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Talking Scents: What's in a Perfume?

Talking Scents: What's in a Perfume?

Look on a perfume label and often you’ll see ‘fragrance’ listed as an ingredient. Fragrance is not a single ingredient. It is a trojan horse of over 3000 undisclosed toxic ingredients and chemicals which can negatively impact your health. So, let's take a look at some clean alternatives instead.


Heretic Scandal Wood Eau de Perfume. Photo by Plant-Terra

For thousands of years humans have been masking bodily odours with other scents, natural oils, plants and flowers. Today, despite bathing more frequently, perfumes are not just a luxury, but a part of everyday life and an important source of sales for many fashion and beauty brands. In fact, the global perfume market reached a value of nearly US$40 billion in 2018, with that number projected to surpass US$91 billion by 2025.


As perfumes have become more commercially accessible and industrialised, they have also become less about plant oils and smelling like nature, than selling abstract concepts of what a woman or man should smell like. Raw ingredients are expensive and hard to come by. It's likely that no plants were used in the manufacturing of your perfume at all—plant oils are unstable, have a short shelf life, and are very expensive.


The invention of synthetic ingredients in the 1860s and the first commercially produced scent made from aldheydes (Chanel No.5 ) in 1921 signalled an era of mass-produced synthetic fragrances that still dominates today. Synthetic substitutes are a choice ingredient in perfumes because they are cheap and versatile. They’ve also becomes a widely used means of delivering toxins into our bodies.

80% of the chemicals in perfumes and other personal care products have never been tested for safety.

Look on a perfume label and often you’ll see ‘fragrance’ listed as an ingredient. Fragrance is not a single ingredient. It is a trojan horse of over 3000 undisclosed toxic ingredients and chemicals. Unlike food manufacturers who must list the majority of their ingredients, fragrance manufactures don’t have to. They’re allowed to hide behind ‘trade secret’ blends to protect their concoctions, and leave consumers in the dark about the allergens, irritants and toxins contained in every spritz. Instead you are marketed an air of mystery, and told you will smell like jasmine under a warm moonlit night; or a wooden ship laden with rum soaked raisins; or an incense filled abbey in 16th century France.


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) points out that the Food and Drug Administration in the United States “has not assessed the safety of the vast majority” of secret chemicals used in personal care products such as fragrances. In fact, 80% of the chemicals in perfumes and other personal care products have never been tested for safety. “Fragrance secrecy is legal due to a giant loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labelling Act of 1973, which requires companies to list cosmetics ingredients on the product labels but explicitly exempts fragrance,” reports EWG

Fragrance is not a single ingredient. It is a trojan horse of over 3000 undisclosed toxic ingredients and chemicals.

You simply have no idea what chemicals have been added to the perfume concoction, or which ones have been tested on animals or are animal derived. It's best to avoid products that list 'fragrance' or perfume' as ingredients. According to a Huffington Post article, more than 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. Fragrance manufactures are free to blend in any number of chemicals, including a number of those defined as carcinogens by California’s Proposition 65 Program and the National Toxicology Program (NTP), such as:


Pyridine; benzophenone (benzine derivative); methyleugenol (organ system toxicity and possible human carcinogen); styrene (used in a wide variety of cleaning and cosmetic products, it also found in automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke, and is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen); phthalates; acetone (yes, the stuff used to dissolve solvent and varnish); ethanol; benzaldehyde; formaldehyde (used in glues and adhesives, as well as an embalming fluid); methylene chloride (found in paint stripper and metal cleaner); and ethyl acetate (toxic when ingested or inhaled, it's used in glues and nail polish removers).

More than 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals.

Many mainstream scents are loaded with endocrine disrupting phthalates, which reduce sperm count, cause reproductive malformation, and have been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Add to that musk ketone, which concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk. Additionally, synthetic fragrance can trigger allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress, migraines, kidney and liver problems. There’s also evidence to suggest that some of the toxins found in fragrances may also contribute to neurological degeneration. Furthermore, a 2018 report from the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners titled Right to Know, found that avoiding synthetic fragrance is the best way to avoid breast cancer. Doesn’t smell so appealing now, does it?


I get it, you still want to smell nice, so we’ve done some legwork to bring you a selection of clean, cruelty-free and vegan perfumes. While the fragrance industry has been slow to change, many of the leaders in non-toxic, cruelty free and vegan fragrance are still smaller indie labels.


Here are some of our favourite clean + non-toxic perfumes 




Heretic Florgasm Eau de Parfum,50ml, US$165 ; Namari Juwel Holistic Perfume, 20ml, US$137 ; Maison Louis Marie No.4 Perfume Oil, 15ml, US$57 ; Ellis Brooklyn Sci Fi Eau de Parfum, 50ml, US$100 ; Abel Red Santal Eau de Parfum, 50ml, US$150 ; Strange Invisible Perfumes Black Rosette Eau de Parfum, 50ml, US$210 ; Henry Rose Last Light Eau de Parfum, 50ml, US$120 ; One Seed Rain Eau de Parfum, 30ml, US$60.57 ; DedCool No.3 Eau de Perfume, 50ml, US$85.



Please note: Perfumes are subject to shipping restrictions and will not be sent internationally. Check company websites for local stockists.




For more information on the toxicity of synthetic perfumes:


Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, www.safecosmetics.org

EWG’s “Not So Sexy,” www.ewg.org/notsosexy

Skin Deep, www.ewg.org/skindeep

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