Fragrances in the Environment: Pleasant odours for nature? (9 pp)

  • Ursula Klaschka
  • Marike Kolossa-Gehring


Goal, Scope and Background

Fragrance preparations or perfumes are used in an increasing variety of applications, as for example washing, cleansing, personal care products, consumer goods or in applications to modify indoor air. However, up to now, little is known to the general or scientific public about their chemical identity and the use pattern of single substances, not even for high production volume chemicals. Some toxicological data are published for a comparatively small number of substances with a focus on sensitisation and dermal effects, while other effects are neglected. Information on ecotoxicity and environmental fate are rare, especially for long-term exposure. Data for a detailed hazard and risk analysis are available in exceptional cases only. According to the current legal situation, fragrance industry is self-regulated, which means that pre-market risk evaluation is not required for most fragrances. Odour and the ability to smell play a major role for wildlife for all taxonomic groups. Reproductive and social behaviour, defence, communication and orientation depend on volatile compounds which can be identical to those used in fragrance preparations. Our interdisciplinary approach leads to the question of whether and, if so, to what extent anthropogenic fragrances may influence life and reproduction of organisms in the environment.

Main Features

Information from literature on use, exposure and biological effects was combined to analyse the state of knowledge. Following an overview of the amounts of fragrances used in different consumer products and their release into the environment, the roles of odours in nature are shown for a selection of compounds. Existing regulation was analysed to describe the data basis for environmental risk evaluation. Finally, recommendations for further action are derived from these findings.


Three main results were elaborated: First, fragrance substances are continuously discharged in large amounts into the environment, especially via the waste water. Second, there are some indications of negative effects on human health or the environment, although the data basis is very thin due to the self regulation of the fragrance industry and the regulatory situation of fragrance substances. Third, many odoriferous substances used by man are identical to those which are signal substances of environmental organisms at very low concentrations, thus giving rise to specific mode of actions in the ecosystem.


. For the adequate risk assessments of fragrances, test results on their unspecific as well as their specific effects as signal substances are needed. This would imply prioritisation methods and development of useful test methods for specific endpoints for appropriate risk assessments. Before a comprehensive testing and evaluation of results has been finished, a minimization of exposure should be envisaged. Eco-labelling of products containing acceptable fragrance ingredients could be a first step and provide consumers with the respective information. Transparency concerning the fragrance ingredients used and their biological potency will help to build up confidence between producers and consumers.

Conclusions and Perspectives

The interdisciplinary approach, bringing together chemical, biological, toxicological and ecotoxicological data with information provided by manufacturers and with legal and consumer aspects, offers new insights into the field of fragrance substances used in consumer products. The amounts and application fields of fragrance substances increases while fate and effects in the environment are hardly known. The current legal situation is not suited to elucidate the effects of fragrances on human health and the environment sufficiently, especially as it was shown that fragrances may play a considerable role in the ecosystem on the behaviour of organisms. According to the precautionary principle, the lack of knowledge should best be tackled by reducing exposure, especially for compounds such as fragrance substances where no ethical reasons object a substitution by less hazardous chemicals.

behaviour bioactive compounds ecotoxicology environmental risk assessment fragrance industry fragrance ingredients odour perfume REACh regulations sense of smell signal substances 


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Copyright information

© Ecomed 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ursula Klaschka
    • 2
  • Marike Kolossa-Gehring
    • 1
  1. 1.UmweltbundesamtInst. für Wasser Corrensplatz 1Boden- und Lufthygiene Berlin
  2. 2.Federal Environment AgencyBerlinGermany

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