Is Your Perfume Toxic? A Guide to the Fragrance Jungle

Often considered the perfect finishing touch to a thorough beauty routine, perfume is that final detail that seals the deal. Your scent can set the tone for your entire vibe by creating an allure that's unique to you. Fragrances evoke memories, create atmospheres, and are unparalleled when it comes to setting a specific tone. But what if that indulgent scent that has become your, in fact, harmful to your health?

By Sascha Camilli: writer, speaker, activist and vegan fashion expert.

Consumers are increasingly conscious of ingredients and sustainability – and so a trend for “clean beauty” has emerged, spearheaded by a curiosity about ingredients and their effects on our health. So which ingredients are clean beauty lovers staying away from? In her book Low Tox Life, activist and educator Alexx Stuart says about perfume: “Most 'prestige' perfume is full of fake stuff, unfortunately. Most contain synthetics, with phthalates often hiding in there to help the perfume last.” What are phthalates? This group of chemicals, also known as plasticizers, has been linked to reproductive and genital defects, risk of miscarriage, and adverse effects on the kidneys, liver, thyroid, and immune system. Other toxic chemicals that have been found in perfume include carcinogens styrene and benzyl acetate. “If you're not sure, ask the company,” says Alexx Stuart in her book.

Asking questions is certainly a good idea, as it holds companies accountable. But often, the contents of that bottle will turn out to be a mystery. Perfume ingredients are often difficult to decipher, and it can be challenging to know what exactly goes into a fragrance. Formulations are often kept a secret, as they are considered proprietary information. This means that companies don't have to disclose ingredients in perfumes, as they would in other types of cosmetic products. Brands using the word “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label, without specifying what its ingredients are, are common, and as a single scent can contain anywhere from 50 to 300 different chemicals, the safety of perfume is well and truly a jungle.

 In 2018, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners carried out a study of chemicals in cosmetics, cleaning products and personal care brands, and found that three quarters of potentially harmful substances came from fragrances. “When we took a harder look at beauty and personal care products we found that many chemicals of concern were hiding under the word ‘fragrance’,” BCPP's Policy Director Janet Nudelman told the Guardian. The chemicals were linked to health issues including cancer, which may be alarming to anyone using perfume (which is most of us).

Daphna Rowe, founder of organic perfume brand Lovorika London, has been campaigning for better transparency in the fragrance industry for years. She knows that brands trying to jump on the bandwagon of “clean beauty” are often indulging in nothing more than clean-washing. “There’s a lot of greenwashing these days as companies realise that consumers are starting to wise up to the lies about what fragrance actually contains,” she says. “Whether it’s high-end brands or hip indie brands that claim they have a sustainability team in place, that they are all natural and eco-friendly, or even if they have photos and botanical names dotted throughout their website, it’s sadly all lip service.” So what is a conscious consumer to do? Your own research, according to Daphna. “The only way you can actually know what you’re getting is by looking at the ingredients and understanding them.”

But – if companies are allowed to hide the ingredients behind the moniker “parfum”, how can we do that? By steering clear. “Look out for the singular word ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ listed in the ingredients,” says Daphna. “This is a loophole. This word means hundreds of toxic chemicals. Full stop.”

Secondly, Daphna flags another name to avoid: 'alcohol denat’. “Commonly known as perfumer’s alcohol this is ‘denatured’ alcohol, which means that toxic chemicals are added to it so it cannot be bought in mass for human consumption,” she reveals. Denatured alcohol can strip natural oils from the skin, disrupting its natural balance.

As the clean beauty trend continues to sweep, it's important to steer clear of some of its most commonly used greenwashing tactics. Using vague words such as “green” and “eco-friendly”, which aren't regulated and don't really mean anything, brands can make their products sound “cleaner” than they are. Even “organic” is losing its status – shockingly, a beauty product can be called organic if it contains 1% organic ingredients – no matter what the remaining 99% are.

One such buzzword is “natural”. It means very little, and can hide all manners of sins. Daphna concludes: “The only way to know if an ingredients is actually natural is if it is listed by what’s called the INCI name, which is always in Latin. By law, natural ingredients have to be listed by the Latin botanical name - if there are no Latin words in the ingredients, there’s nothing natural in your perfume no matter what ‘organic extract’ the brand claims to have in it.”

Navigating the perfume jungle can be tricky – but being aware of the mechanisms that make it difficult to decipher can often take you far along your path. Be inquisitive, ask questions, and stay conscious of what may make a scent not as sweet as it seems, and find your way to a perfume that feels like “you” – minus the risks.

By Sascha Camilli

About Sascha

Sascha Camilli is a vegan fashion writer, speaker and activist. Her book Vegan Style is out now on Murdoch Books. For more about Sascha, you can read our interview with her. You can also follow her on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Cover image by Ulisse Pointcheval, second photo by Christin Hume, both via Unsplash.

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