Why Your Perfume Could Be Harming your Health

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of a perfume workshop in a first century BC Jerusalem basement. It invokes similar romantic, olfactory whispers of Cleopatra drenching the sails of her barge in jasmine and neroli to seduce Mark Antony; wealthy Romans using scented doves to perfume the air at feasts; and a sultan who was so smitten with roses, he dressed in pink and sprinkled his rugs with rose water[1].

What is it about fragrance that is timeless and universal?

Scent is processed in the same part of the brain as emotions and memory. It is primal and visceral. It is why the sudden whiff of an ex's perfume or cologne raise the ghosts of relationships past.
  
But scent has changed over time. Another victim of fast consumerism, fragrance has descended from natural and sustainable, into synthetic, unsustainable... and even dangerous. How did this happen?
 
Let’s walk through the world of ethical fragrance: what it means and why it matters.

Oil vs. alcohol

Perfume is comprised of the fragrance, and the carrier. As the name suggests, a carrier carries the fragrance. It is the majority of the composition, whereas the fragrance makes up 10-20%. The carrier is also responsible for the sillage, which is the degree to which a perfume’s fragrance lingers; and tactility, the feel of the perfume.
 
Sillage
Oil based fragrances are referred to as ‘skin scents’. It is a more intimate relationship between perfume and wearer. As our body temperature naturally increases, the oil and scent begin to grow deeper. Alcohol-based perfume has a stronger projection which some prefer, while others find it too intrusive. 
 
Tactility
Alcohol based perfume is light and easy to spray; however, it removes natural body oils causing dry skin and possible allergic reactions. Oil based perfume moisturises and hydrates our skin, but some find it too greasy. 
 
The choice is one of personal preference – until we dig deeper. 
 
Perfumer’s alcohol needs to be “denatured” to prevent it from being consumed, and so toxic chemicals are added. Yet if it’s too toxic for us to drink, why should our skin aborb it? Skin is our largest organ and it also eats and drinks. What we put onto our body is as important as what we put into them. Also worrying is the origin of these chemicals and whether they have been tested on animals. None of it is clear. 
 
This is the beginning of the ethical dilemma within a self-regulated fragrance industry. Fighting for transparency echoes the battle of David vs. Goliath. The materials used are shrouded in mystery. That might sound sexy if it was based in artistry – and once upon a time it was – but it’s becoming evident that we’re being deliberately misled.

Natural vs. synthetic

I always thought when a perfume boasted notes of bergamot, rose, and sandalwood that I was getting bergamot, rose, and sandalwood. I was mistaken.
 
In the late 19th century as perfume was becoming mass marketed, scientists discovered they could imitate nature’s scent for a fraction of the cost; natural fragrances were replaced with a concoction of scent replicating chemicals. Guerlain perfumers began the synthetics revolution in 1889 by pouring three synthetics into its perfume Jicky. Compared to the cost of natural botanicals, synthetics (and alcohol) were better for the bottom line. With great irony, the perfume alchemist no longer transformed botanicals, she was herself transformed, into a chemist.
 
Choice is a necessity in the marketplace and a healthy component of business. But in the same way one would expect orange juice to be juice from oranges and not an artificial drink, there should at least be transparency about what is inside the package.
 
The issue is the dupe.
 
How many believed, as I did, that advertisements of models frolicking in floral fields meant our favourite perfume was comprised of natural essences? A more honest image would be models wearing gas masks in a chemical factory straddling vats decorated with skull and crossbones. 
 
A 1986 report by the National Academy of Sciences noted that 95% of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum and include benzene derivatives, and many other known toxic chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. 
 
A 2001 study by the Environmental Protection Agency, and The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption found that synthetic fragrances often contained hormone disruptors linked to abnormal cell reproduction. Phthalates (used to improve sillage), can cause early puberty in girls and reduced sperm count in men. They are listed as a Priority and Toxic Pollutant under the U.S. Clean Water Act, based on evidence that they can be toxic to wildlife and the environment. Half the emissions causing air pollution today come from the petrochemicals of our personal products. Synthetic fragrance leaves a Bigfoot sized carbon footprint.
 
