Now Smell This: The Alluring World of Fragrance Is (Man) Made for You

By Amy Ziff

I recently spoke to a packed crowd at the ShiftCon Social Media Conference on why fragrance has become the new ‘F’ word in environmental health circles.

Our sense of smell, the olfactory system, is believed to be our most developed and oldest “basic” sense. Unlike the way other senses are processed, our sense of smell goes directly into our brain to the olfactory area where it is processed and stored. We have over 1,000 smell receptors in our brain (massive compared to touch, which has only four).

I repeat: Smells and scents go directly into our brain.

Think about that. It’s part of what makes scent such a powerful provocateur. It can transport you back in time and place

Smell is so potent that it can unlock memories from deep childhood – memories we didn’t know we had even stored. It can evoke the memory of a person or a particular place. A certain scent can be a favorite food or a security blanket. Fragrance can soothe, bother or please us. 

Did you know that your sense of smell is a bellwether for how healthy you are? The University of Chicago did a study of adults and found that those with anosmia (people who have lost their sense of smell) were more than four times as likely to die in the next five years than those with a healthy sense of smell. Anosmia is also highly correlated with depression and 1 in 20 people suffer from it.

Smell is important, not just to humans, but to all cells and bacteria. Smell is literally a way to “sense” the world.

It’s no wonder retailers and brands want to harness the incredible, evocative and powerful nature of scent. This explains why brands want to create signature scents that are unique to them or what are called “irresistible scents” that people ‘must have’.

But what really goes into a scent?

I particularly like this description from the Perfume Society: “Fragrances today are mostly a fusion of ingredients taken from nature – or inspired by nature – together with the synthetics (man-made ingredients) that are used to make them last longer, ‘carry further’, or stay ‘true’, when worn on the skin.” They can even contain dyes to make them look more like “perfume,” and stabilizers to make them last for eternity.

And thus we have arrived at the mysterious, marvelous and often maddening world of bottled and created fragrance, perfume, parfum or scent.

These scents have been manufactured for us. Perhaps they are inspired by nature, but many contain other, often synthetic, components that can have powerful effects on the human system long after the scent has worn away.

“Fragrance” is used as an umbrella term for a cocktail of natural essences and synthetic chemicals that make up a product’s scent. Companies are legally allowed to keep individual fragrance ingredients secret because they’re deemed “confidential business information,” or “trade secrets.”

The International Fragrance Association (IFRA), representing the world’s fragrance houses, has a published list of roughly 4,000 fragrance ingredients – chemicals and natural ingredients known to be used in fragrance.

That demonstrates there are thousands of ingredients that can go into fragrance, and not all of them are even ‘fragrant’.

Here’s some of what we know (and we certainly don’t know everything because fragrance is elusive). Fragrance, perfume, scent – whatever you call it – is not required to be listed on labels, leaving many consumers guessing at what is really inside the product.

We unfortunately know many common fragrance ingredients can be toxic to human health. Phthalates have been linked to reproductive and developmental harm. Synthetic musks like galaxolide and tonalide are potential endocrine disruptors that don’t break down in our bodies or the environment and are commonly found in blood and breast milk. There are also preservatives like BHT, short for butylated hydroxytoluene, a chemical compound used for preservation. While it’s allowed in food and products, it is linked to endocrine disruption. Incidentally, General Mills considered BHT questionable and removed it from cereals in 2015. Other known fragrance ingredients are parabens; although these are largely being phased out, common ones like methylparaben and ethylparaben are still found in products and are listed on Washington State’s Chemicals of High Concern to Children List.

In addition to chemicals linked to human health harm, some common fragrance ingredients are allergens, and while not everyone has allergic reactions, people who are sensitive to fragrance ingredients have a right to know if they’re used in products so they can avoid them.

By now you might be wondering, Well then, how is fragrance regulated? The answer: it’s not.  

Much of industry voluntarily abides by IFRA. With headquarters in Switzerland, they act as the official “voice” of the fragrance industry. They provide lobbying, public relations and internal guidance for manufacturers. The IFRA Standards are their rules and restrictions on 180+ fragrance chemicals that they deem to have potential hazards. Their ‘red’ list includes ingredients such as styrene (a carcinogen) and resorcinol (a known irritant linked to endocrine disruption. Some have been banned altogether from use, and some have an established maximum level in a product. Unfortunately endocrine disrupting chemicals are active at extremely low levels, so maximum levels are irrelevant for many substances.

The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) is the scientific arm of the fragrance industry, set up by IFRA in 1966 to establish the safety of fragrance materials. They maintain a database of studies, which remain largely unpublished, on fragrance chemicals. All of the research RIFM amasses is only available to members.

But in the US there are no laws; and companies don’t even have to adhere to IFRA or follow RIFM.

Fragrance houses perfect and provide scents to brands. They sell their trade-secret scents for companies to use, but they don’t have to tell the brands what’s in those scents. When brands are asked about ingredients, they often can’t be 100% transparent, because they don’t own the intellectual property for the scent.

It’s a shell game. It doesn’t protect consumers. And it’s an outdated model that needs to go the way of the dinosaur.

Enter the MADE SAFE certification. We verify what goes into every single scent, perfume, parfum or fragrance ingredient in every product we vet. We require 100% transparency because we also think that consumers have a right to know what’s in their products.

Brands may claim they need secrecy to protect their formulas, but at Made Safe we think those days are over. We challenge companies that don’t list all ingredients, because they risk looking like they are trying to hide potentially harmful ingredients. We’re not asking them to expose percentages of ingredients used, just simply the raw inputs.

We promise to keep bringing you information on better-crafted products. We thank ShiftCon for inviting us to talk about this important topic!

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