Chemicals In the Perfume Industry | 99Perfume

Chemicals In the Perfume Industry


In 1370’s England, the first perfume was made of scented oils blended in an alcohol solution. Queen Elizabeth demanded a fragrance to be crafted due to her sensitivity to bad odors. From that point on, the scent was known throughout Europe as Hungary Water. The fragrance was made up of different herbs and oils which were combined together in order to release the nature of the ingredients. During the 16th century, fragrances were used primarily on those of a higher social status to mask body odor and radiate elegancy. Hungary Water held numerous beneficial factors such as a hand wash, a remedy to cure gout and an antiseptic to eliminate bacteria since sanitation was not as advanced during those times. In the 19th century, perfume underwent a profound change as the development of modern chemistry established the foundations of perfumery as we know it today.[1]

 The value of modern day perfume has skyrocketed leading the fragrance market to be a multi-billion dollar industry that is still growing. However, a wide variety of consumer products contain synthetic ingredients causing a multitude of both long and short term health problems. These toxic chemicals wreak havoc on the Endocrine system leading the body to be susceptible to illness and deadly diseases such as cancers and kidney failure.

  The Endocrine system is a series of glands that produce and secrete hormones the body uses for a wide range of functions such as respiratory, metabolism, sensory perception, growth, movement and sexual development.[2] Endocrine disrupting chemicals are man-made molecules found within the air, soil, water supply, food sources, personal care products and consumer packaged products. The toxic chemicals seeps its way into the bloodstream and into the cells causing the good functioning hormones to be tricked, block good hormones from functioning properly and even change how sensitive our body’s are to other hormones. A profuse amount of public advocacy and activist have voiced their concern about the toxics in consumer products and how it affects the body’s development. Although, passing any act or bill to have correct testing and labeling on the products have been difficult due to the influence of the trade secret of the chemical industry.

(Michael Warhurst 2017, IT’S A NO BRAINER! Action needed to stop children being exposed to chemicals that harm their brain development!, ChemTrust, accessed 26 March 2019,


Early and Recent Extraction of Fragrance Products

            Fragrances were regularly made from all natural materials such as oils from flower petals, grasses, spices, fruits, wood, roots, cloves and resin. By the 13th century, chemists mastered the art of distilling which turned formulating scents into a much more efficient process.[3] Natural ingredients such as essential oils and water were boiled together producing evaporation. The evaporation was collected and separated during the cooling process, then infused with alcohol in order to create the quick-drying perfume that is manufactured today.

In today’s time, the process of perfume making goes through four stages known as collection, extraction, blending and aging. In the first stage of collection, natural ingredients are harvested from different locations of the world and hand-picked for their fragrance. In the second stage, extraction can be done by four different methods such as steam distillation, solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration, and expression. Steam distillation is the process of extracting plant oils by boiling water to a high temperature. Solvent extraction is when benzene or petroleum ether is poured over flowers extracting the essential oil.

After the flower part dissolves and leaves behind a waxy material, the oil is then placed in ethyl alcohol. The oil dissolves in the alcohol and rises. Heat is used to evaporate the alcohol, which, once fully burned off, leaves a higher concentration of the perfume oil on the bottom.[4] The Enfleurage process allows for flowers to be laid on glass sheets coated with grease and placed between two wooden frames. The flowers are then removed and changed until the grease absorbs the fragrance. The Maceration process is similar to the Enfleurage process, except the warmed fats are used to soak up the flower scent. In the Expression process the materials can be manually or mechanically pressed until all of the oils have been collected.

Negative Effects of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

            Marketing and advertising cosmetic fragrance products have played a huge role in enhancing sells, the promotion of cosmetic products, and attracting new customers since the early 1900s. However, there are a multitude of big named businesses who market a wide range of consumer products formulated with synthetic chemicals known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) which have been linked to lifelong health effects. For instance, the modifying of sperm quality and fertility, abnormalities in sex organs, endometriosis, early puberty, altering of nervous system function, immune function, learning disabilities, respiratory issues, metabolic problems, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, neurological, breast cancer in women, and found to cross the placenta and become concentrated in the fetus' circulation.[5]

(Nikki Fotheringham 2014, DIY Cosmetics Solutions That Are More Than Skin-Deep, Fix, accessed 26 March 2019, <>.)

The human population is exposed to Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals in several ways since they can be found in many different sources including the air, food, water and can enter the body through the skin. Some traces of EDCs can be found in industrial chemicals and in pesticides which can seep its way into groundwater contaminating the food chain by accumulating in fish, animals, and people. Household dust can also contain contaminants such as flame retardants, lead, Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB’s) from weathering construction materials and furniture.[6] Many consumer packaged products have also been known to have particles of EDC’s like lotions, anti-bacterial soaps, cosmetics and products with fragrances.

