Ask a RIFM Scientist

Two people in lab coats having a discussion over a microscope and tablet
Headshot of Anne Marie Api

Does RIFM study natural fragrance ingredients?

Anne Marie Api, PhD

A common misconception assumes that natural ingredients should be safer to use than those made in a lab because chemical materials in nature are fundamentally different from those synthetically produced. But whether a material was extracted from nature or made in a lab has no bearing on its safety. A key concept in toxicology is that all materials—synthetic or natural—have the potential to be toxic; the dose determines the adverse effect. A material’s potency, and the amount and route of exposure, are the main factors in determining safe use.  

Many of the individual materials that RIFM has studied exist in nature and lab-made forms. For instance, linalool is a fragrance-producing material found in many flowers and spices; a nature-identical version is also made in the lab. The two versions of linalool smell and otherwise behave the same because their chemical structures are identical. They are, in fact, the same thing from a toxicological point of view. Thus, RIFM does not distinguish between them when assessing linalool’s safe use.

So far, we’ve been talking about discrete materials. However, RIFM also studies Natural Complex Substances (NCS). Unlike discrete materials, an NCS is an extract made up of dozens of individual materials (such as the previously mentioned linalool) with different physical-chemical properties. We refer to the materials that make up an NCS as “components” because they are part of the larger whole.

Some of my colleagues and I at RIFM, working with the independent Expert Panel for Fragrance Safety, developed a Criteria Document for assessing NCS materials. We talked about the NCS Criteria Document and outlined the process of evaluating NCS safe use in a recent webinar hosted by science journal publisher Elsevier. (Register here to view a recording of the webinar)

Anne Marie Api, PhD, is President of the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM).