Jean-Michel is 45. He gets up every morning raring to go. He adores his job. He performs his morning routine, eats a croissant and drinks a cup of very dark coffee, then heads off to work for one of the world's largest fragrance and flavour manufacturers. Every day offers a new challenge. Today he will be trying to convince EU bureaucrats that rose oil should be banned so that his company could corner the market with a new aroma chemical.

Jean-Michel is fictional. No such person exists. The idea that IFRA is an inside job to kill the natural raw material side of the fragrance industry may seem like an attractive conspiracy theory at first, but upon even cursory examination, this idea falls apart.

Natural fragrance materials represent a sizeable chunk of the fragrance and flavour industry's profits (and this includes the main IFRA members). Creating new aroma chemicals is extremely costly, a big risk, and burdened with its own regulatory pressures. Never mind the all too real possibility that an aroma chemical you have brought to market gets restricted or even banned by IFRA in the future if it is found to be problematic by their standards.

If IFRA were an inside job, this sort of thing would never happen. In fact, the cost and other issues surrounding bringing a new aroma chemical to market are so serious that the production of new aroma chemicals has slowed right down and can be partly blamed for more-of-the-same fragrance launches lately.

Fragrance chemist Charles Sell told a recent BSP audience that it is best to prioritise regulatory compliance over every other aspect, even odour, when designing new aroma molecules. That's the reality now – unless the material can leap over the regulatory hurdle, nothing else matters. That famous Beaux quote “The future of perfumery is in the hands of chemists. We'll have to rely on the chemists to find new chemicals if we are to make new and original accords” has a bittersweet tang in today's world.

Finally, having to reformulate a fragrance falls within the remit of the fragrance supplier – not the brand that markets the product (unless the brand creates its fragrances in-house; a rare situation) – which means it would be sheer insanity to deliberately push for ingredient bans. The cost of replacing a single material can be extremely high, especially if it has been ubiquitous across several products and categories.

The cost of reformulating everything to remove natural materials entirely would be astronomical. Entire businesses would simply stop being able to function. That's not to say reformulation doesn't happen all the time. Sometimes it's because a new IFRA amendment has come into effect and certain materials have to be replaced or adjusted. Sometimes a new material becomes available which allows tweaking of the formula to make it cheaper to produce, or to restore an element previously lost to regulatory or cost pressures.

There is a constant race to produce replacement materials for key banned or restricted ingredients – but it's important to understand that those replacement materials are subject to the same pressures as new, novel molecules. It is an expensive business and it would usually make much more sense to stick to the original ingredient. Sometimes fragrances are reformulated in an attempt to calibrate the scent to better suit modern tastes. Sometimes it's easier to discontinue a product than to reformulate the fragrance. I sometimes talk about ‘zombie perfumes' – scents which have been killed but are still walking around. It would be a kindness to let them go.

The regulatory landscape is quite complex. Most perfume enthusiasts – and sometimes even people who work for fragrance brands and cosmetics companies – seem to mainly talk about IFRA, and often misunderstand what is really behind the changes, or what IFRA is really trying to do.

In fact, it does seem that public perception of fragrance regulations israther muddled – but understandably so. It's not a topic that naturally lends itself to great stories. It's not something that anyone who wishes to be thought of as fun at parties would willingly discuss at length in a social setting.

Nevertheless, with such an increased interest in what goes on ‘behind the scenes' in the fragrance industry, the last few years have seen more than one article and blog post pop up about the impact of fragrance regulations on our beloved perfumes.
The first thing that these articles often get wrong is the structure of the regulatory scene; where the pressure is coming from, and how the regulations and recommendations inter-relate. The real picture is quite complex and the worry is perhaps placed in the wrong area of it. There certainly are gloomy potential outcomes, but the situation is not as it first may seem.

Structure of the fragrance industry​


Above is a simplified overview of how the fragrance industry is structured. In the above context, DIY indie perfumers would fall under “manufacturer/retailers”. A more common path for a fragrance ingredient to end up in a consumer product would be grower → distiller → importer (which can sometimes be the fragrance manufacturer itself) → fragrance manufacturer → brand → contract manufacturer → retailer → consumer.

Ingredients come from rose fields, orange groves and chemical plants and can go through a long journey from source to shower gel. One way for a drop of rose oil to end up in a consumer product would be:

[*]The local rose grower harvests his crop and takes it to the distiller; gets paid for his harvest
[*]The distiller sells his rose oil direct to a fragrance manufacturer
[*]The rose oil gets used in a winning fragrance brief by the fragrance supplier
[*]The fragrance compound is sold to a brand who gets their contract manufacturer to put it into a product.

