2017 was a remarkable year for the aviation industry. There was not a single passenger death from flying. The industry was quick to point out that there was an element of luck involved. But even so, given that their business is ferrying people around the world in metal tubes at a great height, to not have lost a single person in 12 months is quite an achievement.
The reason for this good performance is that the aviation industry takes safety extremely seriously. Records are kept meticulously. When things go wrong the causes of the accident are methodically examined. And where necessary, the lessons learned are rapidly put into practice. It is a great example for all of us to follow.
Selling nice smells doesn’t pose quite the same risks as flying people through the air. Nobody has ever died from inhaling a perfume. But it isn’t totally risk free. And although as I say there has never been a fragrance related death, it isn’t entirely impossible. Extreme allergic reactions can be fatal, although fortunately this is a very rare event indeed. But there is a spectrum of allergic reactions. Some are very severe and can make life a misery. Most are milder but still uncomfortable. All are undesirable.
As anyone can develop an allergy to anything at any time, there is no way that reactions can be completely eliminated unless fragrances are banned completely across the board. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing that can be done at all. And in fact quite a lot can be done and is being done. It doesn’t quite match up to the way it is done after an aircraft crash, but the principle is the same.
All the big fragrance companies, and quite a lot of the smaller ones, subscribe to the International Fragrance Association. This funds research into fragrance safety and monitors the relevant scientific literature as it comes out. It turns this knowledge into guidelines for fragrance formulators to follow. These guidelines are updated regularly. The most recent set, the 48th came out in June 2015. I imagine there will be another one along shortly. So to look at just the first line, “Acetic acid, anhydride, reaction products with1,5,-trimethyl-1,5,9-cyclododecatriene are now restricted”. This means no more to me than it does to you, but it does suggest to me that a lot of detailed work has gone into the preparation of the standard.
I don’t have to keep a very close eye on these guidelines personally as this is stuff that mostly happens upstream from me as a cosmetic formulator. But I do notice the effects. There are now a lot fewer reports of adverse reactions to particular fragrances. This is largely the result of the efforts of the backroom boys at IFRA. To be completely frank, it is also to do with the industry being a lot more professional than it used to be. The industry has changed a lot since I joined it in the early eighties, mainly for the better. Back in the days before ingredient lists, PIF files and safety assessments it was fairly easy to change formulations. And I can remember a couple of times back in the eighties when fragrance levels were increased above the fragrance house’s recommended use level without anyone giving it a second thought. That kind of thing is pretty rare nowadays, and wouldn’t happen at all at any reasonable sized company.
There is a downside of course. Restricting what perfumers can use inevitably means that they can’t create fragrances that smell as good as they would if they had a free hand. And those products with double the intended amount of fragrance did smell better. I think the trade off to reduce allergic reactions by reducing the odour impact is one worth making, but it is a trade off. Perhaps as our knowledge increases we’ll find better ways of achieving both performance and safety, but we are where we are for the moment.
One final point on the IFRA guidelines. They are an industry standard, not a legal one. I think it would be almost impossible to get a product into any kind of regular distribution channel without following the guidelines. They are simply expected. I also wouldn’t like to be in the position of being in court and being asked why I hadn’t followed the guidelines that everyone else accepts. But strictly speaking, you don’t have to follow them. I have wondered from time to time if there is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to launch a ‘fragrances like they used to be’ brand which makes a virtue of ignoring current norms. The reality is that allergic reactions are pretty rare and the vast majority of people would not have a problem with such products. You’d need pretty well written warnings on the packs, and you wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand what you were doing. It’s not something I’d recommend. But it would be legal. You can be pretty sure of getting some free publicity when the first person gets a severe reaction at the very least, which would offset your above average insurance bill.
But joking aside, fragrances are safer and less likely to provoke a reaction than ever before. This is good news for everyone and a good example of how careful observation, diligent research and meticulous application of what has been learnt makes the world better for everyone.