Smelling good can lift our mood and capture the attention of the opposite sex, yet, there’s often much more lurking in your favourite bottle of fragrance than flowers and frankincense. Choosing a scent that invokes emotion but also good health has never been more important.
The desire to smell attractive—to ourselves and the opposite sex—is nothing new, with natural perfumery as old as civilisation itself. But with the chemical revolution of the 1700s came the introduction of artificial fragrances: scents that mimic nature’s finest, from bergamot to roses.
While turning our back on nature has allowed the fragrance industry to create innumerable notes in hundreds of varieties of perfumes, their allure is causing a hangover that’s taking a real toll on our health. With approximately 95 percent of chemicals used in mainstream fragrances derived from petroleum, for those who care about their long-term wellbeing, it may be considered a black mark on an industry that prides itself on being beautiful.
In laboratory tests commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and analysed by the Environmental Working Group for the 2010 Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance report, it was revealed that 38 secret chemicals were used in 17 well-known brand-name fragrance products. The average fragrance tested contained 14 undisclosed, and harmful, chemicals not listed on the label.
“Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions,” the report states. “Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues. These include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans (Silva 2004) and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies (Swan 2008), and musk ketone, a synthetic fragrance ingredient that concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk (Hutter 2009; Reiner 2007).”
Researchers have long pinpointed additives such as benzenes, aldehydes and diethyl phthalate (DEP) as just some of the known toxins that can lead to cancer, birth defects, allergic reactions and nervous system disorders such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues.
While seeing through fancy marketing campaigns and bottles-with-bling is important, reaching for a natural version of your favourite eau de parfum doesn’t guarantee that what you’re putting on your skin, and breathing in, is good for you either. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, it’s possible natural fragrance companies may order from suppliers that use added synthetic chemicals and unlisted ingredients with toxicity concerns. As with anything you put on your skin, understanding its safety ultimately comes down to the amount of research you’re willing to do on the product and the company that produces it.
Synthetic vs Natural
According to The Fragrance Foundation, natural fragrances are “complex mixtures of natural chemicals, while many individual synthetic aroma chemicals are identical to those in nature.” All ingredients, they say, “are under continuing safety review”, making neither natural nor chemical better for the wearer.
“High-quality (chemical-based) fine fragrances are created from subtle, complex blends of natural and synthetic ingredients, all of which fulfil valuable technical and aesthetic roles. Natural ingredients give life, radiance, and authentic quality to a perfume, while synthetic aroma chemicals provide strength and structural integrity,” according to the Foundation’s website.
“There is no argument about what natural or synthetic ingredients give to the perfume,” says Julie Nelson, a Sydney-based aromatherapist who specialises in bespoke aromatherapy perfumes at aromatiqueessentials.com.au. “(However), natural will always be more preferable, as pure, natural ingredients that qualified aromatherapists use for creating perfumes and other products do not contain parabens or other potentially harmful compounds that are carcinogenic, or that can cause damage to the kidneys, liver, respiratory and more.”
Natural perfumer Sally Woodward-Hawes, who hand blends natural essential oils, resins and absolutes under her business Aromantik, agrees.
“Obviously just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t always mean it is ‘safe’— poison ivy is a great example of this! All materials, natural or otherwise, must always be used in the correct concentrations and dilutions,” she says. “We know that certain raw natural materials, such as spice oils for example, have the potential to be irritating to the skin if used in large concentration. However, when considering how long perfume has been around, synthetic aroma chemicals are a relatively new invention, and many of these chemicals are the subject of both investigation and debate in regards to their safety.”
Obviously just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t always mean it is ‘safe’— poison ivy is a great example of this! All materials, natural or otherwise, must always be used in the correct concentrations and dilutions.
Sally says a good example of this is with the production of synthetic musks.
“One group of synthetic musks—polycyclic musk compounds—have been used since WWII and it was not until the 1990s that fairly serious concerns over their safety, not only to humans but to the wider environment, started to surface.”
She adds: “I am not against the use of synthetics in perfume completely. There are some incredible perfumes that are works of art that rely on a mix of natural and synthetic materials, however, my personal decision is that due to the safety concerns I am not comfortable using them in my perfumes.”
Choosing natural is the obvious best practise when it comes to buying cosmetics and fragrance, however, when there’s no ingredient list at hand to check, as is the case with perfumes, it makes the job of beauty investigator that much more time consuming and confusing.