Along the way, the oil will have come under several laws and regulations. The finished product that contains it will have to pass a safety assessment before it can be sold to consumers. This is where IFRA certificates come in; they are required by safety assessors.

What would it take for us to live in a completely risk-free society?​

Just think about that for a moment. When you have a shower, you might scald yourself. When you drink your morning coffee, you might choke on it. When you step out and walk along the pavement, you might get hit by an out-of-control vehicle. When you sit down at your desk, you could spill your glass of water on your laptop and get electrocuted. I could go on – but it's fairly obvious that we just can't remove all risk from our lives.

It does seem baffling that some bureaucrats seem to try, and in some countries the idea of protecting the general public has perhaps gone too far.

In Finland, cinnamon is a traditional topping for rice pudding, which is frequently served at school. Recently cinnamon was banned in schools because of its coumarin content. Would the general public of Finland be aware of the chemical constituents and potential toxicity of a familiar and much-loved spice? No. Does the amount of coumarin in the typical amounts of cinnamon ingested represent any significant risk to most people? No. When children are concerned, perhaps it's a grey area. They have smaller body mass after all, and may therefore end up with more coumarin in their system from eating an amount that would not be considered harmful to an adult. It does seem a bit like cracking a walnut with a hammer. Finland is famous for taking the cosseting of consumers too far. Of course there were cries of “but we've always eaten it and nothing has happened!”

Appeal to tradition is not logical though, or we would still be sweetening our wine with lead, as the Romans did. Not everything that we've done happily in the past, unaware of the harm we were causing to ourselves or the environment is okay to continue doing today, once we become aware of the dangers. Smoking was once advertised as a healthy habit. Not even the staunchest of smokers can credibly claim that any more.

It's hard to know what the right thing to do is when new information becomes available which shows a substance previously loved and heavily used has some dangerous, even toxic properties. Surely the correct thing would be to raise awareness and let people make their own decisions?

When it became apparent that the PPD (paraphenylenediamine) in hair dyes could lead to anaphylactic shock (a life-threateningly severe allergic reaction), permanent disfigurement, or even death; hair salons and box-hair-colour manufactures in the EU had to add warnings to their products and instruct consumers to perform a hair colour allergy test before applying the product. Yet most consumers seem to ignore these warnings, with the thought being “I've used it for years and I've always been fine.” This is a potentially deadly mistake. Allergies develop over time. Some allergies develop slowly, and only become apparent after years of repeated exposure. One day a woman who has dyed her hair with the same brand of hair colour for 10 years might suddenly react to it because her body has finally developed an allergy to it.

Anaphylaxis is quite a serious allergic reaction, and people have really died from it. Yet the ingredient was not banned. Is it right to allow such a material to be used so widely when the general level of understanding of its danger is poor? Is it okay to leave it in a commonly used product when most people do not understand that just because they were not allergic to it before doesn't mean they won't become allergic to it in the future?

When we are exposed to an allergen, our body develops an immune response to it. In some cases, over time, this develops into an allergy – and the next exposure to the allergen triggers it. Subsequent contact with the allergen can have the same or a more severe reaction.

Sometimes we may experience temporary irritation rather than a full-blown allergy, though the terms tend to be used rather interchangeably by consumers.

The PPD situation does represent an interesting comparison in relation to some fragrance ingredient bans we've had. If the bureaucrats' care about our health and safety was consistent, then surely PPD should be banned, along with peanuts. The main difference may be in how we become exposed to fragrance allergens and in how fragrances are perceived by the EU.


Fragrance ingredients could be thought of as the regulatory casualty of the general public's love of perfume in almost every product​

Shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, deodorant, shaving foam, aftershave, shower gel, bath foam, hand soap, spray tan, laundry detergent, fabric conditioner, face cream…

We don't just adore fragrance – our perception of a product's effectiveness is greatly influenced by its scent. If the shine-boosting shampoo we use has a well-chosen scent, we are convinced our hair is shinier compared to the fragrance-free version; if the laundry detergent has an appropriate scent, the whites look whiter, and our face cream is much more rejuvenating when it smells just so. Fine fragrances can enhance our self-confidence so much that the effect is perceivable by others. The perfume of a long-lost loved one can offer a great deal of emotional comfort. Oddly, even though the EU SCCS (Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety) has consulted the industry when setting their recommendations, they appear to disregard this aspect of fragrance entirely. They seem to think of fragrance as an unnecessary risk with no benefit to the consumer.

We are constantly exposed to fragrances in everyday toiletries, cosmetics, personal care products and household products. As reported in the industry journal Perfumer & Flavorist the global flavour and fragrance market totalled $23.9 billion in 2013, and is expected to reach $25.3 billion in 2014 and $35.5 billion in 2019. Most perfumery work goes into functional fragrances, though the largest exposure for the individuals using fine fragrances comes from the application of those. Then again, by simply peeling an orange, you'll get exposed to plenty of allergens from the orange oil stored in the peel. In fact, there was a study which showed that we are exposed to more limonene through peeling oranges than through fragranced products. In the eyes of the regulators, the risk of that is worth it because oranges have a benefit to the consumer. They're food - nutritious and good for us, so the risk is outweighed by the benefit.

When regulators decided on the first 26 EU ‘allergens', dermatologists' testing kits were heavily involved; using fragrance mixes and patch tests to determine reactions. It has since been argued that some of the substances on the list aren't allergenic, and that some other substances not on the list are far more risky. Certain materials occur naturally in so many essential oils, and are used as isolates, too, that they end up in millions of products and their industry-wide usage is extremely high. This increases our exposure to them and therefore also the likelihood of allergies developing. Other materials like Lyral and Lilial are just so universally loved by consumers, and so useful in popular accords, that they get everywhere, too.

So where do IFRA and the EU fit in, exactly? Who is in charge of deciding what ingredients we are allowed to have in our fragrances?​

The United Nations sets global chemical safety regulations which cover transport and industrial safety. The current system is the Globally Harmonised System (GHS), which is an attempt to unify how chemicals are labelled and handled everywhere. Of course the GHS has not been adopted by all countries as of yet, and its local interpretations vary. The interpretation we use in Europe is called the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation. It covers exactly what the name suggests, and you may have seen CLP hazard symbols on your bathroom cleaner or air freshener bottles. Household products fall under the CLP regulation, and one of the challenges to perfumers in this area of the industry is the creation of fragrance blends which have fewest hazard labels possible. Those warning pictograms don't look attractive in a consumer product.

What do you think this material might be?​


  • Flammable Liquid, Hazard Category 3
  • Skin Corrosion / Irritation Category 2
  • Sensitization - Skin Category 1
  • Aspiration Hazard Category 1
  • Hazardous to the Aquatic Environment - Acute Hazard Category 1
  • Hazardous to the Aquatic Environment - Long-term Hazard Category 1
  • Flammable liquid and vapour.
  • May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways.
  • Causes skin irritation.
  • May cause an allergic skin reaction.
  • Very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.
  • Dangerous for the environment.
  • Harmful.
  • Keep away from heat, sparks, open flames and hot surfaces. - No smoking.
  • Keep container tightly closed.
  • Ground/bond container and receiving equipment.
  • Use explosion-proof electrical, ventilating and lighting equipment.
  • Use only non-sparking tools.
  • Take precautionary measures against static discharge.
  • Avoid breathing vapour or dust.
  • Wash hands and other contacted skin thoroughly after handling.
  • Contaminated work clothing should not be allowed out of the workplace.
  • Avoid release to the environment.
  • Wear protective gloves/eye protection/face protection.
  • IF SWALLOWED: Immediately call a POISON CENTER or doctor/physician.
  • IF ON SKIN (or hair): Remove/Take off immediately all contaminated clothing.
  • Rinse skin with water/shower.
  • Do NOT induce vomiting.
  • If skin irritation or rash occurs: Get medical advice/attention.
  • Take off contaminated clothing and wash before reuse.
  • In case of fire: Use for extinction: Foam, Dry chemical, Carbon dioxide.
  • Collect spillage.
  • Store in a well-ventilated place. Keep cool.
  • Store locked up.
  • Dispose of contents/container to approved disposal site.

Sounds like a really nasty chemical you certainly wouldn't want in your house. Alas, it is information taken from the safety data sheet for sweet orange oil. However, if you had a bottle of it at home and your toddler drank it, it could be deadly. In fact, even an amount as small as 10ml can cause major problems if it is aspirated. There are some inconsistencies in the regulations. If you put pure orange oil into a container, label it a natural de-greaser and sell it as a household product, you'll have to have all those scary pictograms and various warnings on the bottle. If, however, you bottle pure orange oil and sell it as an aromatherapy product, it might not carry any warnings at all. It's a baffling situation and it could be said that it's actually quite dangerous to sell essential oils to people who may have no idea of the risks.

