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Author: Dr Daniel Mazzoni, Junior Medical Officer, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Brisbane, QLD, Australia. DermNet NZ Editor in Chief: Adjunct A/Prof. Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. Copy edited by Gus Mitchell. January 2020.
A fragrance is defined as a combination of organic compounds that produces a distinct smell or odour.
A perfume is a liquid mixture used to emit a pleasant odour. It is formed from fragrant essential oils derived from plants and spices or synthetic aromatic compounds.
Cosmetic fragrances applied to a person’s body to emit a pleasant smell include perfume, cologne, and aftershave .
Fragrances and perfumes
Perfumes are classified into 5 main groups loosely based on their concentration of aromatic compounds.
Parfum or extrait has a 20–30% concentration of fragrance.
Eau de parfum or parfum de toilet has a 15–20% concentration of fragrance.
Eau de toilette has a 5–15% concentration of fragrance.
Eau de cologne has a 2–4% concentration of fragrance.
Eau fraiche has a 1–3% concentration of fragrance.
Fragrances are also added to many cosmetics and household goods.
Cosmetics listing fragrance ingredients
The perfume manufacturing process for natural essences involves collection, extraction, blending and ageing of the product .
Other perfumes are synthetically manufactured in laboratories. While the need to obtain natural ingredients is avoided, achieving the desired scent can be more challenging .
Perfumes are composed of three structural parts — the head, middle, and base notes — to provide the first impression, body, and lasting impression of the fragrance respectively after the application of a perfume. The presence of one note may alter the perception of another.
The head note, or top note, provides the initial scent that forms the first impression of the perfume. It has the following features:
The middle note, or heart note, masks any unpleasant initial impression of the base note and provides the main body of the scent.
The base note adds to the middle note to boost and deepen the existing body of the scent and provide its lasting impression.
Perfume is used to give a pleasant and desirable scent to a person’s body, typically with the aim of increasing self-appeal and self-confidence.
Scents are reported to enhance health and well-being by improving mood, reducing anxiety and stress, increasing cognitive function, and improving sleep .
A link has also been identified between pleasant scents and improved pain tolerance through the activation of opioid pathways.
The use of perfume directly exposes skin to various chemicals, which are then absorbed. The chemical substances in some fragrances can cause contact allergic dermatitis in sensitised individuals. Studies have reported that one-third of the general population experience at least one adverse health effect from fragranced products .
Common adverse effects may include:
Irritant contact dermatitis is due to repeated or excessive exposure to irritating chemicals in the fragrance, usually over a significant period of time. It presents as localised erythema at the site of exposure, dry cracked skin, and blisters and erosions in severe cases.
Allergic contact dermatitis is a delayed hypersensitivity reaction and may occur after just one, or more frequently, many exposures. Symptoms are similar to irritant contact dermatitis, but tiny quantities may be sufficient to cause allergy. It may also result in dermatitis in sites that were not directly exposed to the fragrance.
Allergic contact dermatitis is confirmed by patch testing.
Cosmetic products do not legally require allergen labelling, unlike foods .
Contact allergic dermatitis to fragrance
‘Pour homme’ and ‘pour femme’ are French terms used to denote perfumes intended for males and females respectively.
The difference is based on contemporary cultural and marketing trends. Perfumes that emit oriental, woody, and musky scents are typically marketed as masculine perfumes, whereas fruity and floral scents are typically more feminine.
Fragrance-free products do not use fragrance materials for the specific purpose of imparting scent; however, they may contain fragrance ingredients intended for therapeutic uses such as to relieve muscle aches or help with sleep.
Unscented products contain chemicals that neutralise or mask the odours of other ingredients.
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