Teisha Lowry, creator of natural skincare and fragrance line INDAH, says with the evidence collected from widespread research about the dangers of synthetic chemicals, federal laws urgently need to be updated.
“(This would ensure) manufacturers label these potentially hazardous chemicals on their product scents, including all substances which a lot have been to linked to allergies, hormone disruption and even cancer—not to mention these companies still test on animals,” she says.
“Perfume houses have this amazing ‘loophole’ they’ve gotten away with since the 40’s, which has allowed them to class their formulas as a trade secret and only label their packaging as a ‘fragrance’. So what are these ‘natural chemicals’? Shouldn’t it be up to the consumer what they want to put on their skin and breathe in? Most perfume houses don’t make perfumes extracted from pure plant oils anymore, because it’s too expensive, so they make the fragrances synthetically therefore (they are) chemically synthesised.”
Perfume houses have this amazing ‘loophole’ they’ve gotten away with since the 40’s, which has allowed them to class their formulas as a trade secret and only label their packaging as a ‘fragrance’. So what are these ‘natural chemicals’?
Natural Perfumes Defined
The creative art and science of natural perfumery uses only natural, aromatic raw materials, such as flowers, citrus, spices and woods. Hundreds of botanically sourced extracts make up the palettes. These rare and often expensive extracts are made into formulas that are diluted in alcohol, oils or waxes such as beeswax, coconut and jojoba, which results in a liquid or solid perfume.
According to the Natural Perfumer’s Guild, the importance of buying and wearing only natural fragrance is catching on. They say this is the first time in the post 19th Century that “consumers have such a wide choice of natural perfumes to complete their fragrance wardrobe.”
Natural perfumes are made by using classic perfumery techniques, as well as the some of the same processes used in mainstream perfume making, including blending, dilution, ageing and bottling.
“Natural perfume does not have synthetic scents such as lilac, violet flower and fruit in the palette,” The Guild says. “To replicate these scents, which cannot typically be produced by distillation or extraction, some have creatively come up with a solution: the blending of various absolutes and essential oils to produce a doppelganger for the lilac, gardenia, violet, or other elusive flower or fruit to ‘trompe-nez’ (to fool the nose).”
Perfumers who work exclusively with nature also don’t source musk from the animal, rather ambrette seed or non-cruelty animal derivatives.
“If you see a natural perfume with those notes listed, and you believe they only can be achieved with synthetic chemicals, know that savvy natural perfumers have solved that problem—naturally,” The Guild adds.
The process of extracting fragrance from the various flowers and plants can be done naturally by crushing or distilling using steam, or with more heavy-handed methods of alcohol or chemical extraction.
Nature’s Own Scent
While most of us have become accustomed to letting our signature scent come from a bottle, the human body’s own aroma—pheromones—can be just as effective, if not more so, in impressing the opposite sex, say some researchers. Laying off the latest celebrity fragrance may turn out to be more beneficial if it’s love you seek. It’s at least worth a try for your health’s sake.
Pheromones, which the body secretes naturally, play a big role in courting and mating in the animal world, with humans no different—except these days we mask our natural aroma with petroleum-derived chemicals. Just like other scents, pheromones travel through the air on particles such as water droplets, into the neural pathway to the brain that either triggers a positive, neutral or negative response (just like many fragrances). It’s this natural occurrence that also attracts perfume manufacturers who aim to mimic the process.
Natural Options: Finding Brands You Can Trust
Just as there are companies that don’t disclose their products’ ingredients, there are manufacturers who do. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org), the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) and its cosmetic ingredients watchdog website, www.skindeep.org, are great places to start researching brands that are toxic and those that are not. The Natural Perfumers Guild (www.naturalperfumers.com) also recommends manufacturers of genuine natural scents.
What’s Behind the Label?
“Avoiding questionable fragrance ingredients in personal care products, under current laws, is nearly impossible. Fragrance is found in a wide variety of consumer products including cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, toys and more. Increasingly, personal care products bear claims like ‘natural fragrance’, ‘pure fragrance’ or ‘organic fragrance’. None of these terms has an enforceable legal definition. All can be misleading. One study found that 82 percent of perfumes based on ‘natural ingredients’ contained synthetic fragrances (Rastogi 1996). Moreover, just because a fragrance ingredient is derived from a plant or an animal source does not mean it is safe for everyone, since many all-natural and herbal products contain fragrance allergens (Scheinman 2001). Also, an ‘unscented’ or ‘fragrance-free’ personal care product may contain a ‘masking fragrance’, a mixture of chemicals meant to cover up the odour of other ingredients (Scheinman 2000; Steinemann 2009).” —Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance report by The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group.
