: I thought everything today is tested for safety? .


Yes. Phew! The obvious part. Everything today is tested for safety. This admission system has its weaknesses but yes – stuff gets tested heaps. So what’s the matter then?

Let me quote (and translate) from a relevant German Federal Environment Ministry paper:

Most of the 2500-3000 substances used as aromatic substances are on the market for a long time. They are so-called existing substances (Altstoffe) – substances that came into the market before 18 September 1981. Only few of those substances come to the market in relevant quantities. Only about 15 substances figure prominently with a production volume of over 1000 tons per year. The safety of most of these substances – that make 95% of the total production of aromatic substances – has been tested by the industry in toxicologic and ecotoxicologic tests for humans and environment. But the many substances produced in smaller quantities have been but incompletely evaluated.

What does it mean? It means: There are about 30’000 undeclared compounds out there that haven’t been tested for safety. 

“Yeah, but is it really that tragic?”


Three good reasons why we should be able to know exactly what’s in a “fragrance”:

  1. Scented stuff is everywhere, not just in your personal care products. Air designers create room scents in malls to make you shop more, and in offices to make you work harder – in several countries though the use of scented products is beginning to be a concern for workplace safety. And of course, you take in all perfumes people around you are sporting. You do take it in, just as you take in the smoke of another person’s cigarette.
  2. Whenever we breathe in a scent, it gets directly into our blood stream and into our nerve pathway where nasty compounds can wreak havoc freely. Then the compounds can go all the way up into our brain. Some research suggests scent is also getting into our system via skin. Do we want hormone disruptors or poisons or allergenes in our blood stream? Just because the suit and tie guy in the lift wanted to smell like a Hollywood hunk from the ad? Certainly not! (And hey, suit and tie guy in the lift: great cologne choice, but I seriously doubt you’ll look as good naked as the ad model. Fool my nose, but you can’t fool my eyes.)
  3. Our body is smart and gets rid of stuff. But many of those fragrant substances are persistent and bioaccumulating = they accumulate in our fat tissue (and there’s a lot to accumulate in!), in breast milk, and in the environment where they get into the water cycle and back into our food. Not sexy.
  4. It’s something we’re asked to pay money for, FFS! Doesn’t matter if it’s an Eau de Parfum, or a scented product from scented paper for your love letter to a scented lube in case the love letter worked – we’re talking about fragrance as an “ingredient”. And for crying out loud, I want to know what I pay for! I don’t need the trade secrets, I just want to know: Will it give me asthma or diabetes (phtalates will)? Will it make me infertile or obese (BPA)? Will it confuse my thyroid? Will it kill things in the environment? Will I get headaches and possibly allergic reactions? Will it affect other people who are really not responsible for my product choice?

So. How can we please get an info what’s inside a fragrance that’s in our perfume, in our body lotion, in our laundry liquid, in our lip gloss!?


Bad news first?

Fragrance is protected intellectual property. Because of course making a perfume is both a science and an art, so the final product needs to be protected. So it doesn’t need to be disclosed with the INCI. Tadaa!

Today, most fragrances – and I remind you, I’m not talking only about your Eau de Toilette, I’m talking about food aroma, about the scent of a new car in your actual new car, of course about the scent of your air freshener, soap, dish detergent, body lotion, all of those and many more – are created by fragrance and flavouring manufacturers or laboratories. It’s an industry.

Most important/renowned/major companies of this industry are: Givaudan, Firmenich, Symrise, and IFF (International Flavors & Fragrances). Their summarized market share in 2010 was 57%. As in every industry, smaller labs and manufacturers and – of course – independent perfume-makers do exist.

How does the fragrance industry operate?

In one of my all-time fave books, Deluxe – How Luxury Lost Its Luster, the author Dana Thomas explains today’s industrial fragrance development pretty well: make a formula, and wait for a marketing person to show up with a briefing for a new perfume. Of course, the same labs will brew you a fragrance for a “raindrops-fresh” laundry liquid, a “caramel” fat and sugar free ice cream, a vegetarian salty snack with bacon aroma, an air freshener, candy, soda, toothpaste flavour and so on and so forth. You get the idea of how much FRAGRANCE surrounds us.

