What’s more natural than scents? Flowers, freshly cut grass, leaves, ocean spray: nature is scented! But today our daily lives are overrun with industrial artificial fragrances, from detergent to air fresheners or even cat litter… And, of course, our perfumes and beauty products. Artificial fragrances are hard to escape, with potentially harmful consequences on our health and the environment. So here’s our guide on how to know what is really a natural fragrance.
Fragrances: an artificial revolution
To begin with, fragrances were always natural and artisanal, made from plants and powders. But with chemical developments in the 19th century, it has become a flourishing industry.
So, everything changed: natural primary material, rare and expensive, with fluctuating yields and scents (like wine vintages!) was replaced by chemical molecules, allowing the same scents to be reproduced ad infinitum, on an industrial scale and at drastically reduced prices. But also allowing animals, previously trafficked and massacred for their highly sought-after products (grey amber from sperm whales, central Asian deer musk…). For once, environmental and financial concerns went hand in hand! And creativity with them. Where natural fragrance can play with at most 500 different notes, synthetic molecules opened up 10 times more options: floral fragrances (lily of the valley, lilac…) from which we cannot extract the different scented molecules, and the creation of unprecedented nuances… The horizon was considerably broadened!
Today, more than 90% of fragrances are synthetic. Even the most famous perfumers and their marketing of beautiful floral scents are, in reality, manufacturers of synthetic fragrances. And despite the trends towards a greener beauty industry, fragrances have remained a largely artificial industry. So considering this, what does natural fragrance have to offer?
Fragrance, a problematic cosmetic ingredient
Fragrance is a little like witchcraft: captivating us even when we don’t really understand how they work. Their luxury image and manufacturing secrets help to cover them up.
Because in reality there are up to 100 different not-so-good substances hiding behind the word Fragrance or Perfume! And no more information than that. Because the detailed INCI list, obligatory in the beauty industry, remains very discreet voluntarily, to protect themselves from plagiarism and counterfeits: all of these substances appear under the name Perfume. No detail is required on their ingredients, other than the mention of 26 allergens. This just isn’t enough, that’s for sure… But it’s far from being the worst part.
In order to create artificial scents, either a natural essence is extracted and transformed, or it is done by an entirely synthetic process. A lot of the time using petrochemical substances and often super pollutant chemical reactions. That delicate lily of the valley scent? It’s either Lilial or BMHCA, very common allergens, and suspected hormonal disruptors. Yikes, doesn’t smell so good now, does it? Headaches, nausea, asthma, ENT infections, infertility, miscarriages, foetal malformations, endometriosis, cancers: your daily spritz of perfume can contribute to all of these, being rich in neurotoxic and carcinogenic elements or hormonal disruptors. The main culprits? Solvents used to extract, dilute, accentuate or stabilise these scented molecules: toluene, a toxic benzene derivative; phthalates, derived from petrol (DET diethyl phthalate or other names containing phthalic acid); alcohol, altered by glycol esters (very commonly found in phenoxyethanol) and synthetic musk (galaxolde, tonalide). And what’s even worse is that these substances make your perfume last so well on your skin that they can accumulate in your body.
The most worrying part is that we find them everywhere, all the time, without necessarily knowing it, and their harmful components make each other stronger… A wonderful cocktail effect! The cherry on top of the cake: they can get into the body through the skin just as well as by inhalation. Spray perfume – great idea, no? From an environmental standpoint, the situation isn’t any better: phthalates, aldehyde, formaldehyde, and dichlorobenzene, all are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), big pollutants, and highly toxic to aquatic life. Not treatable by purification stations, they degrade very slowly and come back to us through our food. And we are far from having studied all of their components – perhaps the worst is yet to be discovered.
Identifying natural fragrance: mission impossible?
How can you be sure that your perfume or the fragrance in your moisturiser is not harmful to the environment or to your health?
The price or a brand name doesn’t guarantee anything. And as for the label, perfume or fragrance can designate plant-based, animal-derived, or synthetic components.
Can the obligatory list of allergens help us out? Alpha-Isomethyl ionone, amyl cinnamal, amylcinnamyl alcohol, butylphenyl methylpropional, hexyl cinnamal, hydroxy citronellal, or methyl 2-octanoate indicate a synthetic fragrance. Evernia prunastri or evernia furfuracea hint at a natural fragrance. But the 17 others give absolutely no indication of whether they are natural or synthetic. The linalool in your cream: lavender, bergamot or petrol? Rose-scented geraniol? Could be palmarosa essential oil or a phthalate-rich petrochemical derivative…
Relying on the statements ‘natural fragrance,’ ‘x% natural origin,’ and the list of noble ingredients in bold on the packaging? Hmm, little is checked and greenwashing ends up on top! A German study in 2015 concluded that 85% of fragranced products that call themselves ‘natural‘ give of phthalate VOCs. And a fragrance or product that claims to be 90 to 95% natural doesn’t protect you from anything: the harmful effects of synthetic molecules are not dependent on quantity.
Organic certifications? At first glance, they all guarantee you the absence of synthetic fragrances in their products. However, there are very few certified fragrances, a lot of primary ingredients simply cannot be classified. And these labels don’t solve all problems. A non-certified but truly natural fragrance can be a million times better.
In the large majority of cases, perfume refers to a synthetic component unless accompanied by a list of plant extracts, floral waters, or essential oils. But the opposite isn’t necessarily the case. The only solution: studying charts, asking questions. Can’t find out? Suspicious! But you need to know what to ask.
What can a natural fragrance contain?
A natural fragrance is made from the scent naturally produced by a plant (flowers, herbs, roots, spices, leaves, wood) or any other organism. To make our products, we only use natural methods to extract, dilute, or stabilise these scents. The rule is simple: a natural fragrance should contain no chemical or synthetic components. Exclusively natural or naturally-derived ingredients: plant-based alcohol usually obtained through wheat fermentation, at least one floral water and a perfumed blend of plant extracts.
These scented molecules should be extracted using the least denaturing, most gentle, petrochemical-free, and non-pollutant methods possible: concentration (which gets rid of all water from the primary matter), torrefaction, cold-pressing (for citrus fruits) or extraction using a gentle and natural solvent like diluting in plant-based alcohol, water vapour distilling for essential oils and essences, enfleurage in fats for the most delicate flowers like jasmine, or even cold CO2 extraction.
How about stabilisers, the most problematic ingredients of synthetic fragrances? Natural ingredients do the job very well: iris root powder, vetiver, patchouli or cedar essential oil, which advantageously replace phthalates and synthetic musks.
And an important bonus, natural fragranced substances generally preserve the properties of the plant they come from: they are also real active ingredients, beneficial to the skin and used in aromatherapy. Practical, healthy, gentle and even beneficial to the skin!
Finally, make sure that your perfume or product doesn’t contain any animal-derived ingredient and hasn’t been tested on animals with the vegan and cruelty-free certifications.
This is why all of the fragrances of oOlution products adhere strictly to these conditions: they are all from 100% natural origin, phthalate-free, free from all hormonal disruptors, and formulated to minimise all risk of irritation.
You might find it difficult to abandon your favourite synthetic perfume, particularly if you’ve been loyal to it for years. It’s true that when it comes to making these choices, there is less choice when it comes to natural perfumes and they are less powerful, staying on for less time. But for the better – this is a sign that they do not have any super toxic stabilisers added. But this means we have to change our relationship with fragrances. Making your own perfume yourself can help you to take this step, which has the advantage of being able to control all of the ingredients used and choose your favourite scents. There’s plenty of advice and recipes online – perhaps now’s the time to discover your new favourite hobby?
This post is also available in french.