How to spot synthetic ingredients hidden in "natural" fragrances

Posted by Liz Cook on

Quick question: how many times, as you peruse the perfume aisle of your local department store, have you noticed the word “includes” on the back of a bottle? Loads, right? If, that is, any ingredients are listed at all.

That’s the thing about fragrances (the natural ones too, by the way.) According to legislation, companies aren’t required to disclose anything they deem a Trade Secret (or proprietary) on the packaging. Meaning your favourite perfume brand may be highlighting harmless additions (like citrus oils) while conveniently glossing over any potentially toxic chemicals (think phthalates and synthetic musks.) 

Sure, it’s a pretty sneaky practice but it’s also very common. And considering new research shows that almost one in five of us are sensitive to chemicals, with one-third experiencing health problems as a result, it’s concerning to say the least.

Here’s how to tell if a ‘natural’ perfume isn’t what it seems.


1. Look at the label.

In Australia, cosmetic labelling laws are fairly (see: very) lax, so reading between the lines is important here. There’s a huge difference between saying, “we only use 100% natural ingredients,” or, “we don't use synthetic ingredients,” and simply marketing a product as ‘clean’ or ‘safe.’ You see, the beauty industry doesn’t have any clear-cut - or regulated - definitions for these terms (yes, really!), so brands are free to label their products any way they like.

 2. Know your notes.

Despite what most of us think, ‘notes’ and ingredients are not the same thing. Notes is just a fancy word that describes what you’re likely to smell in the perfume, not necessarily what it’s made of. This is where it gets confusing: a fragrance can boast notes of something derived from nature (e.g. jasmine) without actually containing the real deal. In fact, more often than not you’re smelling synthetic chemicals produced in a lab, which have no business being spritzed directly on your skin.

3. Use your nose.

Take a whiff… does it smell natural? This can often be the first clue that something is amiss. Natural fragrances are limited to botanicals, such as flowers, fruits, seeds, roots and woods.

Synthetic fragrances, on the other hand, are composed of man-made molecules that are often designed to mimic more unusual natural odours (say, fresh air) and the scent of plants that can’t be extracted (orchids and lilacs, for example.)

4. Ask the question.

Still in doubt? Get in touch with the company via email or social media. Tell them you’re actively avoiding using products that contain any synthetics and would like to know if their fragrance fits the bill. While they won’t be able to give away their exact formulations, they should be happy to answer your query and let you know if something has been left off the label. No response? That’s a strong indicator that the bottle may be housing some not-so-nice ingredients

Most importantly, though: if they reply with a statement about ‘safe synthetics’ proceed with caution. As testing for this isn’t government-mandated and can be extensive (up to $1 million per ingredient), it’s highly likely that these ‘safe synthetics’ have only been proven not to cause allergies or immediate skin sensitivity.

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