Now the meat.

How is the fragrance industry regulated?

Well, there are of course authorities for food safety regulations. In the EU it’s the EFSA, in the USA it’s the FDA (nuff said). There are chemical controls and REACH in the EU, and the watchdogs of course. But the fragrance industry mostly regulates itself. .


If you follow the news, you, too will remember the catchy newspaper headlines when scientists find highly toxic/neurotoxic, sperm-damaging AND obesity/insulin-resistance-causing (=diethyl phtalate/DEP), allergenic, enviromentally hazardous, and otherwise unpleasant components in scented products (and not just perfumes).

And while the EU banned a lot of nasties during recent years, and is yet to research and probably to ban much more, today, in 2013, chances still are you pick a Room Spray, a Laundry Freshener, an After Shave, an Eau de, or simply a Scented Body Lotion, Shower Gel, or Scented Candle (oh, the candle controversy!) that’s not good for you at all.

And: Just like smoking, it will harm those around you. The German Ministery for Environment keeps warning consumers that the use of scented products is potentially harmful. I’d say we move in the right direction.

Fragrance formulas are protected by law = they can’t be disclosed. So nobody can’t tell what exactly is hiding behind “fragrance”. It can be fine – or it can be toxic.


When people complain about regulations and warnings and want their daily dose of “fragrance”, they remind me of a little kid who strikes for freedom… freedom to have another candy. And I feel fooled when brands greenwash their product lines with corporate brochures and consumer flyers talking about “plants” and “sustainability” – while their INCI lists speak a whole other language.

Yes, I bemoan the reworking of “good old” perfume classics – they were art.

But I’m not happy that the industry’s wants to sell me a pig in a poke either.

I must say that really, transparence is key and knowledge is power. (Especially if I pay bloody 200€ per bottle – again, I don’t like scented products, but I want to be able to wear my beloved Eaus.)

And I haven’t found any “natural” or “organic” or “fully declared” perfume YET that could satisfy my requirements for a perfume as a piece of wearable, wonderful, alluring art.

My wish? That the fragrance industry gets modern, safe, and transparent. I believe that great noses can create amazing things using safe compounds, natural or chemical – doesn’t matter to me, all I want them to be is safe.

My way to go?

  1. Logical: I’ve banned all scented products except certified organic candles.
  2. Guilty: I still use my favourite perfumes, now and then, not as often as I used to and in almost homoeopathic amounts. The ladies of No More Dirty Looks for example are much stricter: no perfumes at all except for natural concoctions. I don’t have their courage yet. Not guilty. UPDATE NOV 2013: Having researched and tested natural perfumes, I now have a small but brilliant non-tox collection I love to wear. Just follow my path browsing this tag: safe perfumes
  3. Forward-looking: And I try everything out that says “I’m an organic, toxins-free perfume” – with a moderate success.

My perfumed regards,

Stay safe and healthy.




Geeking out about all things truly green, healthy and ethical over at BEAUTYCALYPSE.com (Avatar illustration by A. Goncharenko)

26 Responses

  1. gb

    Your style is so unique in comparison to other people I’ve read
    stuff from. Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this site.

  2. BLYSS chocolate

    ”Our body is smart and gets rid of stuff. But many of those fragrant substances are persistent and bioaccumulating = they accumulate in” us! That is the issue. Brilliant that you really showed what these scents are. Helped open my eyes alot, am heading to bathroom now with a micorscope!

      1. BLYSS chocolate

        agreed: consumers MUST start asking questions.
        in everything we are seeing – products, media, messages are all being so formulated to get us to buy, not understand so we have to take the next step!

      2. BLYSS chocolate

        agreed: consumers MUST start asking questions.
        in everything we are seeing – products, media, messages are all being so formulated to get us to buy, not understand so we have to take the next step!

  3. Serge Lutens?

    oh. my.


    (we sit hear writing in clouds of Chloe by Chloe – yes, the original 1975 – hard to find these days).

      1. Chloe by Chloe is a reminder of sandy toes and salt-sweet skin from swimming and a day exploring estoril, portugal and the taste of delicious freedom as a Teen.

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