Sit back, grab yourself a beverage as I share with you my natural perfume and fragrance post I've been working on for what seems like forever…no joke. This is a meaty one and a hard egg to crack. I get asked the question all the time. What is a good natural perfume and fragrance? If only it were so easy to just give an answer. I wish it was as simple as natural fragrance and conventional fragrance. That it was black and white. But it's not- not in the fragrance world. This is the final frontier in the natural beauty space and there is still much work to be done.
I wrote my first natural perfume and fragrance post 5 years ago. Back then it seemed very black and white to me. Don't use anything with the word fragrance on the label I thought. Just look for essential oils. Anything with the word fragrance on a label is bad and can harm you…or so I thought. Fast forward 5 years and things look different in the natural perfume and fragrance world. It's actually a good different. A subtle change has been sweeping over the fragrance industry. One might think it slow and minimal but if you peel back the layers of the fragrance industry then you'll realize how monumental any change is at all.
Fragrance In Products
Have you ever looked on the back of a label for any product? If you have then you've probably seen the word fragrance listed on the back. These days it's in everything from shampoos, body wash, body lotion, makeup, facial oils, baby products, candles, even trash bags are now scented! It's safe to say we live in a world obsessed with scent. The crazy part about it all is some products even claim to be unscented, yet still have fragrance in them…I'm looking at you Neutrogena. They basically mask the product to make it smell like nothing, yet it still smells like something…yeah sketchy huh? I've found you need to look for fragrance free to truly get a scent that is free of any fragrance or perfume and even then always check the label.
According to the FDA,
Even some products labeled “unscented” may contain fragrance ingredients. This is because the manufacturer may add just enough fragrance to mask the unpleasant smell of other ingredients, without giving the product a noticeable scent. (1)
Fragrance in Cosmetics versus fragrance in other products. Often you hear the word fragrance tossed around and it seems like the same thing but applied to many different products.
Anne Steinemann, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs stated that fragrance in cosmetics and fragrance in cleaners are often very much the same. (2)
Technically there is a difference in regulations when it comes to fragrance in cosmetics versus fragrance in your laundry soap, candle, etc. However, it is very much the same overall, just different regulating bodies. Fragrance in cosmetics are regulated by the FDA- these products include anything you would apply to your body, from foundation, body wash, after shave, etc. Fragrance found in laundry soap is regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. This would include products like, room spray, dryer sheets, carpet cleaners, etc. (3)
And when I say regulated, I use that word very loosely…
To first understand natural perfume and fragrance one must understand the fragrance industry in general. This is an industry that isn't regulated by the government like one might think. Here is a direct quote from the FDA's website:
“If a cosmetic is marketed on a retail basis to consumers, such as in stores, on the Internet, or person-to-person, it must have a list of ingredients. In most cases, each ingredient must be listed individually. But under U.S. regulations, fragrance and flavor ingredients can be listed simply as “Fragrance” or “Flavor.” (3)
So in essence when you see the word “fragrance” on a label of a product there could be dozens and dozens of other ingredients in it as well- and more like hundreds to be exact. A company does not have to disclose their exact ingredients in their fragrance since it is looked at as “trade secret” by the Food and Drug Administration.
What's Wrong With Fragrance?
