The Truth About Perfume

Perfume is a tricky subject. On one hand, everyone loves to smell good. But on the other, people are looking for natural (and therefore perceived as safer) ingredients. Writing this blog post helped me learn a lot about the fragrance industry and why they operate the way they do (and some of it might surprise you too!)

What is Fragrance?

When you see the word "fragrance" on an ingredient list, it means there's an undisclosed list of ingredients that are there to make the product smell good, or cover up a bad smell. Pretty much any product in your bathroom cabinet right now has this on the ingredient list. The "undisclosed" part is what we all need to be paying attention to. But why don't companies need to disclose what's in their fragrances?

The Fragrance Loophole

The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1966 allows for fragrance and flavor ingredients to be listed on a label as just that - "fragrance" and "flavor". The logic behind this is so that companies can maintain their trade secrets of their fragrances. In theory, I see why they did it. I'd certainly be upset if another company swooped in and mimicked a perfume that I worked hard on, because all the ingredients were published and available. However, in practice, it's been found that toxic, or endocrine disrupting chemicals are hiding behind the term "fragrance" (source)

Why is fragrance bad?

Ever sneeze from someone's strong perfume, or get a headache from a candle burning? What about a rash from changing laundry detergents? Super annoying, right? Fragrance can cause allergic reactions on your skin, or respiratory reactions.

The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has a published Transparency List - a list of the ingredients that go into perfumes and fragrances of companies that have chosen to work with this association, however, their website is very clear that though they have compiled a list, each company is the one responsible for determining safety of each individual ingredient. They do appear to be focused on sustainability, which is another layer to the fragrance question in to the perfume industry. 

Either way, the EWG reviewed the list and found the following: 

Of the 3,163 chemicals listed, several stand out as particularly toxic: phthalates, octoxynols and nonoxynols. Phthalates are potent hormone disruptors linked to reproductive system birth defects in baby boys. Octoxynols and nonoxynols break down into persistent hormone disruptors, as well. (source

I noticed this article from the EWG was a bit old, so I took a look at the list published on the IFRA website as well. It seems that the octoxynols and nonoxynols are no longer on the IFRA list (or at least my amateur sleuth self couldn't find them) but I did still find some pthalates listed. 

So perfumes/colognes are bad for us?

Humans have been wearing perfumes for thousands of years. In fact, history shows use of scented oils as early as 1200 BCE in Mesopotamia. Western perfumery was heavily influenced by the Arab and Persian perfumery in the Islamic Golden Age, and the first modern perfume of scented oils blended into alcohol dates back to the 1300s created by the Hungarians (source)

Chanel no. 5 is the first well known perfume to include synthetic ingredients, first released in 1921, and using synthetic ingredients has been commonplace for the fragrance industry since then. However, as consumers are beginning to turn towards natural ingredients in all aspects of life, the perfume industry is finding it may need to adjust. One concern with using all natural ingredients is sustainability - how much land can be devoted to growing the ingredients that are needed for a multibillion dollar industry? This is why perfumers have found ways to create synthetic versions of natural scents, especially for plants/trees that are endangered. (source)

What about natural perfumes?

Natural perfumes have risen in popularity, not just for the hippie-dippie folks out there (kidding - I love my crunchy granola friends) but for anyone who is looking to shift to a more natural lifestyle. I definitely took a crack at making my own perfumes with essential oils, but nothing I created came close to perfume quality. Maybe I just don't have those nose/patience for it, but rather than endlessly frustrating myself trying to make my own, I went looking for a better fragrance option

If you try out a natural perfume, you'll notice that the scent doesn't linger on your skin as long as a perfume with synthetic ingredients does (though the scent may stay in your hair and clothes longer than on your skin) so you may need to spray it on a few times throughout the day. 

A personal favorite brand is Heretic Parfums (try dirty mango if you like fruity, or dirty hinoki if you like tree scents.) Credo Beauty also has a broad clean perfume selection. 

Also of note: There is no official regulatory body that governs whether a perfume can be called natural; natural perfumers follow voluntary guidelines. (source)

So what I'm saying is, do what's best for you and your beliefs.

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