Perhaps one of the most scathing findings comes from the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners’ September 2018 ‘Right to Know’ report, which states that avoiding synthetic fragrance is the best way to avoid breast cancer. 
 
Synthetics are choice ingredients in cosmetics because they are cheap and versatile. Profit may be the motive, yet the sustainable cost of nature cannot be overlooked.

Sustainability

It’s healthier to be natural but are we suffocating Mother Nature? Without ethical practices in place, materials can be sourced in ways that exploit the environment or a culture.
 
To put sustainability into perspective, it requires roughly 242,000 rose petals to distil a meagre 100 drops of oil. If sustainable, this is incredibly beneficial to local communities. However, in the same way there are poachers who kill animals for their hides, there are poachers who will pillage land to sell materials onto the holistic market. 
 
Indian Sandalwood, for example, is no longer sustainable. The Indian government is making great strides to remedy this, but as sandalwood is being threatened in the wild, Australia and the South Pacific islands have entered the sandalwood market and are producing the trees sustainably.
 
As there aren’t proper regulations on sustainability in the fragrance industry, seek brands that make an effort to tell you where they source their natural materials.

Decoding labels

The front label on products is meaningless. They are billboards. If you want the truth, look at the ingredients. Whether it’s perfumes, candles, beauty or cleaning products, be wary of any ingredient nebulously called ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’. This singular ingredient can hide up to hundreds of toxic chemicals. It’s a fragrance loophole. Even the ‘greenest’ company could be hiding something.
 
The best way to discern whether something is natural is if the ingredient is listed by its Latin name. Legally, a company using natural ingredients has to use the Latin botanical name in the ingredients list. You don’t have to know that the botanical name for – let’s say – geranium is pelargonium graveolens. The Latin is often in parentheses next to the popular name.

Animal by-products

It is important to note that natural musk, civet, castoreum and ambergris are all animal by-products, which often entail great suffering to the animal involved. In the case of civet, the animals are captured and held in cramped cages for years, and the musk is “scraped” out every 10 days. Civets often stop eating in distress. If you are buying synthetic fragrances this won’t matter – however, do keep in mind that synthetics are also incredibly harmful to the environment and wildlife as they bio-accumulate and do not readily break down. They have been found in fish and other marine life and stored in the fat of animals. The other downside of the secretive fragrance industry is that there simply is no evidence to prove that some synthetics have not been tested on animals or use animal by-products.

The Future

It's easy to be overwhelmed by all that's gone wrong. But it’s a new era, a conscious one. 
 
The vegan industry has reminded us of the power of supply and demand. Companies such as Greggs, M&S and KFC have seen significant increases in revenue since introducing vegan options.
 
Author Anna Lappe said, ‘every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want.’ We have seen a +14% year on year growth of natural beauty consumption and 75% of Brits have adopted ethical shopping habits. Conscious Beauty companies like mine hear you, are you, and are supplying you with ethical alternatives.

By Daphna Rowe

About Daphna Rowe

Daphna Rowe is the Founder of Lovorika, an ethical fragrance brand rooted in natural perfumery and aromatherapy. They embrace ancient wisdom, old world magic and new world vegan sustainable luxury. Lovorika use not only the highest grade essential oils (as is common in fine aromatherapy), but also luxurious Absolutes, Resins, CO2s, and Natural Isolates which are sustainably sourced globally. Together this gives their products the goodness of organic aromatherapy, and the luxury of hand-crafted natural perfumery.

Daphna has an MSc in International Relations, studied Masters Psychology, is certified in Aromatherapy and has studied the ancient art of natural perfumery and incense making. As scent is processed in the same part of the brain as emotions and memory, it is her belief that olfaction plays a seminal role in a healthy lifestyle. She is an advocate for better transparency in fragrance labelling.
 
[1] Aftel, M. (2004) Essence & Alchemy Berkeley, California: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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Cover image by Siora Photography on Unsplash

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