From the potential health risks of synthetics to exciting new plant-based ingredients, here are some notes on nontoxic fragrance from natural perfumer and head of the Natural Perfumers Guild Anya McCoy.
There was a time when I didn’t really question what was inside the glass perfume bottles of all sizes on my dresser; they were gifts (or gifts to myself) and department-store samples that were, for the most part, from big fragrance houses and boasting mysterious, potent, musky scents. (You know, the kind that fills a room and take days to dissipate—the kind that inevitably makes you “that person.”)
I began using these fragrances less often, partially because I would notice congestion, scratchiness in my throat, or even headaches when I did. More than anything, though, I no longer enjoyed the scents. No celebrity backing would change that. Sorry, Britney.
Lately my attention has turned back to the fragrance industry, but for a very different reason. Fragrance is one of the most relevant—and controversial—words in today’s natural beauty industry. Companies aren’t required to disclose all fragrance ingredients and because some fragrance ingredients are linked to issues from allergies to hormone disruption, the implications of this level of secrecy are concerning. One simple word, “fragrance,” can indicate a product contains dozens of unknown natural or synthetic ingredients.
To discuss the differences between natural and synthetic fragrances, I got in touch with Anya McCoy, a natural perfumer and head of the Natural Perfumers Guild. The Guild is in the process of developing criteria to regulate natural fragrances in a way the government won’t (think requiring companies to work with suppliers that test ingredients and disclosing all ingredients) and is fine tuning the process behind developing natural isolates—isolated parts of the natural fragrance source, which perfumers like McCoy have started to use over the past year.
Not only did McCoy delve into some of the reasons to reconsider your synthetic scents and the unique science behind natural perfumery, but she also described a beautiful side of the blossoming natural fragrance industry.
Beyond the fact that fragrances are among the top five known allergens, ingredients commonly found in them are linked to more severe health risks. Europe has invested tons of money into research, and has discovered that 1 in every 50 people may suffer immune system damage from fragrance.
Plus, fragrances often contain phthalates, chemicals linked to hormone disruption, and neurotoxins. Another issue with synthetic fragrances: According to a Greenpeace Report, the high-volume of phthalates and synthetic musks break down in the environment, potentially making their ways back to our food and water systems.
With all the associated health risks (these even include allergies to natural ingredients), it seems obvious that companies should have to list all constituent fragrance ingredients. But the argument surrounding full disclosure is definitely heated and complex. Fragrances are considered a trade secret (check out my blog on fragrance houses).
And it’s not just the big fragrance houses that are against listing all ingredients; some natural beauty manufacturers also argue against full disclosure, mainly because they say it’s way too hard to include every ingredient on a tiny label.
I can understand the challenges. But working at New Hope Natural Media, I see every day that consumers want full transparency, both for their health and for sustainability. At the very least, companies should include all fragrance ingredients on websites. Some companies have proven it’s possible to list them all on those little labels, too.
Beyond health, McCoy explained why to choose natural fragrances, rather than just why to not choose synthetics. By buying from small, artisan perfumers, you’re not only supporting their efforts but also the farming and harvesting industries from which they’re sourcing ingredients.
McCoy notes that as demand for natural perfumes and fragrances increases, raw materials traditionally grown in pockets around the world are coming to the U.S. Smaller manufacturers, too, are typically the ones supporting suppliers that act responsibly by testing their fragrance ingredients for purity. Some perfumers such as McCoy are even bringing every step of production in house to ensure purity.
“I tincture, distill, and enfleurage many fragrant plants I grow organically in my garden. I also buy some dried organic materials I can't grow here in Miami and extract their scent,” she said. “We are all about the handmade, artistically product perfumers.”
These are all very logical reasons to choose natural fragrances. And I often get so caught up in the logic of it all that I forget about its essence: How does it make you feel? Really, choosing a fragrance is about instinct and desire, which is what I could tell McCoy was really passionate about, as she talked about what drew her to the natural fragrance industry. It wasn’t directly because of the health risks, or the dedication to small business.
It was about being drawn to a scent in a way that transcends any reason.
“Natural perfumes have a richness and beauty to them that is quite different from synthetic perfumes, and that’s the number one factor. I truly believe that they tie us subconsciously to our ancestral past.”
Engrams: The word she used to define that experience of a fragrance allowing your mind to take you back to a specific time and place. She also noted how natural fragrances react differently to each person’s body chemistry, making the scent unique to you.
This makes total sense, I realized. We crave ingredients, whether to put in or on our bodies, that have been around for thousands of years—and those are the ones that will elicit a positive mind-body experience. They are closer to who we are, naturally. Before synthetic fragrances were developed in the 1800s, the use of these plant-based ingredients was widespread. Today, perfumers like McCoy are bringing them back and allowing us to experience them again.
As a result, I think we’re going to see a lot more of natural fragrances and more specifically those focusing on the simplified natural isolates of plant materials—and hopefully see their ingredients on labels, too (there goes that logic again).
What do you think about natural fragrances? Leave a comment.