Perfumes and fragrances, which were once a luxury item only for the elites, have become commonplace. Incorporated into everyday products like deodorants, perfumes, shampoos, bleaches — the list goes on — fragrances are everywhere. They can even be found in remote places like mountaintop glaciers, according to a study published in Scientific Reports in June 2020. Carried away by the air, fragrances can be detected in small concentrations thousands of miles away from where they were first sprayed.
Researchers examined glacial ice on Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus — a mountain range that lies between Europe and Asia — to explore how fragrance deposition evolved from 1934 to 2005. Air masses carry molecules from fragrances originating in Eastern Europe to Mount Elbrus, where they are deposited on its glacier. As layers of snow accumulated on the glacier, these pollutants were sealed in the ice. By drilling deep into the glacier, scientists extracted cylindrical samples of ice called ice cores which provide insight into pollution patterns over time.
For this study, the first to examine traces of personal care products in an ice core, Marco Vecchiato, a researcher at the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council, and his team selected 17 compounds that are found in perfumes and fragrances as well as bleach or acid-based cleaners. Because “these [cleaners] are very aggressive products, we started thinking if they are used in such a product, when they are released into the environment maybe they are hardly degraded,” Vecchiato told GlacierHub. The team hypothesized that if the substances don’t degrade, they would likely to be transported to and deposited on glaciers. The team took a different approach than usual, since most environmental chemistry studies focus only on musk fragrances, even though over 10,000 different chemical compounds are used in fragrances, Vecchiato added. The researchers also examined concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) — produced by the incomplete combustion of organic material — a widely studied metric for industrial activity, throughout the ice cores.
The most common fragrance compounds in the ice core were benzyl, hexyl and amyl salicylates, which are found in a range of personal care products, including perfumes. Salicylates are used globally in great quantities — even more than the more commonly studied musk fragrances — because of their relatively low price of $5 per kilogram, explained Vecchiato.
The study found a 20-fold increase in fragrance concentrations on Mount Elbrus between 1934 and 2005. Assuming that fragrance levels in the earliest samples had a natural vegetal source — since benzyl salicylate, one of the most abundant fragrance compounds studied, only became popular in the late 1930s and 1940s —anthropogenic fragrance release in the 2000s was 20 times higher than natural emissions. There was also a significant increase in PAH levels throughout the ice core.
The study concluded that the marked increase in concentrations of both fragrances and PAHs from the 1950s onward is a sign of the Great Acceleration: the significant growth in human population, economic activity and resource consumption since the mid-20th century that has caused global changes like climate change. From 2000 onward, absolute fragrance concentrations increased significantly and even exceeded PAH concentrations — a sign of the ubiquity of fragrances.
Globally, naturally derived perfumes that were only available to an elite few became more accessible around the turn of the 20th century, with the development of affordable, synthetic fragrance compounds. Aided by globalization, perfume use quickly accelerated throughout the world in the second half of the 1900s — roughly corresponding with the Great Acceleration.
However, fragrance and PAH concentrations show striking declines over two periods that correspond with economic crises in Eastern Europe: the “era of stagnation” (1964 to 1982) and the collapse of the USSR (1990s).
In the Soviet Union, the 1930s were a turning point for the perfume and fragrance industry. While perfume was considered a decadence in the first years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, it reemerged as a product approved by the state through the second five-year plan (1933-1938), which also focused on consumer goods. William Hagen, an Eastern European historian at the University of California, Davis, told GlacierHub that in Poland, for example, “up-market and/or prestigious perfumes could be bought, after 1956, for dollars or other capitalist money.” After the 1970s, Polish people could even travel to East Germany to purchase western consumer goods.
The popularization of and increased access to once rare perfumes and personal care products in Eastern Europe served as a positive, equalizing force for women as it gave them choices. Hagen explained that “people everywhere in the Soviet bloc, and especially women, were keen to supply themselves with the best possible personal care items.” A big player in the rise of the perfume industry in fact was Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and head of the state perfume trust TeZhe. She helped to market one of the most popular perfumes of the Soviet era, Krasnaya Moskova (Red Moscow in English), which is still sold and fondly remembered today.
The fragrance concentrations detected in the Elbrus core are especially striking because they are significantly higher than those in other remote regions, such as Svalbard (Norway) and Antarctica. Although few measurements of fragrance compounds have been made at alpine glaciers, these differences suggest that transport mechanisms deposit higher concentrations of fragrances on mountain glaciers due to their proximity to emissions sources.
Nevertheless, much remains unknown about fragrances. The next stop for Vecchiato and his team is Antarctica, where they hope to better understand fragrance transport and distribution mechanisms, Vecchiato explained. “We are still at the very beginning of the knowledge about these compounds… Prior to the commercialization, they have to pass some tests, but only dermatological tests, not so many environmental tests.” Therefore, the environmental and ecological effects of fragrance compounds remains unknown.
Although fragrance compounds are generally considered to be safe to human beings, Sara Villa, a researcher in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Milano-Bicocca, explained to GlacierHub that tonalide and galoxolide — two musk fragrances — can have indirect effects on animals. These compounds inhibit cells’ ability to block toxins from entering cells. Moreover, these compounds can be passed through breast milk in mammals (including humans), which endangers young animals (and babies). As glaciers melt, more compounds including fragrances will enter water supplies and accumulate in food chains, presenting a possible risk to animals.
Personal care products might be relatively harmless in comparison to pesticides, greenhouse gases and the whole host of pollutants humans have released into the environment in the last century, but this study is a reminder of the larger environment that humans inhabit. “Just washing hands… the very common activity, mostly innocent activity of ours leaves a sign in the environment,” said Vecchiato.