Perfume bottles up moods, memories and emotions, and dispenses them at the push of an atomizer. But mounting evidence suggests that some conventional perfumes —so elemental to our beauty repertoire—are making a statement that’s anything but glamorous, flirty or elegant.
The romance is alive and well among natural fragrance brands as more perfumers create safer alternatives that don’t fall short in quality or sophistication. “We’re taking natural fragrances out of the health food store and putting them in a place of true luxury,” says Annie Morton, co-founder of Tsi-La Organics, a premier natural and organic fragrance line that launched in 2007. For Morton, creating natural scents doesn’t mean going head-to-head with conventional fragrance brands. “Natural fragrance should be in a class of its own,” she says, “not judged next to synthetics.”
A conventional perfume’s ingredient list may look unremarkable, but the real story lies in a labeling loophole that allows manufacturers to use just one word, “fragrance,” to sum up the hundreds of ingredients in a proprietary perfume blend. Diethyl phthalate, a commonly used perfume ingredient, is one of a number of phthalates used in fragrance and plastics that raise red flags for researchers and health experts in new studies.
“Phthalates are man-made chemicals that can mimic the body’s natural hormones, and for this reason are classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” says Maida Galvez, MD, MPH, associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Recent research shows that the developing bodies of infants and children may fare worst from exposure and that prenatal exposure can have damaging effects. “In animal studies, phthalates cause problems with male reproductive organs, and similar changes have now been seen in male offspring of pregnant women exposed,” says Galvez. “In children, scientists have found associations between phthalates and allergies, runny nose, eczema, neurodevelopmental effects and changes in reproductive hormones.” A 2011 Mount Sinai study also names phthalate exposure as a contributor to childhood obesity.
The level of phthalate exposure you’d get from one or two perfume sprays every day has many variables, explains Galvez, but across the board, “increased frequency of use is associated with higher exposure.” A 2012 study published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences tested 50 categories of common consumer products and found the highest concentration of endocrine-disrupting and asthma-related chemicals (including multiple phthalates) in perfume, air fresheners and dryer sheets. Given the research-driven concern over phthalates, and without a clear ingredient label to steer us away from the worst offenders, some conventional perfume may now feel more reckless than romantic.
Even naturals have their negatives, the most pressing being the cost, production, and sourcing of raw materials. “Incorporating sustainability is the next step for natural products,” says Darryl Do, New York-based perfumer and manufacturer of natural and traditional perfumes. “I don’t know if there are enough materials in the world to supply everyone to use naturals.” With production unable to meet growing demand, the rising price of essential oils and absolutes used in natural perfumery often dictates the quality of the perfumes you’ll find on shelves. The lower potency of some natural formulations, as compared to conventional perfumes, reflects in the common complaint that they don’t possess the staying power of synthetics. When shopping for natural perfumes, consider that the cost often reflects quality.
If you’re ready to give naturals a sniff, your choices are more varied than ever. With natural fragrance you’ll still be sending sexy, sophisticated signals, underscored by the message that safety trumps the status quo.
JOLENE HART, CHC, AADP, is a writer and founder of Beauty Is Wellness, a natural beauty and health coaching practice.