List of Chemical Ingredients


Phthalates are chemicals primarily used to make plastics soft and malleable that is produced from oils which has a variety of different chemical structures, toxicity levels, and uses.

There are more than 20 types of phthalates in use and can be found in cosmetic products like nail polish, hair spray, lotions, food packaging, skin care, baby products, perfumes and other fragranced preparations.



Lead is a naturally occurring element found within the earth’s crust and is malleable as well as toxic to animals and humans causing dangerous health issues.  A 2013 study conducted by the University of California examined different lipsticks and found three-quarters of the cosmetics contained lead.[7] Lead is not necessarily added into the formula of cosmetic products, however, the waxes, oils and pigments used in the process of making them contain lead. Due to the nature of these substances and the fact that they occur naturally in the environment including water, it would be impossible to remove all traces of them. The presence of these elements are not the problem, but the the amount in which they are used is. Not to mention if they are safe to use periodically is something that needs further testing.


Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in making building materials and many household products.[8] It is not typically used in its natural form and when diluted in water or slightly altered, it goes by the name formalin. Formaldehyde is commonly used as a disinfectant and preservative to protect products from being contaminated. Although, formaldehyde is not always used in products, substances that release the chemical are found in products such as soaps, shampoos, fragrances and cleaning products.


Acetyl hexamethyl tetralin

This chemical also goes by Tonalide which is a solid synthetic chemical with a musk odor. It is known to be used in cosmetic items, household cleaning products, air fresheners, and fragrance products. Experimentations with rabbits have shown moderate redness and slight to moderate chemosis of the conjunctivae was seen in an eye irritation test.[9] Other signs include hypothermia, difficulty breathing and increased breathing. More tests are needed to acquire a full understanding on how this chemical reacts with the human body.

Ethylene Brassylate

            This substance is a synthetic musk fragrance used in topical medications and in perfumes, particularly in antibiotics, steroids and eczema creams as a masking agent. This substance is a colorless oil type liquid with a clean, smooth, and sweet scent. Common reactions with this substance is skin irritation, eczema on the hands and those with psoriasis often react negatively to this chemical.[10] Ethylene Brassylate has multiple names as it is used in many products in the US and worldwide. This chemical is still undergoing investigation due to its estrogen activity and interaction with cell membranes.[11]


Public and Business Response

            The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 was implemented to provide the EPA with authority to require reporting, record-keeping, testing requirements, restrictions relating to chemical substances and mixtures. Certain substances are generally excluded from TSCA, including, among others, food, drugs, cosmetics, and pesticides.[12] In 2016, much of the public advocated to have this act reconstructed and renewed since it proved ineffective at banning substances linked to health issues, and many believed its pre-market safety testing was incorrect. In addition, the law also did not require testing for the pre-existing chemicals already in use in the market.

            The significance of (TSCA) was impactful since Republicans who have perpetually voted to downsize the EPA have supported the measure to increase its power. The bill underwent a reform in 2016 and was signed by Former President Barack Obama. Even though the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 did not go as far as many of the advocates wished, it did more good than harm. Currently, the bill has withered under the new presidency and has not been retouched since, but further improvements on the act are still needed.


Chronology of Perfume Scents.

U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Derma Research.

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "Potential Contaminants - Lead in Cosmetics." U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page.

Duncan, Eric. "Topic: Fragrance Market in the U.S."

"Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) | Hormone Health Network."

"Formaldehyde." American Cancer Society.

Hamblin, James. "Toxic Substances Will Now Be Somewhat Regulated." The Atlantic. May 26, 2016.

"Learn about Lead." EPA. August 20, 2018.

Mischa. "The Chemistry of Cosmetics." Curious. November 20, 2018.

Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. "Our Pungent History: Sweat, Perfume, and the Scent of Death." Collectors Weekly.

"Perfume." How Products Are Made.

"Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act." EPA. September 19, 2018.

Warhurst, Michael. "IT'S A NO BRAINER! Action Needed to Stop Children Being Exposed to Chemicals That Harm Their Brain Development!” CHEM Trust. Accessed March 26, 2019.

Fotheringham, Nikki. “DIY Cosmetics Solutions That Are More Than Skin-Deep,” Fix. Accessed March 26 2019.


[1]Chronology of Perfume Scents

[2]Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

[3] Hunter Oatman, Our Pungent History: Sweat, Perfume, and the Scent of Death


[4] The Manufacturing Process

[5] Sensitive Windows of Development

[6] Example of Common EDC Sources

[7] Lead in your Lipstick?

[8]What Is Formaldehyde?

[9]Toxicology Data Network

[10] Common Reactions

[11] Fragrance Ingredient used for Masking and Perfumes

[12]Summary of the Toxic Substance Control Act

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