What's in fragrance? Fragrance ingredients

When I say fragrance what do you think of? How about aroma? How about essential oil?

I think of picking flowers as the sun rises, of coffee roasting, of the smell of jasmine flowers in the cool night air, of pine trees and eucalyptus. I think of cinnamon rolls baking and new baby smell.

I don’t think of chemists in white coats manipulating hydrogen and carbon molecules to create nature identical copies of the naturally-occurring scent chemicals in flowers, trees, and animals.

But I should, and so should you, because that’s what ‘fragrance’ means when we see it on our cosmetic or skincare products. What’s actually in fragrance is a trade secret, which means that they won’t tell you on the label, but it’s usually any of around 3000 chemicals in a mix with 100 others. And almost all of these are now produced synthetically, and though they may (but not necessarily) be tested for safety in isolation, they are used in combinations that are essentially untested or tested only by the people selling it.

Your product may contain known carcinogens, skin sensitisers and allergens.  It’s common knowledge that this happens, and the self-regulating fragrance industry merely limits the amounts of these chemicals that can be used in products. Admittedly, each chemical is used in very minute doses, but those doses will mix with the minute doses in every other product we use with fragrance in it. We will breathe them in and apply them to our skin, and some of them will be absorbed into our bloodstream and accumulate in your fatty tissues, or in the fact tissues of other animals that are exposed to them, simply by breathing.

The confusion is exacerbated by the variety of names used. You might see Fragrance, or Fragrance Oil or Aroma Oil or Parfum. Some of these may have essential oils or components of essential oils in them, but essential oils are generally more expensive than synthetic fragrance oils, and therefore less likely to be used in many cases.  

To top it all off, fragrance is in many products you might not expect it to be in, from washing up liquid to laundry detergent, room fresheners to linen sprays, deodorants to children’s toys.

How about essential oils then? Are they all good? They are generally all natural, and they are a whole plant product, generally steam distilled, but they can also be solvent extracted, which means soaked in alcohol which is then evaporated off. They are also extremely powerful. It can take kilograms of plant material to make millilitres of essential oil, so diluting them is best for health benefits and cost-effectiveness. Some essential oils can also be skin sensitisers, another reason they’re not recommended for use undiluted, or on young children.

So for those with scent sensitivity, what’s the solution? Choose fragrance-free or unscented? Actually, even ‘unscented’ can be problematic, as they have actually been ‘de-scented’ by the addition of odour-neutralising chemicals, but may still contain fragrance. It’s a minefield, but one that’s much easier to navigate once you realise that fragrance is a) a cocktail of synthetic chemicals and b) can cause breathing difficulties, headaches and other physical symptoms, and c) you can choose not to use them. Once you know these synthetic fragrances are problematic, that’s when you have the power to do something about them by choosing differently.