Turn over any bottle in your bathroom and look for the word fragrance or perfume. We guarantee you will find it on every single ingredient list of every single product you use: Fragrance is ubiquitous in personal care products. Why? Because consumers want their products to smell nice. The problem? Companies have no legal obligation to disclose what their fragrance is made from, because it’s considered proprietary.
Of the possible 2,947 ingredients listed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), fragrance mixtures typically contain several hundred chemicals, most of them synthetic, which, according to a 2018 study, emit the same amount of chemical vapours as petroleum emissions from cars. These vapours—also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—react with proteins in our body that can result in immune responses (including breathing problems, migraine headaches, skin irritation, and asthma attacks). Over time, this can lead to compounding long-term health effects.
A 2015 study that tested 37 fragranced consumer products found that 42 of the VOCs they emitted were classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws. Some of the most concerning ingredients found under the fragrance label (or a related term such as perfume), include phthalates (hormone disruptors linked to reproductive birth defects in baby boys), as well as octoxynols and nonoxynols (also persistent hormone disruptors).
What About Natural Fragrances?
Quality, plant-based essential oils used as fragrance can be extremely beneficial for your skin, but they can also be irritants—and therefore considered toxic—at certain levels. How the essential oil is processed also matters. Retailers like Follain and Credo monitor the levels and quality of essential oils in the beauty products they stock to ensure safety, but it is important for consumers to know the risks when buying direct from independent or conventional essential oil brands.
For instance, a 2018 study found potentially hazardous chemicals in 24 commercial essential oils tested. Even though the essential oils were labeled “natural,” “organic,” or “pure,” they were extracted, diluted, or synthesised with petrochemicals which can either be absorbed into your skin, or inhaled.
How Can You Buy Clean, Non-Toxic Perfume?
Contact your favourite beauty brands and ask to see a list of ingredients used in their fragrance, along with the sourcing process of any essential oils. Are they organic, and were they farmed responsibly? Cross reference each ingredient with a third party like the Environmental Working Group. Or go even further and ask your favourite brands to change their labelling so that they include all of their fragrance ingredients on their packaging going forward.
In the meantime, get to know 24 of our editors’ favourite phthalate-free fragrances below. They range from 100 percent natural and organic, to slightly cleaner than you have now, plus some picks that are breaking boundaries by providing total fragrance ingredient transparency.
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.