What's in the bottle, and why should I care?

Posted by Liz Cook on

It seems so mysterious and seductive, that what exactly goes in to making your favourite scent is a deep, dark, sexy secret known only by the elusive perfumer (and the marketing department).

But research suggests that this mystery isn't so sexy after all.

In fact, it is potentially downright dangerous.

In it's 2010 study, Not So Sexy, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reported that the average popular perfume contains 14 chemicals not listed anywhere on the ingredients panel. Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have never been assessed for safety in personal care products. Sadly, although nine years have passed, nothing in the fragrance industry has changed in terms of safety.

You may be thinking, "Well, not in my high end designer fragrance", but among those products tested were Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio (for men), Coco Mademoiselle Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. So this is not just a phenomenon reserved for cheaper mass-market products. 

The truth is virtually all commercially available perfumes (unless labelled as 100% natural) contain a slew of toxic ingredients, many of which are not listed on the label.

How do companies get a way with that? Trade Secret Legislation means that fragrance brands are protected by law from disclosing anything deemed to be intellectual property, basically in an attempt to protect their unique formula. This sounds okay in principle - after all, everyone hates a copycat - but when the materials used in a formula may cause allergic reactions, or worse, contribute to disease states such as infertility, type II diabetes, neurodegenerative conditions, and anxiety, there should be a duty to disclose even if it renders the company vulnerable to copycats.



It's hard to know what to look out for, and few of us have the time to become a super-sleuth and uncover what isn't readily visible. What you need to know is that unless a perfume is labelled as 100% natural, it will contain synthetic ingredients, and these are likely to be harmful to your health or the environment.

If you see the banner term "fragrance" or "parfum" with no qualifiers in parentheses to explain exactly what that means, you can bet there are hidden ingredients in your bottle.

If you want to understand a little more about what is listed on the label and how these ingredients might be affecting your health, you will find an easy-to-use list you can download here.

The list includes the following ingredients found in virtually 100% of commercially available perfumes (unless labelled as 100% natural):

  • Synthetic musks - strong endocrine disruptors, and have also been linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease
  • Phthalates, including diethyl phthalate (found in almost all commercial perfumes) - endocrine disruptor and linked to neurological damage. Thankfully some brands are now taking a stand against phthalates and excluding them from their products.
  • Benzyl salicylate -  shown to cause dysfunction to estrogen levels in our bodies, and is also an environmental toxicant, and a strong irritant to eyes, nose, skin and lungs.
  • Fragrance/parfum- 95-100% synthetic ingredients, 75% of which have not been tested for safety, or have only been tested for allergic reaction but not in long-term safety studies. Note that almost 100% of perfume brands do not list the individual fragrance ingredients, but rather list them as a lump under the banner "fragrance/parfum". The number of ingredients contained in this banner term could be up to 300, none of which are disclosed on the label.



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