would smell as sweet” to paraphrase the famous phase from Shakespeare’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliette. But even though perfumes and fragrances make our world smell better, they can also be harmful to the environment.
One of the biggest issues with the personal care industry and specifically with perfumes is that the consumer does not know what is contained in their perfume. This is because of the composition of the fragrance is kept secret or at best listed in a general manner or in overly complicated chemical names of substances.
When a product lists the term “fragrance” or “parfum” among its ingredients, this actually represents a complex mixture of probably dozens of chemicals. It is estimated that some 3,000 chemicals are used as fragrances in a variety of products used daily, such as perfumes, colognes, and deodorants, but also more generally in most types of personal care products as well as laundry detergents, softeners and cleaning products¹.
Most of today’s fragrances are synthetic chemicals, with between 4,000 to 7,000 compounds used by industry in different combinations to make our senses think we are smelling a particular scent. On average, perfumed soaps contain between 30 and 150 fragrance ingredients, whereas scented cosmetics can contain between 200 and 500 fragrance ingredients².
So what do we know about those mysterious fragrance chemicals? Well, in the first place we know that a lot of these chemicals can be potent irritants for humans triggering skin irritation, allergies and asthma. But our environment is also susceptible to the harmful impacts of perfumes.
For example, one class of this family of ingredients, musks, has been very much in the spotlight during recent years. It has been discovered that musk substances accumulate in the environment. Specifically, they do not degrade when they are released into the environment but instead they attach themselves to the fatty tissue of aquatic organisms and from then bioaccumulate up the entire food chain.
The issue of water pollution and the implications for the life that lives in water ecosystems or that relies on the organisms living in those ecosystems are critical as many other fragrances display similar properties. What is more problematic is that waste water treatment does not effectively remove these substances from the water which inevitably come into contact with multiple aquatic ecosystems³.
Our air also impacted – both indoor and outdoor⁴. Most fragrances are also classified as volatile compounds, which means they break down into other compounds when released into the air; very often these compounds can have more serious environment and health implications compared to the actual fragrance compound. So fragrances add to both indoor and outdoor air pollution and have done so for years. Back in 1990, when the California Air Resources Board released its statistics it was noted that some 265 tons of volatile organic compounds were released into the Californian air each day due to use of consumer products⁴.
And while synthetic fragrances have raised a few eyebrows when it comes to their health and environmental consequences, natural equivalents are not always much better. Musk, which is used both as a fragrance and stabilizing agent in perfumes, can also be produced naturally. For example, the civet, a small, mammal native to tropical Asia and Africa, produces such a musk through its perineal glands. The musk can be harvested by either killing the animal, removing its glands or scraping the secretions from the glands of a living animal. This led several animal rights groups such as World Animal Protection, to express concerns regarding the way the industry was using these animals. Eventually, and as synthetic equivalents emerged, big cosmetic industries moved away from using natural civet musk. Chanel for one announced that its popular perfume Chanel no. 5 replaced the use of civet musk with a synthetic substitute in 1998⁵.