From room deodorizers to cleaning products, perfumes and fragrances are everywhere. They may be pleasant smelling, but they often contain harmful chemicals that may cause irritation or even more serious health problems over the long term.
Luckily, there are some natural alternatives that smell great and don’t pollute the air.
History of Perfume
Mentioned in Egyptian hieroglyphics as early as 3,000 BC, perfume has been around for thousands of years. An ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet from 1,200 BC mentions a woman named Tapputi who distilled flowers and other aromatics with oil to make her perfumes.
Perfumery made its way to Europe as early as the 14th century where it became popular amongst royalty (mostly to mask body odor).
But while ancient perfumes got their scent from flowers and other natural aromatics, modern perfumes are another story. Beginning in the late 19th century, chemists began to isolate compounds from aromatic oils. These more stable synthetic versions held their scent longer.
Perfumes now rarely use all-natural ingredients, but instead are a chemical mixture very different from the perfume made for centuries (and even millenia).
What’s in Perfumes and Fragrances?
Unfortunately, modern perfume is increasingly full of chemicals. Because of a loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 (which requires companies label the ingredients in their products, except for fragrance) companies can pour unsafe or untested chemicals into products and consumers have no way of knowing about it.
Companies can lump any number of chemicals into “fragrance” (whether or not they are really present for fragrance purposes) because fragrance is considered a trade secret and doesn’t need to be disclosed.
When the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested the chemicals in some popular perfumes they found that on average there were 14 unlisted chemicals in each perfume, some of which are known hormone disruptors and allergens. Others are completely untested for safety in personal care products by the USDA, International Fragrance Association, or any other organization.
Manufacturers today use approximately 3,100 ingredients in different combinations to create perfumes and fragrances. A report by the National Academy of Sciences found that 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic petrochemicals (derived from petroleum).
Three of those chemicals are:
This chemical is linked to autism, ADHD, and neurological disorders and is banned in EU, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and China.
Studies also link phthalates to cancer, endocrine disruption, and developmental and reproductive toxicity. Other studies link phthalates to sperm damage and altered genital development in boys.
This synthetic fragrance ingredient builds up in fatty tissue and breast milk. It’s also suspected to cause cancer and is toxic to the environment.
Formaldehyde is often found in plug-in fragrance warmers and air fresheners amongst other products. The CDC admits that formaldehyde is a known human carcinogen and the more we are exposed to it the bigger the chances of cancer. Unfortunately formaldehyde is not only found in our perfumes and fragrances but also in many kinds of conventional furniture and building materials.
Consider: These are just three of the 3,100 chemicals used in fragrances! Clearly they aren’t as benign as fragrance manufacturers would like us to believe.
Symptoms of Fragrance Sensitivity
While many people complain of sensitivity to perfumes, laundry detergents, and other fragranced products, a 2017 study in Australia found that the concern is based on data as well. The study found that many residents could not be around fragrance without health effects.
Fragrance chemicals can cause symptoms such as:
- reduced lung function, respiratory irritation, increased asthma
- allergic reactions
- birth defects
- mucosal symptoms
- migraine headaches
- skin problems
- cognitive problems
- gastrointestinal problems
- and the list goes on!
Clearly fragrance should be avoided, but unscented products aren’t the answer either.
What About Unscented Products?
Often, unscented products contain chemicals that mask the smell of the other chemicals in the product, they just don’t have a floral, musky, or similar scent. It’s basically a fragrance without the strong fragrance smell.
Also, there are very few ingredients in conventional perfumes (or other products that contain fragrance) that aren’t objectionable. While fully labeling ingredients would be a good thing, it hardly matters when there are so many other ingredients in these products that I prefer to stay away from entirely.
Alternatives to Fragrances and Perfumes
If people made perfume for thousands of years without synthetic chemical-laden fragrances, I’m guessing perfumes and other scented products can be made that way again!
Here are some of my favorite ideas for smelling nice, naturally 🙂
DIY Room Fragrance
These simple homemade air freshener recipes are made with essential oils, so they actually have health benefits! Sweet orange essential oil not only uplifts the mood but also has potent antifungal properties. Lemon has both antibacterial and antiviral properties and also is said to lift the mood. Ginger helps with focus and energy by stimulating the mind and may help with depression.
As a mom of small children I’m lucky if I get a shower most days (sound familiar?), so perfume can come in pretty handy. I decided to create my own blend and came up with a pretty combination. Fun fact: the wearer’s body chemistry changes the scent, so it’s truly custom!
Perfume for Women (or Men)
If you’re not into DIY (or don’t have time), this Alitura Presence perfume is made with natural ingredients and smells amazing! It’s not exactly easy to describe scents on the internet so I’ll leave it to the experts and quote from their website:
Top – The scent opens with the freshness of Cucumber and Aloe with a delightful Ylang Ylang (flower).
Mid/Heart – The heart is a plethora of Hydrated Cedar and Green Forest giving it a robust fusion of coolness.
Base/Drydown – The dry-down has warm smolders of smooth Sandalwood and aromatic Cardamom with soft breezes of Tobacco from a Fine Leather Satchel.
Full disclosure: this perfume contains natural pheromones and may work as an aphrodisiac!
Cologne for Men
This DIY recipe for men’s deodorant may be enough to give your man that just-in-from-the-woods smell. My husband also likes this Otter Wax solid cologne for men. (The Environmental Working Group approves the ingredients too.)
DIY Bathroom Fragrance
This natural bathroom spray (I call it “Un-Doo”) is a lot like the popular spray that actually locks the smell in the toilet rather than just masking the smell that’s already entered the air. Again, if you can’t or won’t DIY this one, this popular brand is also natural and free from toxic chemicals.
Most DIY perfumes and fragrances will include essential oils, so having those essential oils on hand can be helpful too.
Add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to a tablespoon of carrier oil to make an instant perfume oil. Diffusing essential oils can also add a nice scent to the room without having to spray anything.
There are some risks to weigh with the benefits when using essential oils, so I make sure to get mine (and information about how to use them) from a trustworthy brand. Sticking to kid-safe oils is another to way to take the guesswork out of using essential oils.
It turns out, a few simple spices or some fresh citrus in some low simmering water does amazing things for a home’s atmosphere! Try some of these easy natural potpourri ideas using things you already have in the fridge or pantry. A Crock-Pot or candle warmer designed for this purpose may also do the trick. (But be mindful of safety, obviously!)
My Take: Safer Fragrances and Perfumes Are Worth It!
Conventional fragrances contain so many chemicals (many of which we don’t even know about) that I prefer to stay away from them altogether. I’ve found that I like natural scents more than the synthetic ones anyway, even if I do have to reapply more often.
What do you use instead of toxic fragrances? Have you found natural perfumes that work for you?