When made from plant-based ingredients such as herbs, flowers, spices, and essential oils, fragrances don’t just make you smell good—they can make you feel good, too. Unfortunately, most conventional sweet- smelling ingredients today are synthetic.

After the invention of synthetic fragrances in the 1800s, perfumers quickly replaced natural, plant-based ingredients with artificial ones. Now, fragrances can contain any number of 3,100 natural or synthetic ingredients, many of which are derived from petrochemicals. “Synthetics are less expensive to manufacture, and a lot of people are just used to that kind of fragrance,” says Anya McCoy, head of the Natural Perfumers Guild, an international trade organization. “They don’t know what real essential oils smell like.”

The fragrance industry’s most concerning synthetics include diethyl phthalate, galaxolide, limonene, and linalool, says Paul Pestano, a research analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). You’ll also find these ingredients in other beauty products.

The problem with fragrances

Fragrances are among the top five known allergens in North America and Europe. More than 100 fragrance ingredients can cause itchy, scaly, painful skin, and potentially worsen asthma, and synthetics aren’t the only ingredients known to trigger allergic reactions. Even high concentrations of certain natural ingredients including tea tree, lavender, and citrus peel oils may cause such symptoms, another reason the EWG recommends looking for products listing all fragrance components.

Plus, 1 in 50 people suffers immune system damage from synthetic fragrance, reports the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-food Products. And the high volume of phthalates—industrial chemicals used to make synthetic musks and linked to endocrine system damage—may damage ecosystems, according to Greenpeace research. Phthalates also may make their way back into food and water sources.

The rise of nontoxic scents

Thanks to greater awareness about the potential risks of synthetic ingredients, perfumers are finding success with natural formulations. Essential oils, often used in natural fragrances, have a range of mind-body benefits, from energizing to calming. But in the absence of labeling requirements, companies still struggle to define “natural.”

“A lot of people call themselves natural perfumers but they use a little bit of synthetics,” says McCoy. That’s why the Natural Perfumers Guild helps hundreds of perfumers formulate and clearly label products. Other companies opt for the NPA Natural seal or organic certifications from USDA or NSF.

The beauty of natural perfumes

When you buy natural fragrances—or beauty products containing them—you also support farmers and harvesters of plant-based ingredients. As demand for natural fragrances increases, U.S. farmers are increasingly planting raw materials traditionally grown only overseas. Some perfumers, including McCoy, even bring all production in-house to capture fragrances’ true essences. “Natural perfumes have a richness and beauty to them that is quite different from synthetic perfumes. I believe that they tie us subconsciously to our ancestral past.”

4 tips for buying natural fragrances

1. When possible, choose products that list all constituent fragrance ingredients. 

2. If a company doesn’t reveal every ingredient, look for wording that indicates a product is free from sulfates, phthalates, parabens, petrochemicals, propylene glycol, and “synthetic” or “artificial” fragrance.

3. USDA Organic, NSF/ANSI 305 “contains organic,” and NPA Natural certifications prohibit synthetic scents. 

4. Choose brands that are members of the Natural Perfumers Guild. Find a complete list at naturalperfumers.com.