If you’ve started researching natural perfume versus synthetic fragrances, you would have found a vast amount of information about the benefits of natural perfume, for your own health and for the health of our environment.
Whilst synthetic fragrances can smell amazing, it’s what you don’t know that might be causing you harm. Synthetic chemical aromas are used exclusively in almost all commercial fragrances, whether they be budget knock-offs or high-end niche perfumes.
Almost all of these are 95-100% synthetic, with a small number of high-end brands also including trace amounts of natural extracts, such as rose or jasmine, sometimes from plantations exclusive to that fragrance house.
Nature-identical or reconstituted ingredients are also often included, which are chemically-created or adulterated ingredients designed to mimic the odour and molecular structure of natural extracts, but they are not derived from nature itself.
The skin is the largest organ in the body, and over 60% of what you put on it is absorbed into your bloodstream, other organs and cells (case-in-point: pain patches, hormone therapy and nicotine patches). So what you spray on your skin has an impact on your health.
Perfumes also enter your body via your olfactory system (through your nose and into your lungs, bloodstream and brain) where they bypass protective systems and can have immediate impacts on your body and health, often triggering migraine, headache, nausea, asthma, and anxiety.
When choosing your perfume, consider all aspects of what you smell, how it makes you feel, what you see, and even what you don’t see.
What is really in synthetic fragrances?
Perfume is complex. Typically, a conventional perfume formula may include 20-200 different fragrant materials to make up the aroma, plus the base ingredient and any other additives that might be included (such as UV filters, colours etc).
For natural perfume, the ingredient list is simple: a combination of natural extracts for scent, natural alcohol or plant oil, water, possibly a natural antioxidant to maintain shelf life, and occasionally vegetable glycerine.
When it comes to synthetic fragrances the list of ingredients is vastly different.
Synthetic fragrance: Synthetic fragrances can either be original aromas that don’t exist in nature or may be created to be nature-identical (using the same chemical formula or atomical structure as the natural extract). Synthetic aromas are known to have many side effects on health such as common allergies like asthma, hives, dermatitis and wheezing, to hormone disruption, metabolic disease and thyroid problems, birth defects and the potential for triggering cancer cells to develop.
Synthetic musks: The original musk scents were derived from musk deer, civet or sperm whales (ambergris). Nowadays, musks are entirely synthetic and are made using aromachemicals. These are rarely listed on the perfume labels, but are among the most toxic of the synthetic fragrance extracts. Side effects can include endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, reproductive toxicity and generally allergic reactions. Synthetic musks accumulate in human fat tissue and breast milk so can readily be passed on to breastfeeding babies.
Phthalates: Phthalates are essentially liquid plastics, and perform a few functions in synthetic perfumes: they can be included as part of a preservative system, and can be used to extend the fragrance so it lasts longer on the skin. Phthalates are very strong endocrine disruptors have been implicated in a number of wide-ranging health issues including certain cancers, asthma, breast cancer, obesity, male fertility issues and birth defects.
Parabens: In order to maintain a very long shelf life, synthetic preservatives are often included in commercial perfumes. The most common of these are parabens which effectively help stop bacteria and other contaminants from growing in your bottle of scent. It sounds like a good thing, but the impact of parabens on the human body is now well-documented.
Parabens interfere with hormone function, especially oestrogen, and may promote breast cancer development, and have an impact on sperm development in males. In addition, parabens are a common skin sensitiser and may cause other allergic reactions.
Other ingredients: Other ingredients often include artificial colour, UV absorbers, other preservatives, stabilisers such as BHT, ketones, VOCs and many others. Often, these are new ingredients that have not been proven safe for use on the skin or for human health generally.
While reading the label on your perfume bottle is always a good idea and will give you a good indicator of how your perfume might affect your health, it is important to know that most commercial fragrances will only list around 50% of the total ingredients on their labels due to loopholes in the labelling laws. So if you read a label and it sounds like a list of chemicals you’d rather not be exposed to, either contact the company to find out exactly what’s in that bottle, or look for a new fragrance that won't have negative consequences for your health.
Is Natural Always Natural?
Choosing products that are 100% natural is the only way to guarantee that harmful chemical ingredients wont be included in your perfume. But how do you know if what your are getting is actually a 100% natural perfume or not?
Here are some tips on what to look for, and how to avoid synthetic ingredients when choosing a natural perfume:
• Read the actual ingredient label, not just the packaging or the booklet. Most of what you see there is simply marketing. The manufacturers know what you are looking for so they put the buzz words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ or ‘paraben free’ right where you’re bound to see them.
• Learn how to read ingredient labels. As with food labelling, if the ingredient panel includes lots of unfamiliar words, codes and numbers, it’s highly likely the perfume is full of synthetic lab-produced ingredients. Perfumes that contain only natural ingredients will use words like ‘ethanol’ or ‘alcohol’ usually with a reference to the plant the alcohol comes from (for example, from corn or sugar cane), and refer to essential oils, natural extracts, plant fragrance, or parfum (labelling laws in some countries require the word ‘parfum’ even if the fragrance is 100% natural).
• Get in touch with the company. Most natural product companies are all too happy to give you extra information and answer any of your questions. Don’t expect them to give away their formulae or supplier details, but you can definitely ask them how their ingredients are derived, which countries they source from or if there is anything not included on the ingredient label (there shouldn’t be).
• Don’t fall for marketing hype. Just because a perfume promo had a beautiful photo of a rose on it, doesn’t mean it actually contains natural rose extract. Additionally, where you read fragrance notes that look like natural ingredients, such as jasmine, amber, peach or melon, that doesn’t actually refer to a natural ingredient. ‘Notes’ simply mean ‘what you can smell’ in the perfume. It is highly likely that these are synthetic fragrances made from toxic ingredients produced in a laboratory, even if they smell like the real deal.
• Know what is and isn’t available in scent. There are limitations with natural perfumery – we cannot yet derive a scent from most fruits (except for citrus), so anything that declares it contains melon, red berries or fig is either synthetic, or, in the case of true natural perfumes, they may be using a combination (accord) of natural extracts to create a doppelgänger of the real scent.
Also consider that natural doesn’t necessarily mean plant-derived, although it may. These days, perfumes do not contain ingredients that require an animal to be killed to extract a scent (such as was the case with musk from deer in centuries gone by), but you may find some natural perfume will include ingredients such as ambergris (derived from sperm whale secretions), civet (from the anal secretions of the African civet), honey and beeswax.
If you are looking for a natural perfume that doesn’t include any animal ingredients at all, look for one that is vegan or labelled as containing only plant-based ingredients.
By knowing how to choose a truly natural perfume, you will be avoiding the potentially toxic effects of synthetic fragrance, such as headache, asthma, skin irritation and even hormone-related diseases. And you will be treating your senses to a fragrance that is more complex, and nuanced that anything created in a lab.