You might think what's all the fuss about? Fragrance is fragrance- it makes things smell good. Well, it's actually a pretty big deal. As more and more people are being diagnosed with allergies, sensitivities, respiratory issues, nervous system damage, kidney damage, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, and inflammation in the intestine- just to name a few…it starts to be a big deal. There's a lot lurking in that word fragrance that may be affecting our entire bodies. I think it's time we peel back the layers that have been so cautiously protected all these years and see fragrance for what it truly is. (9)
So how did the fragrance industry get away with not having to disclose their fragrance ingredients? They've been protected from sharing through the Fair Packaging Labeling Act law of 1966. This law protects companies beloved fragrance blends. They didn't want someone being able to copy their scent back in the day so this law was made. Unfortunately, it's been a big loop hole that companies are able to use to cram a ton of ingredients into and not disclose what's actually in the product other than simply listing the word fragrance. That's a lot of extra ingredients that aren't being clearly labeled and open for the consumer to see. Have you heard of Chanel No. 5? I'm sure you have. Well have you ever thought to ask what makes up Chanel No. 5? What are they putting in the formula to get it to smell like Chanel No. 5? Wouldn't it be nice to look at a label and know everything the product had in it when it comes to the word fragrance? Some companies have stepped up to the plate and are actively disclosing that information now- others are still holding on to their beloved scents. (4)
The fragrance houses really rule the roost when it comes to transparency. What is a fragrance house? Good question. A fragrance house is where the magic happens so to speak. A perfume designer mixes the scents together from raw materials and makes a scent blend. Then that scent is distributed to companies who purchase it and then sell it to you and I. Say you have a brand of perfume you love, well they probably purchased that from a fragrance house. The fragrance house doesn't have to disclose their ingredients or formulation to the brand. They share what notes or scents they use but they don't share specifics. This is to protect the scent. Therefore the brand can't disclose the exact ingredients to the consumer. There may be times where the fragrance house will disclose the full ingredient list to the brand but then the brand is not allowed to share the information with the consumer. As you can see, getting true transparency of a product can be complicated when it comes to fragrance. Since companies are not required by law to disclose- they don't. (5)
This makes it hard for a consumer who wants full transparency. If you're like me then you're also wanting to know if your fragrance has synthetics in it, natural fragrance, phthalates, petrochemicals, etc. Fortunately brands are starting to share more and more as consumers have started to ask questions and push back. This is truly the best way to create change! The more brands get feedback and demands from the consumer, the more they will push against the fragrance houses. The more the fragrance houses are pushed, the more they will hopefully be led to change and start to be more transparent. We are the change! If the market increasingly wants natural perfume and fragrance with full transparency that is what eventually will be available. Never think your voice doesn't count- it does! (5)
Many fragrance brands look to IFRA The International Fragrance Association. Their mission is to supply safe fragrance ingredients for people's use. They have a set of standards that brands can use as a guide. However, this is not a regulating body. As Nicole, a reproductive and environmental health scientist said,
They form the basis for the globally accepted and recognized risk management system for the safe use of fragrance ingredients and are part of the IFRA Code of Practice. This is the self-regulating system of the industry, based on risk assessments carried out by an independent Expert Panel. (9)
This is a voluntary association a brand can use to have a set of standards to follow when creating their natural fragrances.
I'm going to check you into natural perfume and fragrance school. Get cozy I'm compiling months and months worth of info. into one post to hopefully make it easy to understand for you.
Ingredients to avoid in fragrance(short list):
These are just a few of the heavy hitters when it comes to fragrance. I also want to point out that a lot of larger fragrance brands produce their perfumes on a mass scale and have been known to cut corners when it comes to fragrance to save on costs. While smaller indie brands are much more in tune with the overall process of their perfume. That's why I encourage you to support the smaller indie brands. Not only are they blazing the trail for thoughtful consumption but their products often are cleaner in general.
- Phthalates(DEP-Diethyl Phthalate)- These can be in perfume and fragrance to help make the scent last longer. They have been shown to have a negative impact on the human body. Phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive problems and asthma and allergies. (6)
- Styrene- This has been documented as a human carcinogen. (8)
- Benzaldehyde- A known narcotic, lung and eye irritant. Can cause nausea, kidney damage and abdominal pain.
- Camphor- Known to cause dizziness, nausea, muscle twitching and convulsions.
- Ethyl acetate- Known to cause eye and respiratory irritation.
- Benzyl acetate- Known carcinogen, causes lung and eye irritation and coughing.
- Musk Ketone- A skin irritant and hormone disruptor. (8)
To begin all fragrances aren't necessarily bad. If you see the word fragrance on a label that doesn't mean it's harmful. Not every fragrance that is synthetic is filled with carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins. Just because it's made in a lab and not a straight essential oil doesn't mean it's full of toxins. There are safe synthetics! Yes, I know crazy but it's true. So now you might be thinking, “How do I know if it's a safe synthetic or not?” This is where it can be tricky and not black or white. (5)
When you see fragrance on a label it's impossible to know what's in that word fragrance(remember as I stated above the word fragrance can contain hundreds of ingredients according to Federal Law) unless you actually know that brand, have asked them about their processes and can vouch for their safety. You have to dig a little deeper. If you're asking a large brand like Estee Lauder for example what's in their fragrance you're probably not going to get very far unfortunately. The larger companies are still pretty tight lipped about their formulations. However, smaller Indie brands for the most part are pretty transparent. Since they're smaller it's going to be easier to find someone to communicate with. They're also typically a newer brand that understands the importance of consumer transparency in the industry today. (5)
I want to break down some labels for you to understand the fragrance world a little better.