If a drum of orange oil sprung a leak in a warehouse, it could pose a serious health and fire hazard. You would also have to inform the local water board of the hazardous waste going down your drains and it could cause a serious problem.

The first area of concern with fragrance safety is not, what the industry would call the ‘end user'. First, we must look at safe handling in industrial settings and in road and air transport.

Chemical spills happen all the time, as do industrial accidents and long-term cases of chemical poisoning at work. These are no laughing matters. The disaster does not have to be in the scale of Bhopal (1984) for it to have disastrous environmental and health effects. Many common (natural and synthetic) fragrance materials are flammable, corrosive, toxic, suspected carcinogens or at the very least irritating to skin and eyes undiluted. Some materials are in fine powder form – and any fine powder is irritating to the lungs when inhaled; some are hazardous and even toxic. Nitro musks are problematic partly due to being explosive. As much as I might love the smell of musk ketone in my fragrance, working in a lab with 200kg of it in a tub next door feels quite different.

Who can honestly say they wouldn't want safe working conditions and a clean environment?​

It is entirely reasonable to demand that employers make their workplaces safe for the workers, and that safety precautions are followed when disposing of or transporting harmful chemicals. As natural as orange oil is, dumping it into the river would be deadly to wildlife, and so is quite rightly a crime; and it is important to not get caught up in sentimental, ‘natural versus synthetic' debates about these matters. Orange oil in its natural context is safely stored in the peel and ‘Nature' never intended for the oil to be extracted and used in concentrated form, so we can stop insisting that natural raw materials should have special protection from a safety perspective. What we do to natural materials to get the volatile oils out of them is not natural; it is processing. Arguments about safety should not be confused with aesthetic arguments.

As beautiful as natural orange oil smells, and as useful as it is as a flavouring material – when it's extracted and stored in industrial quantities, it quite rightly falls under chemical regulations.

On the other hand, it is perfectly sensible to examine whether the safety precautions and regulations are reasonable. That's where I feel we should be spending our energy - not on trying to insist that naturally produced chemicals aren't chemicals.

I am not sure how much we can do about the seemingly excessive measures which the EU seems to want to take. Many view the attempts to change EU bureaucracy as a futile exercise. It's true that the debate over the next ‘allergens' is now really about how they will be implemented, not about whether they will happen.

On the other hand, many of the public reactions to this topic were rather over-the-top – it's mostly about labelling, and only a couple of bans are on the cards. Even for the banned substances, there are already developments in place to provide workable substitutes (atranol and chloroatranol-reduced oakmoss, for instance). There is no major revolution about to happen with our beloved fragrances; just more bureaucracy and a slow march towards less irritating, less allergenic fragrances in our everyday products. Some existing bases and scents will have to be reformulated. There is a growing market for natural reconstructions (using natural isolates to re-build an oil without its offending constituents). Perfumers will be frustrated. However, most consumers will not notice a thing.

The main delay in this matter is about the logistics of it all – once you increase the mandatory labelling requirement of allergenic constituents to over a hundred materials, a standard package cannot hold all the text, so there has been talk of peel-off labels, apps for smart phones and the like. The debate is still ongoing about how best to list all the allergens.

It does also seem unlikely that these new labelling requirements will actually protect consumers. The logic seems shaky:

[*]Since allergy develops over time and we can become allergic to substances we've been fine with before, how will labelling protect consumers from developing an allergy? It can't. The intention of labelling is to alert allergic individuals, not to prevent allergy. There are more worrying implications about this – there are talks about limiting the total number of ingredients in order to prevent allergy
[*]How many people do you know who actually check allergens on a product label and know precisely what they should be avoiding?
[*]Once a person develops a fragrance allergy, they often choose unscented alternatives just to be sure or keep experimenting with products until they find something they can tolerate.

Of course, labelling is a better alternative than a total ban.

In this issue, there's another grey area; aromatic materials added to cosmetics and aromatherapy products as part of the formula, rather than as ‘fragrance' allow devious manufacturers to market so-called ‘fragrance-free' products which actually contain fragrant materials.

The main regulatory structure currently looks like this:​

  • United Nations
    • Globally Harmonised System (GHS)
    • International transport regulations
  • European Union
    • European Chemical Agency (ECHA) which governs REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of Chemicals).
    • Local interpretation of GHS – the Classification, Labelling and Packaging of substances (CLP) Regulation.
    • Cosmetic Regulation.
    • Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) Opinions which may lead to bans and recommendations. This is one of the expert committees of the EU Government. The Opinion on fragrance allergens in cosmetic products, 2011, kicked off a long consultation process with the industry about the increase of mandatory fragrance allergen labelling on cosmetic products from the current 26 to over 80, and the ban of atranol and chloroatranol (the two main allergenic substances in oakmoss), as well as Lyral (a widely used synthetic fragrance material). If sufficient concern has been raised by dermatologists and other medical professionals about reactions and allergy, the SCCS will be consulted for an opinion. Once given, the government has to respond in some way (often in the form of regulations).
  • National Governments
    • Country-level trading standards laws and regulations (packaging, trade descriptions, etc).
    • National chemical safety laws and workplace health & safety laws (for example COSHH in the UK).
  • Industry
    • The Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) is a nonprofit organisation dedicated to researching and producing reports on fragrance materials.
    • IFRA uses RIFM data to help decide on new recommendations. Following IFRA recommendations is voluntary to non-IFRA members and compulsory to members. However, with the new, tightened cosmetic safety assessments and Product Information Pack requirements within the EU, most safety assessors insist on IFRA conformity as part of the assessment. Products cannot be legally placed on the market in the EU without a safety assessment.

REACH has hit ingredient suppliers hard – and since aroma chemicals and essential oils are both ‘substances' which fall under this regulation, it is continuing to seriously affect all of the fragrance industry, not just chemical manufacturers (though of course its impact is really felt when producing new aroma chemicals). REACH is costly, excessively bureaucratic and poorly understood. Producers and importers of essential oils and aroma chemicals have to register their substance with REACH once the quantity (produced or imported) per annum reaches one tonne. REACH is an utter nightmare for raw material producers and while its costs and logistics may be absorbed by large manufacturers with relative ease, this is not the case with smaller businesses.

The Cosmetic Regulation covers fine fragrances and anything else classified as a cosmetic product. The CLP Regulation (see above) covers household products.

When a new cosmetic product is being designed and is about to be brought to market, there is now a requirement for a mountain of paperwork and for it to pass a new, tightened safety assessment. The allergens (which are decided by the EU) have to be listed on the packaging, and an IFRA certificate is needed for the fragrance to pass the safety assessment. Fine fragrances – liquid perfumes in pretty bottles – are classified as cosmetic products.

There have been some suggestions that perhaps we'd be better off if everything was covered by the CLP Regulation, and instead of allergen warnings and IFRA recommendations, we'd have warning diamonds and hazard statements on our perfumes. It would probably hurt sales quite a lot. Perfumers working on air freshener fragrances already struggle to create formulas which won't result in warning pictograms. I wonder how consumes would react if their perfume boxes had pictures of exploding chests and upside down dead fish on them? All you'd have to do is add some orange oil and the box would look terrifying.

Let's face it – the majority of perfume shoppers have absolutely no idea what IFRA is, or that fragrances are constantly subject to scrutiny by dermatologists and regulators, and would be scared by the warnings. Upsetting hazard statements and pictograms on fragrance packaging would in some ideal utopia teach the chemophobic campaigners that maybe everything is potentially hazardous after all, and perhaps the hazards need a bit of context. We can safely assume that even though rose oil – one of the most wonderful fragrance materials there is – contains a suspected carcinogen methyl eugenol, applying a few drops of a fragrance containing it on our skin isn't going to give us cancer. Back in the real world, we know that putting hazard diamonds on packaging would get fragrances banned everywhere (as they already are in some places).

Problems arise when safety issues are taken out of context​

I am as frustrated by the extreme scare-marketing by well-meaning but ignorant anti-chemical NGOs and businesses, as I am by the excessive consumer protection we seem to be heading towards as far as fragrances are concerned. I also don't think these issues exist in a vacuum – I think they're connected.

On one hand consumers are demanding everything to be 100% risk-free (which is impossible), and on the other are complaining when fragrances are getting over-regulated. Consumers and brands also complain when fragrances don't smell good, which can be the worst part of making ‘safer' scents. We can't have it both ways.

As you can see from the above list, IFRA does not and cannot set any legal requirements, but it does aim to make fragrances as safe as possible while still allowing the use of potentially problematic materials. IFRA is also trying to convince the bureaucrats that the industry knows what it is doing, and is capable of protecting consumers without excessive government nannying.




I am fairly confident that if the EU could get away with it, they'd probably ban all fragrance as an ‘unnecessary risk'​

I am sure they view fragrances as a trivial vanity for which there is no reason to expose people to any risk of harm, however small. According to the SCCS, approximately 3% of the EU population experiences fragrance allergy.

Speaking of the harm fragrance allergies can cause, many perfume enthusiasts can be heard saying “it's only a rash”, but the effects can be so severe as to be permanently disfiguring. In some cases the conditions can result in loss of work and seriously affect quality of life. I don't think trivialising these problems helps anyone. We are also highly suggestible, and some studies have shown that when we are told that smelling a particular smell is harmful to us, our airways constrict and we have a real physical reaction, whereas if subjects are told the smell is beneficial to them prior to smelling it, no such negative effect is experienced.

This is an important piece of information. Anyone out there brainwashing people into believing that inhaling perfume is harmful is actually causing some of the harm. If a person believes that smelling perfume will give them an asthma attack or a migraine, they can suffer those effects due to the belief they have (and that doesn't make those effects imaginary).

People are not allergic to the smell; the allergy develops on skin. No known respiratory allergens are used in fragrances. However, inhaling vapourised liquid can be very irritating to the respiratory system; even tiny water droplets can cause problems to someone with a chest complaint. The effect of the irritation is often described as being allergic but it's not actually an allergic reaction.

As briefly mentioned before, allergy develops over time. RIFM is trying to find the ‘no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL)' of fragrance materials - data which is passed to IFRA to evaluate and make recommendations based upon. This means finding a dose of the ingredient at which point no allergy starts to develop.

Some materials end up with such low maximum recommended levels as to be rendered unviable, whereas in some cases IFRA recommendations have actually rescued materials from being cast aside altogether. Many fragrance materials are so potent that they can still have a noticeable effect at very low doses, and on the other hand, the NOAEL level of some materials is high enough that the IFRA recommendations hardly affect the formula.

It is in nobody's best interest to continue putting allergenic substances into cosmetics and household products. If we make large populations allergic, they will stop buying our products. From an industry point of view, it is important for cosmetic manufacturers and their safety assessors to be confident that a formula they don't have access to has in some way been declared safe. Formulators should really know what is going into their products, and they need to be able to create products with least possible risk of irritation and allergy. The cosmetic regulation states that cosmetics must be ‘safe', and includes a statement about vulnerable groups. A safety assessor can request the fragrance formulation if they feel it is necessary, so an IFRA certificate may not be enough. Obviously it is preferred by fragrance manufacturers to rely on IFRA certificates if possible.

Are there ways in which IFRA is not ideal?​

Of course. In some ways that's because of how the industry itself is set up. The industry is still extremely secretive – the structure and day-to-day operations cast many businesses as each others' partners and competitors. This makes relationships and insider knowledge extremely valuable, and businesses hold on to trade secrets tightly (even in the age of Gas Chromatography-Mass-Spectrometry there are many tricks of the trade to throw would-be-copiers of perfumes off the scent and a GC-MS readout is not like a supermarket receipt).

I have witnessed conversations in which both parties are selling something to one another (a fragrance compound is being bought by one, and an essential oil by other); there are traders whose main business it is to match and cheapen scents, and this isn't some black market operation, it's business as usual. That means it is almost impossible to get the industry to form a coherent lobby to talk some sense into Danish dermatologists and EU regulators. It means that on matters of public education and communication, the void is filled by misinformation and scaremongering.

It means that IFRA is perhaps the only representative body fighting on behalf of retaining some control over fragrance formulations in the hands of experts (instead of people who may be well-meaning about public safety but understand absolutely nothing about fragrance). On the other hand, since IFRA is meant to be a neutral entity, it cannot interfere in the running of its member businesses, which means its position in the industry is peculiar. Not to mention that when you talk to perfumers about IFRA, most opinions are coloured by frustration. IFRA works hard to lobby governments in an attempt to prevent unnecessary and unhelpful regulations. In the absence of another unified front, IFRA is it.

Who is getting rich out of all this? Bureaucrats, consultants, regulatory professionals (fragrance regulation is now a full-time job in all but the smallest businesses). And who is paying for all this? Consumers, of course!

