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Is Your Perfume Toxic?

Sure, you scrutinize the tiny print on your fave face cream to pinpoint any potentially harmful ingredients, but you also need to know what’s lurking in your go-to eau de toilette.

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| October 21st, 2011

 Natural and Organic

“Traditionally [in the beginning history of perfume] fragrances were made of the most precious and prized ingredients and they were all natural,” says Margo Marrone, founder of The Organic Pharmacy in London. (Think pure essences of bergamot, jasmine, rose, orange blossom and spices.) “The quality of a fragrance depended on the quality of the ingredients and the best were always kept for fine fragrances.” Now, for a slew of reasons—from not being able to fully extract the aromas of some flowers (like gardenia) or the popularity of creating conceptual scents (e.g. fresh air or metallic essences), fragrances often contain man-made molecules in place of natural extracts. An all-natural fragrance will have ingredients such as natural grain alcohol, essential oils and other plant materials listed on the box. And remember, there’s a difference between the entire formula being natural and having some naturally-derived ingredients thrown into the mix.

Organic takes fragrances one step further and avoids the chemicals and poisonous pesticides used in non-organic farming, explains Marone. “Organic scents that have notes of, for example, vanilla, lavender and rose use oils that come from actual organic vanilla beans, lavender fields and rose petals,” explains Danny Seo, eco-expert in Bucks County, Penn., and author of the syndicated column “Do Just One Thing.”

According to Seo, choosing a natural or organic fragrance means that you’re more likely to avoid the possible allergic or unhealthy reactions caused by chemical ingredients. Bonus: The fragrances themselves have a depth and complexity that man-made ingredients cannot achieve.

MORE: Your Non-Toxic Nail Polish Guide

Essential Oils vs. Synthetic Notes

An essential oil is the liquid (that usually isn’t oily at all, FYI) pulled right from the leaves, stems, flower or bark of a plant by a process called steam or water distillation. While having essential oils in your fragrance sounds amazing, keep in mind that just because it’s au-natural doesn’t mean that it can’t be irritating or potentially hazardous (as anyone with intense floral allergies will attest to).

That’s why some experts argue there’s a real need for synthetics in fragrances—because of impossible-to-extract essential oils, a perfumer wants to add a doesn’t-exist-in-nature note or because the real deal is toxic. Pulled right from a sci-fi movie, computers churn out huge combos of molecules of the intended scent and then a real-life ‘sniffer’ decides what it actually smells like (Sniff, sniff…“Banana!”).

Also, man-made molecules in your perfume may decrease the scent’s carbon footprint. “By the time a natural extract goes through all the necessary processes and lands in your bottle, the carbon footprint could be enormous,” says Katherine Growney, founder of Saffron James perfume in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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