Essential Oils- Fragrance that uses just pure essential oils that have either been steam extracted or distilled and not altered in anyway. (8)
Natural Fragrance- Aromatic raw materials. These chemicals are physically isolated and derived from natural compounds. Then put together to create a scent. To put it simply, a natural fragrance is derived from a natural ingredient but then it's altered because the fragrance is assimilated in a lab. Natural fragrance can have a combination of essential oils, resins, distillates, fractions and isolates. (8)
Synthetic Fragrance- These are made in a laboratory and typically are made using petroleum byproducts, however many are made now not using petroleum byproducts and therefore are deemed safe synthetics. (8)
A natural perfume or fragrance can include isolates, waxes, essential oil blends, resins and absolutes. When you smell natural perfume or fragrance you often don't feel that initial “bam” in your face scent like you might get from a synthetic fragrance. Natural perfume and fragrance is more subtle overall. It also has a shorter wear time compared to conventional perfume because it doesn't have phthalates to help hold the scent longer. (8)
To create a natural fragrance they have to extract the natural component. Formulators do this through:
- Steam Distillation- This is where steam is passed through the plant and the remnants are collected after. This is used for essential oil fragrances. (5)
- Cold Pressing- Plants are placed in a spiked container and slowly pressed to extract their essential oil which is then collected. (5)
- Refining- This uses a solvent to break down the ingredient and release the scent. (5)
- RBD- Refining bleaching and deodorizing in order to release scent. (5)
- Expeller Pressing- This uses a mechanical heat process to extract the scent from the plant or seed. (5)
Once a fragrance is extracted from a compound it is put with either an oil, alcohol or wax to make a perfume. (5)
I wanted to to hear directly from a natural perfume formulator, someone who is on the front lines when it comes to natural fragrance and perfume. I was able to hear from Rosie Jane Johnston, founder of by\ Rosie Jane- a natural perfume brand based in Los Angeles. She epitomizes natural fragrance and is really paving the way for other brands to step up to the plate. Her products are free of phthalates, parabens, musk ketones, and endocrine disruptors. The brand also has 100% recyclable packaging, uses vegetable based inks and sustainable paper, no single-use plastics, and is vegan and cruelty-free. She really takes it to the next level with her ingredient transparency too. On her site she lists botanicals she uses in her formulations, as well as the safe synthetics and what they're rated on the EWG. I LOVE this! We need to support more businesses that are being fully open and transparent- this is the future. I asked her a series of questions, you can read her answers below. (8)
Q&A With by\ Rosie Jane Founder:
- How to tell what's in the word fragrance? Do consumers have to just call a brand now to find out? (I know the government doesn't regulate this term) This is a bit tricky, brands are not required to release the full ingredients of fragrance as its considered “trade secret”. My advice would be to only buy from brands that publish their full ingredients list, Like By Rosie Jane. Ha!
- Ingredients to avoid in fragrance? Is there an ingredient list that consumers should look for to know what to avoid? (I know there are some obvious ones like phthalates and petrochemicals but are there others that are more concrete) Some others ones to stay away from are Styrene and musks, specifically polycyclic and Nitromusk. Musks build up in your system and are one of the worst hormone disruptors. They are also a major environmental impactor. Polluting water supplies, fish and so much more. In other words they are VERY bad. You might see it listed as Musk Ketone.
- What is considered a safe synthetic? Is it because it doesn't contain phthalates or petrochemicals or other harmful ingredients? Yes that’s right. A safe synthetic typically means in everyday terms “made in a lab” with products not found or harvested from nature and completely non-toxic. Methyl Benzoate is a great example. We use this safe synthetic to give a beautiful fruity/sweet note in our Angie fragrance.
- How are natural fragrances made? I've read it's through steam distillation, cold pressing, RBD, Expeller pressing and isolates? These are all correct. It depends on what your are trying to extract an oil from. Some plants give more from steam while others are better cold pressed etc. Its not super complicated just time consuming. Ha!
Just Because It's Natural, Doesn't Make It Right For You
There's also just fragrance preference that varies from person to person.
As Nicole, a reproductive and environmental health scientist said, “Sometimes a fragrance can be completely fine and not harmful but it could just not jive with you.” Just because something isn't harmful doesn't mean it works for everyone. (9)
Fragrance is a very personal thing. For some people any fragrance at all can be assaulting and too much. Even essential oils can be offensive for some people and they are as “natural” as you get when it comes to fragrance. That's where personal preference comes in. Everyone has a different tolerance level when it comes to fragrance.
