Good Scents: Natural Perfumes

Perfume is such an ironic gift: Perfect pretty little bottles with perfect pretty little names, filled with sweet smelling petrochemicals. Did you know that 95 percent of the chemicals used in perfume are derived from petroleum, many of them quite toxic? Ick. For gift-giving, give a gift that triggers delight, not rashes and asthma.

You’d think that perfume would be made from what it smells like. A scent redolent of lilies must be made from lilies, right? Wrong. Modern perfumes are almost always made from synthetic fragrances that are most commonly synthesized from petroleum distillates. In the late 19th century the first synthetic fragrance was created (from coal-tar) in a laboratory. Not only did this greatly expand the perfumer’s repertory of scents to work with, but it also democratized the availability of perfume by making it so much cheaper to produce. Very costly raw natural materials (like ambergris, musk and rare botanicals) that had been used to create luxury perfumes were now simply whipped up in the lab using dredged waste byproducts of the industrial revolution. It also allowed for the creation of scents that perfumers were unable to capture before–such as the smell of lilac and lily.

The science of fragrance is really rather mind-boggling. That petrochemicals can be manipulated into rapturous scent is an illusion worthy of Houdini. But magic aside, a 1991 study performed by the EPA found that numerous potentially hazardous chemicals are commonly used in fragrance, including acetone, benzaldehyde, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, camphor, ethanol, ethyl acetate, limonene, linalool, and methylene chloride. According to Material Data Safety Sheets, when inhaled these chemicals can cause central nervous system disorders, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, drowsiness, irritation to the mouth, throat, eyes, skin, and lungs, kidney damage, headache, respiratory failure, ataxia, and fatigue, among other things.

Another study found two groups of hazardous or potentially hazardous chemicals commonly used in perfumes: phthalates and synthetic musks. Since perfumes are applied to the skin, repeated exposure of relatively concentrated doses may contribute substantially to our overall exposure to these chemicals. And because of the high-volume use of these chemicals, they have become widely distributed through both the natural and the urban environment-endangering natural ecosytems while also further increasing our exposure to them.

The FDA does little to regulate the cosmetics industry, and “fragrance” is considered a trade secret and thus ingredient disclosure is not required. Only a handful of ingredients are banned and personal care products and cosmetics do not require approval or testing before hitting the shelves. Even so, according to the FDA fragrances are responsible for 30 percent of all allergic reactions. Many point to perfume as a very high-risk cosmetic product for those who suffer from asthma. And we always thought that perfume was supposed to make us feel good.

The good news is that there is an alternative–good old perfume made from natural materials. Tada! You won’t find herbs, grasses, flowers and spice on any EPA lists. Not only are natural perfume ingredients more in harmony with the body, but they are, well, natural.

One of the leading pioneers in contemporary all-natural perfume is Mandy Aftel. In her fascinating book Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume she describes natural essences as “compressed vitality” and notes, “We are bombarded by department store perfumes that shout their presence and linger monotonously and pervasively on the body and in the air, but the true magic of perfume eludes us. We have lost touch with what drew our kind to the smell of flowers and herbs in the first place, and with the rich and tangled history of our species and theirs.”

Natural Perfumes

Aftelier Perfumes: Stunning all natural perfumes from one of the most respected perfumers in the industry, Mandy Aftel.

Tsi-La Organics: This line of products are crafted in artisan size batches using only the world’s finest essential oils, active plant botanicals, rich exotic butters and organic ingredients.

Black Pearl Botanicals: Specializes in the art of crafting skin safe, healthy, gentle, radiant perfumes.

Homemade Perfume Formulas

Luscious Cream Perfume

Natural Scents for Your Type

Solstice Blend Bath and Body Blend

Essential Oils and DIY Supplies

White Lotus Aromatics
The Essential Oil Company
Sunrose Aromatic


Vivian Y.
Vivian Y.2 years ago

We can custom body perfume by using your favorite scents!

Vivian Y.
Vivian Y.2 years ago

We can custom body perfume by using your favorite scents!

Jen Bové
Jen Bové3 years ago

Great topic that deserves refreshing! I don't think many people realize how wonderful natural perfume smells compared to the chemical-y stuff. Naturals are so rich and warm! One more to add to the list ~ Drift Perfume. Handcrafted solid perfumes in *wooden* cases - how cool is that? They offer vegan liquid perfumes too (no beeswax). NO synthetic ingredients & very eco-friendly. And, they offer samples :)

Rebecca D.
Rebecca D3 years ago

make your own with water and essential oils.

Patricia M.
Patricia Malemes5 years ago

Lavanila is a non-signer in the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Check it out:

Patricia M.
Patricia Malemes5 years ago

Lavanila is very toxic. They are not natural, as they claim. Their perfumes are not even listed on the Cosmetic Database:

Now, why is that?

Jagdeep S.
Jagdeep S.5 years ago


Margaret C.

Synthetic does not always create bad side effects and organic does not mean side effect free.

Anyone with grass, tree, flower or other pollen allergies can and will have a reaction to "organic" "natural" products that include these allergens.

A rose... is a rose... is a rose... if the scent comes from nature and the flowers make you sneeze, the fragrance of those flowers may be the cause of the dizziness, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms you can't get rid of.

Natural definitely does not mean hypoallergenic!! Allergy sufferers, be careful with your scents.

ANA MARIJA R5 years ago

interesting article
thank you!

Pallavi G.
Pallavi G.5 years ago

To the my best knowledge The science of fragrance is really rather posting. Its good news that there is an alternative.
Modern perfume made from synthetic fragrances that are most commonly synthesized from petroleum distillates.
Its beneficial and natural too.
essential oil