Fragrances and Scents

By Melisse Gelula / September 7, 2011

Herbs, plants, and flowers are often the inspiration for conventional perfumes, but they’re rarely the ingredients. Synthetic scents stirred into proprietary combinations make up the formulation of traditional fragrances, a $300 billion industry. Often the molecules most prized are those that replicate a scent found in nature like jasmine (the just-plucked raw material is exorbitant), or botanicals that commit scent hara-kiri when tapped, so they can only be synthetically re-created. Of course, it wasn’t always that way.

To make natural fragrances, perfumers use distillations from flowers and plants, such as essential oils (or essences as they’re called in perfume) as well as CO2 extracts, a method that’s preferred for its richness of scent. That’s a closer practice to pre-Industrial Revolution methods of steeping flowers to extract scent, and it’s gaining momentum now.

Chemical fragrance can trigger allergies and asthma attacks, and have been deemed potential skin irritants and carcinogens. As a result, a new school of perfume purists shuns synthetics altogether—both as the basis of fragrance, as well as additives like petrochemicals, phthalates, and acetone. While these ingredients have been taken out of most skin-care products, they still play a role in most fragrances.

The scent-extraction method of the plants is just as important, says Amanda Walker, founder of A Perfume Organics. “Is it still an all-natural perfume if hexane, a petrochemical solvent, is used?” she asks, leaving no doubt as to the answer. “Pure ingredients and pure extraction methods give perfume a totally different, superior scent experience,” says Walker.

Often the price reflects this. In addition to the high price tag of organic botanical essences, 15 percent of Walker’s profits fund her USDA certifying body, Oregon Tilth. It’s worth it for Walker and other perfumers like Olivia Giacobetti and Red Flower founder Yael Akalay, who prefer to put money into great natural materials rather than marketing campaigns. It’s the ultimate luxury to have something that’s not sold in every mall or sniffed in every elevator, these perfumers say. For them, nature is a far superior scent source than the chemistry lab.

Eau de Parfum

Alexandra Balahoutis, whose Los Angeles-based Strange Invisible Perfume line is a cult favorite, has just launched her first eau de parfum for men, called Peloponnesian (1.7 oz. for $160,, a “simply incredibly sexy scent” of citrus, sage, and a mist of sea air. Like all of Balahoutis’s synthetics-free fragrances, this one is distilled in organic grapeseed alcohol, a natural alternative to chemical solvents.

Amanda Walker worked for formidable fragrance brands like Avon and Victoria Secret before defecting to the world of organic bespoke beauty. In February, she launched her own USDA-certified line, called A Perfume Organics. The perfumes, like Green (a woodsy rose, ylang-ylang, and black truffle) and Urban Organic (wet ginger, basil, and smoky vetiver; each 0.40 fl. oz. for $65,, are handmade and rigorously pure. (Walker investigates her suppliers personally.) The roller-ball applicator (sold in a box you can plant that’s made of recycled consumer waste and flower seeds) means you can reapply them easily anywhere.

Red Flower fragrances contain a trinity of certified organic and wild-crafted flower, leaf, and bark distillations, a formulation that founder Yael Akalay calls “living scent.” Although naturals haven’t been endorsed by the perfume world, Red Flower Guaiac (0.5 fl. oz. concentrate for $186 or 0.34 fl. oz. travel roll-on $48, was the first non-synthetic perfume to win four stars from Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume critic, who described it as the “sweet sunlight filled citric burst you get from gashing the peel of an exquisitely fresh orange with your thumbnail mixed with warm hay.”

The popularity of Tsi-La Organics, created by fashion and beauty industry friends Annie Morton and Natalie Szapowalo, is due to its “organic-as-possible” ingredients (nearly 90 percent), its mini layering perfume oils like Fiori d’Arancio (a flirty, juicy citrus) and Fleur Sauvage (a deep floral; each 4 ml for $38,, and its sweet dressing-table-worthy bottles.

Serious sex appeal without the synthetics. That’s the raison d’etre of LAVANILA Laboratories’s Vanilla Passion Fruit (1.7 fl. oz. for $58,, a “healthy fragrance,” which uses an alluring aphrodisiac blend of blue lotus, juniper berry, and clary sage oils instead of the come-on of chemicals. Also attractive is its marine-derived method of bonding the scent to your skin.

Olivia Giacobetti used her famous French nose to compose fragrances for Guerlain and Diptyque before she turned it up to making products that “could trigger asthma attacks.” Now, as the formulator of Honoré des Prés, a “truly organic and terribly French line,” her chic synthetic-free creations like Chapman’s Party (3.38 fl. oz. for $145,, a peppery vetiver, command top dollar.

Other notable natural perfume lines to look for: Le Labo, Melange Perfume, Tallulah Jane, and Korres.

Room and Body-Care Mists

Safe for the air and for the skin. That’s the ethos behind the new niche of natural fragrance mists. Unlike synthetic reed diffusers, room sprays, and plug-ins, these versatile products can help refresh scent-challenged spaces, whether that’s your yoga studio or you, without adding cloying chemicals.

Intelligent Nutrients Certified Organic Air Nutrition Orange Superselect (1.7 fl. oz. for $30,, which contains just four ingredients, all USDA-certified organic, works like a purifying pick-me-up. The antiseptic properties come from food-grade orange flower oil, furthering founder Horst Rechelbacher’s tough-to-meet standard of delivering health through cosmetics.

Geranium essential oils in Spa Ritual Close Your Eyes Calming Fragrance Mist (7.7 fl. oz. for about $29, see for spas) have an aromatherapeutic de-stressing effect. Also calming is the label’s transparency, which reveals a 70 percent organic formulation. And while traditional brands may hide 100-plus chemicals and preservatives along with their proprietary secrets in the word “fragrance,” Spa Ritual identifies the exact ingredients used. The amounts are still a secret, of course.

Solid Perfume

The boon of fragrance balms is the go-anywhere packaging and the significantly lower price point. It’s due to the smaller amount of plant and flower ingredients required in the formulation. Parfums Solides by In Fiore are handmade in an old-world apothecary style by Julie Elliot, who sources her top quality wild-crafted, biodynamic, and organic ingredients like Tunisian neroli for Fleurs Blanches (0.25 oz. for $65, far and wide. Her ingredient labels are as transparent as her locket-style packaging is gorgeous.

Nostalgia Organics started out as an indie brand, and it’s since grown a following, particularly for its Aroma Balms like Ruffles (0.33 oz. for $10,, a stress-fighting blend of bergamot, blood orange, and rose geranium that’s packaged in a tiny tin and is actually meant to unruffle your feathers.

Melisse Gelula
Melisse Gelula

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