You can also check out larger clean beauty retailers like Credo Beauty who have done the leg work for you! I applaud them for taking a higher road when it comes to fragrance transparency. They have tackled the complex world of natural fragrance and have created a simple system to allow consumers the opportunity to shop natural fragrance and know exactly what's in their formulation. They do this by holding brands to a higher standard through having them categorize their fragrances into one of the categories: Fragrance Free, Essential Oils, Certified Organic, Natural, Naturally-Derived and Synthetic.
This makes it so easy for a consumer to know what type of fragrance their using from the start. Perhaps you can't even do fragrance at all? You will know what product is fragrance free right away because of Credo Beauty's Fragrance Transparency Policy. Credo didn't stop there. They asked each of the 120 brands they carry to disclose all of their fragrance ingredients. 71 of the 120 brands said yes and have actively disclosed what they put in their products. This is a huge win for natural beauty! Not only does it call brands higher but it creates transparency like we've never had in the natural beauty industry or the natural perfume and fragrance industry. Our voices are being heard!
This really means big things. Instead of companies secretly using harmful ingredients they will now think twice because they know they have to list each ingredient on the label. It raises the bar and creates a higher standard for fragrance and product formulation in general. I wanted to note that if you do still see the word fragrance on a clean label at Credo Beauty you can reference their website for the full list of ingredients in that word. (10)
This is just the beginning of ingredient transparency. The more we raise our voice and continue asking the important questions, the more change will take place.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Ok, if you made it to the bottom of this post then you are a rockstar! I wanted to keep this post as concise as possible but also give you all the information you need to make an informed decision when it comes to natural perfume and fragrance. It can seem like the wild, wild west but it doesn't have to be. Arming yourself with knowledge is the best way to know what you are buying as you purchase natural perfume and fragrance.
Here are some tips when shopping for natural perfume and fragrance:
- When you see fragrance or perfume on the label of any product, look for parentheses to see if there are ingredients listed after it. If there aren't, reach out to the company and ask them for their full ingredient list. If they choose not give it to you, then keep looking for other natural perfumes or fragrances. There are so many that are actively wanting to disclose their fragrance now, support them! If a company is not willing to disclose then that is a red flag. Use my ingredient cheatsheet above to ask companies about their ingredients when vetting natural perfumes/fragrances.
- If you want to shop with ease, then check out companies like Credo Beauty who have done the leg work for you when it comes to vetting natural perfumes and fragrances. They have made it so easy to shop with peace of mind knowing exactly what is in your perfume with their Fragrance Transparency Policy. Shop all of Credo Beauty here.
- Support transparency! The only way companies are going to keep evolving and being more transparent is if we the consumers ask for it. Call companies and ask for ingredient lists, buy from small indie brands that are being transparent, this will create change for more open conversations and dialogue that eventually leads to lasting change.
- Stay Tuned as I release my full natural perfume and fragrance faves blog post tomorrow! I'll be sharing all my top favorites that I've vetted and where to shop.
Did you learn something? What are your biggest takeaways when it comes to natural perfume and fragrance?
If you liked this post, be sure to check out past posts below:
- U.S. Food And Drug Administration, 2020, August 24, FDA.gov, https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/fragrances-cosmetics
- Hickey, H., 2008, July 23, washington.edu, Toxic Chemicals Found In Common Scented Laundry Products, Air Fresheners, https://www.washington.edu/news/2008/07/23/toxic-chemicals-found-in-common-scented-laundry-products-air-fresheners/
- U.S. Food And Drug Administration, 2020, August 24, FDA.gov, https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/fragrances-cosmetics#labeling
- Scientific American, 2012, September 29, scientificamerican.com, Scent of Danger: Are There Toxic Ingredients In Perfumes and Colognes, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/toxic-perfumes-and-colognes/
- Corley, J., (2021, January 27). Personal Interview. Chief Sales Officer, Custom Essence Inc. President Natural Fragrance Division.
- Environmental Working Group. Cheatsheet: Phthalates. 2008, May 5. egg.org, https://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2008/05/cheatsheet-phthalates
- Delaunay, M., (2020, October 5). Personal Interview. Founder/CEO Delaunay Aroma Solutions, LLC.
- Johnston, R., (2020, February 11). Personal Interview. Founder Natural Perfume by Rosie Jane.
- Acevedo, N., (2020, October 27). Personal Interview. Reproductive and Environmental Health Scientist.
- Davis, M., (2020, September 30). Personal Interview. Director Environmental and Social Responsibility at Credo Beauty.