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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 Non-Toxic Perfume
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