Top 10 Ingredients to Avoid
- Benzaldehyde – found in perfume, cologne hairspray, laundry bleach, deodorants, shaving creams, shampoos, soaps, dishwashing detergent and more.
Health risks: possible kidney damage and irritant to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, lungs and GI tract.
- Benzyl Acetate – found in perfume, cologne, shampoo, fabric softener, air freshener, hairspray, aftershave, deodorants and more.
Health risks: A carcinogenic linked to pancreatic cancer. Irritant to eyes and respiratory passages.
- Benzyl Alcohol – found in perfume, cologne, soap, shampoo, nail enamel remover, air fresheners, deodorant, fabric softeners and more.
Health risks: Irritant to upper respiratory tract. Can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drop in blood pressure and, in severe cases, death due to respiratory failure.
- Camphor – found in perfume, shaving cream, nail enamel, fabric softener, dishwashing detergent, nail colour and some air fresheners.
Health risks: irritant to eyes, nose and throat. Is readily absorbed through body tissues. May cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles and convulstions.
- Ethanol – found in perfume, hairspray, shampoo, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, shaving cream, soap, air fresheners, nail colour and remover and more.
Health risks: Can cause fatigue, irritation to eyes and upper respiratory tract, even in low concentrations. Can also cause impaired vision, ataxia and stupor.
- Ethyl Acetate – found in aftershave, cologne, perfume, shampoo, nail colour, nail enamel remover, fabric softener and dishwashing liquid.
Health risks: Irritating to eyes and respiratory tract, may cause headache and narcosis, may cause the skin to dry and crack as well as anaemia with leukocytosis and damage to liver and kidneys.
- Limonene – found in perfume, cologne, disinfectant spray, bar soap, shaving cream, deodorants, nail colour and remover, fabric softener, dishwashing liquid, air fresheners, aftershave, bleach, paint and varnish remover.
Health risks: Carinogenic.
- Linalool – found in perfume, cologne, bar soap, shampoo, hand lotions, nail enamel remover, hairspray, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, air fresheners, fabric softeners, shaving cream, aftershave, solid deodorant and more.
Health risks: In animal tests it has caused ataxic gait, reduced spontaneous motor activity, depression and development of respiratory disturbances leading to death.
- a-PINENE – found in perfume, cologne, shaving cream, deodorants, dishwashing liquid, air fresheners, soaps.
Health risks: Damaging to the immune system.
- a-TERPINEOL – found in perfume, cologne, laundry detergent, bleach powder, laundry bleach, fabric softener, some air fresheners, cologne, soap, hairspray, aftershave and roll-on deordorant.
Health risks: Highly irritating to mucous membranes. Aspiration into the lungs can produce pneumonitis or even fatal edema. Can also cause loss of muscular coordination, hypothermia and respiratory depression.
Avoiding questionable fragrance ingredients in personal care products, under current laws, is nearly impossible. Fragrance is found in a wide variety of consumer products including cosmetics and personal care products, cleaning products, air fresheners, candles, toys and more. Increasingly, personal care products bear claims like ‘natural fragrance’, ‘pure fragrance’ or ‘organic fragrance’. None of these terms has an enforceable legal definition. All can be misleading.
Going Chemical-free Checklist
- Saying goodbye to your favourite scent can be difficult if you’re particularly attached to it. If you can’t imagine life without it, use it less often, spray it onto clothing rather than directly onto your skin and eliminate other fragrance-infused products from your day-to-day, such as fabric softeners and scented soaps.
- If you’re not sure about specific ingredients in any perfume, whether it’s labelled natural or not, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer to get a breakdown of all ingredients that make up their definition of “fragrance”.
- Support companies that manufacture authentically natural perfumes. Such businesses will happily disclose all of their ingredients and should be happy to answer any questions you have.
- Spread the word. Many of us have no idea what impact we are having on our health by regularly using perfumes that contain hormone-disruptive chemicals. Chat to friends and family to let them know there are other, more healthy alternatives.
 Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace Report, Committee on Science and Technology, US House of Representatives, 1986.
This feature originally appeared in Australia’s leading health and lifestyle publication, WellBeing.