The word "fragrance" or "parfum" on the product label represents an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.
Function(s): Deodorant; Masking; Perfuming
Other names: Aroma; Parfum
Developmental & reproductive toxicity: ○○○○○○○○○○○○
Allergies & immunotoxicity:
Natural or synthetic?
Natural & Synthetic
What Is It?
Fragrances are complex combinations of natural and/or man-made substances that are added to many consumer products to give them a distinctive smell. Fragrances are used in a wide variety of products to impart a pleasant odor, mask the inherent smell of some ingredients, and enhance the experience of using the product.
Fragrances create important benefits that are ubiquitous, tangible, and valued. They solve important functional problems and they satisfy valued emotional needs. Fragrances can communicate complex ideas – creating mood, signalling cleanliness, freshness, or softness, alleviating stress, creating well-being, and triggering allure and attraction.
Why is it used in cosmetics and personal care products?
Fragrances have been enjoyed for thousands of years and contribute to people’s individuality, self-esteem and personal hygiene. Consumer research indicates that fragrance is one of the key factors that affect people’s preference for cosmetic and personal care products. There are hundreds of fragrances created every year, in countries all over the world.
Our sense of smell is directly connected to the brain’s limbic system where our sense of memory and our emotions are stored. Numerous studies confirm that fragrances enhance well being and have a positive impact on the psyche. Often a particular fragrance becomes strongly associated with product identity and acceptability.
How are fragrances regulated?
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Regulation, a fragrance is "any natural or synthetic substance or substances used solely to impart an odor to a cosmetic product." Fragrances are regulated (as are any other ingredient used in cosmetics and personal care products) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), which gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad legal authority to protect the public.
If a product is intended to be applied to a person’s body to make the person more attractive, it’s a cosmetic under the law. Here are some examples of fragrance products that are regulated as cosmetics:
Fragrance ingredients are also commonly used in other personal care products, such as shampoos, shower gels, shaving creams, and body lotions. Many other products that may contain fragrance ingredients, but are not applied directly to the body, are regulated, not by the FDA, but by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Here are some examples:
Room air fresheners
Labeling of Fragrance Ingredients
If a cosmetic is marketed on a retail basis to consumers, such as in stores, on the Internet, or person-to-person, it must have a list of ingredients. In most cases, each ingredient must be listed individually. But under U.S. regulations, fragrance ingredients can be listed collectively simply as “Fragrance.”
Here’s why: FDA requires the listing of all cosmetic ingredients under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (FPLA). However, this law is not allowed to be used to force a company to disclose “trade secrets.”
Fragrance and flavor formulas are complex mixtures of many different natural and man-made chemical ingredients, and they are the kinds of cosmetic components that are considered to be “trade secrets.”
Similarly, in the European Union (EU), perfume mixtures are labeled collectively as "parfum," except for 26 specific perfume ingredients which are required to be listed individually by name.
Fragrance ingredients in cosmetics must meet the same requirement for safety as other cosmetic ingredients: they must be safe for consumers when they are used according to labeled directions, or as people customarily use them. This is a responsibility that fragrance manufacturers and the companies that use fragrances in their products take very seriously.
The safety of fragrance ingredients is assessed by a comprehensive program operated by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This comprehensive program, in operation since 1973, includes a Code of Practice (the Code) that provides recommendations for good manufacturing practices and guidelines on fragrance ingredient safety assessment, including fragrance safety standards which limit or ban the usage of certain fragrance materials. IFRA oversees the gathering of information about the safety of individual fragrance ingredients and reviews this information to determine safety under expected conditions of product use. The conclusions of the IFRA safety review are published in the IFRA Code of Practice which provides critical guidance to fragrance formulators and users to establish product safety.
Scientific review of fragrance ingredients is also conducted by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). RIFM is a non-profit scientific institute, founded in 1966 for the purpose of generating and evaluating safety data on fragrance ingredients. RIFM evaluates and distributes scientific data on the safety assessment of fragrance raw materials found in perfumes, cosmetics, shampoos, creams, detergents, air fresheners, candles and other personal and household products. RIFM's Database of Fragrance is the most comprehensive source worldwide for toxicologydata, literature and information on the safety evaluation of fragrance materials. The scientific foundation of RIFM is built around its independent Expert Panel (REXPAN), made up of toxicologists, pharmacologists, dermatologists and environmental scientists, none of whom has any other connection to the fragrance industry, and whose work involves the safety evaluation of fragrance ingredients under conditions of intended use. The results of the RIFM Expert Panel evaluations are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and their decisions regarding restrictions of use are published in the IFRA Standards.
Fragrance Allergies and Sensitivities
As described in the safety sections above, fragrance and cosmetic/personal care product manufacturers are diligent in assessing the safety of fragrances and their ingredients. A very small percentage of individuals may be allergic or sensitive to certain ingredients in cosmetics, food, or other products, even if those ingredients are safe for most people. Although some substances may have the potential to cause allergic reactions, they can still be formulated into consumer products at safe levels. This is the case for fragrance ingredients.
Some components of fragrance formulas may have a potential to cause allergic skin reactions (i.e., dermal sensitization) or sensitivities for some people. Based on the chemical, cellular and molecular understanding of dermal sensitization, it is possible to conduct a safety assessment using a methodology known as Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) to determine safe use levels of fragrance ingredients in a variety of consumer product types. More information on QRA can be found on both the IFRA and RIFM websites.
FDA does not require allergen labeling for cosmetics as they do for some food. So, if you know you have specific fragrance allergies, you may want to choose products that are fragrance-free, and check the ingredient list carefully. If consumers have specific questions, they may choose to contact the manufacturer directly. Most companies provide a toll-free telephone number or website where consumers can get more product detail.
A small segment of the population believes they are extremely sensitive to many of the materials found in everyday life, including fragrances. This is sometimes referred to as “multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)” or “environmental illness (EI).” However, the American Medical Association, American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, the California Medical Association and the American College of Physicians have all rejected MCS or EI as a recognized clinical syndrome or disease. In addition, the United States Department of Justice has specifically rejected the characterization of MCS or EI as a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA).