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Traditionally fragrances were made with essential oils extracted from flowers, fruits, roots and animals and were used for rituals, medicine and pleasure. Extraction of essential oils was by steam distillation or physical maceration. Today, chemical solvents such as hexane are used for oil extraction. An essential oil is a complex substance and can contain up to 100 different components including phenols and solvents such as terpenes, alcohols, esters, aldehydes and ketones. Most essential oils have not been fully described chemically.

It is an expensive process to produce essential oils, and in order to make the fragrance industry more cost-effective many natural ingredients have been replaced with synthetic ingredients derived from petrochemicals---up to 95 per cent of ingredients are synthetic compounds. A typical fragrance can contain 60--100 different synthetic compounds, including known toxic chemicals capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions.

Synthetic fragrances are added to a wide range of products including cosmetics, perfume, personal care products, air fresheners, cleaning agents, detergents, soaps, toilet paper, tissues, furniture wax, car upholstery, plastic garbage bags, inks and kitty litter.

There are some 4,000--5,000 chemical ingredients used in fragrances in Australia, and approximately 500 of these are essential oils. Many fragrance ingredients have never been tested for their human health or environmental effects. The National Occupational Health and Safety Commission keeps a list of approved substances, which includes fragrances permitted for use in cosmetics which must be labelled 'fragrance' on the product.

The worldwide fragrance industry is largely self-regulated. The peak international body is the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) of which Australia is a member. The Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrances Association of Australia and the Flavour and Fragrance Association of Australia & New Zealand represent manufactures and suppliers in Australia.

Health effects
Fragrances have been identified as one of the major contributors to indoor air pollution because volatile ingredients readily disperse into the air, creating a 'passive fragrance inhalation' problem. As fragrances are often applied on or are worn close to the body, volatile ingredients can rapidly enter the body by inhalation and absorption through the skin, particularly if surfactants are also present in the product.

Many people have adverse reactions including: anaphylaxis, migraine, double vision, allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, tinnitus, dizziness, coughing, difficulty in breathing, headache, seizures, fatigue, confusion, incoherence, short-term memory loss, anxiety, depression, eczema, muscle and joint inflammation, pain and weakness, and irregular or rapid heartbeat.

The American Lung Association now lists fragrance as a common asthma trigger. It may be due to the presence of the solvent, toluene (known to cause asthma), which has been identified in many fragrances.

Environmental effects
Fragrances that find their way down the drain from laundry, shower and household cleaning activities may not be removed in sewage treatment plants and can build up in the environment. Synthetic musk chemicals in particular may be ecologically harmful because of their high bioaccumulation potential in animals and in the aquatic environment.

Alternatives
To avoid exposure to fragrances choose scent-free products. Read the label for ingredient lists and check by sniffing the product if you are uncertain. Contact the manufacturer and request a material safety data sheet.

If you choose to wear scented products be aware that many people are sensitive and in indoor environments your fragrance contributes to indoor air pollution which could trigger an asthma attack in someone else. It has been suggested that the best method of protecting people from fragrance exposures would be through local or state regulatory action. There are places which are declaring a 'fragrance-free' policy such as Marin County, California, where restaurant patrons are able to choose fragrance-free seating, thanks to the efforts of the Citizens for a Toxic-Free Marin.

 
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