How Fragrance Tricks The Brain

Fragrance is commonly listed as one of the top ten ingredients to avoid in clean cosmetics. Dubbed the next secondhand smoke, fragrance, in short, is being ostracized – and for good reason. With consumers moving away from products containing fragrance, chemists contrive clever cover-ups including deceitful marketing, isolating essential oil compounds, and only removing known hormone-disrupting irritants like phthalates from formulas – this is, until another spotlighted irritant makes its long-overdue debut. 

In the context of an ingredient, fragrance is composed of thousands of chemical compounds that fall under the banner of trade secrets. Law protects full disclosure of the ingredient list. Consequently, zeroing in on a particular chemical in fragrance that may be causing adverse reactions including headaches, infertility, and attention deficit disorders is challenging.  

The biggest misconception about fragrance is that it is natural. Unfortunately, it’s anything but. The term “fragrance” refers to a group of synthetic chemicals designed to mimic scents found in nature. In theory, it tricks your brain into thinking you’re smelling a recognizable scent. Furthermore, the term “natural spray” on a fragrance bottle refers to how the atomizer sprays a fine mist – not to the ingredients. 

In order to get around listing fragrance as an ingredient, companies have discovered another inventive way to blur the lines between natural and synthetic: isolating single scent compounds found in essential oils. For instance, when smelling lavender essential oil, the dominant scent compound is linalool. Therefore, it is more cost-effective to isolate and reproduce the compound rather than use the whole natural essential oil. However, by isolating the compound it is no longer considered natural – it is synthetic. This deception is evident when reading an ingredient list where only the compounds are listed without naming which essential oil it originated from. This single-compound loophole is used to avoid listing the taboo terms “fragrance” or “parfum,” and companies have found it to be quite effective.  

 Although there are thousands of trade-secreted chemicals in fragrance, the ones known as phthalates have taken the heat. This well-known hormone endocrine disruptor affects reproductive development. Most commonly known as DEP, DBP, and DEHP, phthalates are a group of chemical compounds primarily used as a plastic softener in children’s toys to aid in making vinyl products flexible and as lubricants in cosmetics. In relation to fragrance, DEP is the main concentrated phthalate. It is used as a solvent and fixative to enhance scent strength. And it is just one of thousands of chemicals in fragrance that are slowly being labeled as harmful.  

With the thesis of traditional beauty often being profits over public health, ingredients that are hiding behind the term fragrance, even "naturally derived" is still, fragrance - a synthetic group of chemicals that is potentially harmful to our well-being.