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.”
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
Essential Oils and DIY Supplies