The fragrance industry has so far absorbed all of the costs and difficulties, adapted, and carried on – and sure, there are hundreds of exciting materials left for us to work with – but since we're heading towards greater transparency, greater regulation and therefore greater risk for the fragrance industry, some proactive measures wouldn't hurt. I've been in Britain for too long. What I really meant to say was: it is time for the industry to wake up! We can't afford to go through the motions; to be complacent and to trust that it's going to be business as usual for the next 100 years.

What would be a reasonable way to let those who wish to take the risk to keep enjoying their fragrances?​

Perhaps we should have two levels of regulation – one, much stricter set for functional fragrances (where we would find it difficult to avoid exposure because these products are so ubiquitous) – and another, much more permissive, for fine fragrance that people who are concerned about fragrance allergies (and those already sensitised) could just avoid using altogether or be sufficiently warned of the risk. Fine fragrances could carry a warning label (though we've seen from the hair dye example what good those do). On the other hand, air fresheners and body sprays are classed as functional fragrances, but it is their main job to fragrance – so perhaps the distinction should be “what is the primary function of the product?”.

One thing that could be made easier from within the industry is the way in which indie perfumers are supported (or not); for us to prevent the banning of important fragrance materials, we must find some way to work with IFRA and the EU – and for us to do that, we must assist smaller businesses in following regulations.

IFRA serves the needs of the wider industry (where fragrances are manufactured by one company, put into a product by another, and sometimes even marketed by a third). It therefore makes sense for there to be a paper trail and some degree of protection for the supplier of the fragrance compound (‘this is safe according to IFRA'. Ergo: we're okay). In some ways IFRA therefore exists to protect large fragrance manufacturers.

During its journey from the lab to the shop shelves, a fragrance formula (and the product it is going into) will come under a complex set of regulations:

  • The manufacturer or importer of the raw material must deal with REACH, if applicable.
  • The storage of the materials falls under health and safety, fire safety and chemical safety laws.
  • The fragrance formula must comply with the client's end application (if it's an air freshener, the client has most likely requested a hazard-pictogram free formula, which is tough to create since almost everything is classified at least as an irritant. If it's a cosmetic product fragrance, the brand might be looking for a product with an allergen-free fragrance. If it's a fine fragrance, the brief might include requests that are tricky to fulfil without going over IFRA limits). So depending on the brief, CLP, EU Cosmetic Regulation and IFRA would be involved.
  • When the fragrance compound leaves the facility, it will fall under CLP labelling and appropriate transport regulations on its way to the product manufacturer. At the product manufacturer's end, it will need to be correctly handled and stored (so the health and safety, fire safety and chemical safety laws again).
  • When the fragrance is put into a product (or bottled as a fine fragrance), it will have to pass a cosmetic safety assessment before it is sold to the general public (IFRA certificates are required at this stage).
  • When the product is packaged and put on the shelf, its packaging and labelling must comply with Supply of Goods and Services Act, Weights and Measurements Regulation, Trade Descriptions Act, and CLP/EU Cosmetic Regulation (depending on whether it's a household product or a cosmetic product).

Small indie perfume brands where everything is made in-house, and nothing is sold on to third parties still have to tackle the same amount of regulatory hoopla. If IFRA and the EU wish for total compliance, some of the bureaucracy should be broken up and put together again – this time keeping smaller businesses in mind. Making the regulations so arduous will not lead to fewer people having a go; it will lead to more people deciding not to comply. And if we end up with a large ‘black market' of non-compliant products (which is already establishing itself), fragrance allergies will increase, law makers will decide that perhaps an industry body (IFRA) is not sufficient to self-police after all, and then we'll be in real trouble.

If the industry fails to proactively address all the problems and loopholes in current fragrance regulations, the future of fragranced products is unlikely to be endangered entirely, but it will most likely be boring. We'll look back to a time when everything didn't smell of the same few dozen ultra-safe substances and wonder why we didn't organise ourselves and do something sooner.

So now what?



Thank you​

This article wouldn't have been possible without the training and help provided by Penny Williams at Orchadia. Penny has over 24 years of experience in the fragrance industry, across all areas of creative and technical perfumery, analytical, technical, systems and ISO, legislation and regulatory affairs and marketing. This includes 19 years as a perfumer and a position as chief perfumer at an international fragrance house.

Any mistakes that remain in the text are the author's.

Sources and links​