We all have seen the square glass bottle with the iconic black and white label.  It's little surprise that today Chanel No.5 continues to be one the world’s best selling perfume with a bottle purchased every 30 seconds. Marilyn famously wore it to bed- with nothing else. When Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel sprayed it around a dinner table in a Paris restaurant in 1921, women passing by would stop to ask what the scent was. It was, and still is, primarily based on a blend of jasmine, ylang-ylang, may rose and sandalwood.  For Chanel, the goal was to make the wearer “smell like a woman, not like a rose”. 


A formula largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1921, Chanel No.5 has in recent years come under threat.  In Europe, recent EU rules aimed at protecting consumers from allergens in cosmetics are forcing perfume houses like Chanel and others to reformulate their product.  The allegation is that these classic fragrances contain molecules such as atranol and chloroatranol, now recognized as potential allergens in Europe. In response, Chanel has been working on different variations of their formulas with other brands such as Hermes, Dior and Guerlain soon to follow suit. This is no small task, as reformulating a scent is costly and time consuming and can often take a minimum of 30 different tests. If that weren’t enough, under new EU regulations perfumeries will also be required to disclose more on their labelling. Before perfumes were only required to list 26 compounds; now they are required to extend the list to more than 80. When asked how they will be able to cram so many ingredients on the back of the bottle, one prominent perfume house replied, “… we aren’t sure.”

Proponents of the fragrance industry – which is projected to reach $92 billion globally by 2024 – say that even if many of their ingredients appear on hazardous chemical lists, safety boils down to a question of exposure. “The exposure to any individual fragrance ingredient in a product is extremely low – well below 1%,” a spokesperson for the Fragrance Creators Association, the industry’s main trade organization in North America, said in an emailed statement. “Fragrance ingredients are not hazardous based on usage.”

But others argue that there is a real reason for a more cautious approach. As one prominent researcher stated “...there are a lot of unknowns – so much of the toxicological research is one chemical at a time. And we’re never exposed to one chemical at a time,” she said, adding: “Because there are so many chemicals combined, and you’re exposed over your lifetime, it adds up to something big.”


A toxic bouquet

As women we all hold dear and love to display the coterie of branded glass bottles that adorn our vanities. We tend to hold on to these bottles for as long as possible and are slightly pained when we have to dispose of them. A perfume is something for not just for everyday but also for those occasions when in our little black dress, we strategically place perfume on those areas of the body that we want to impart a scent… the base of the neck, the back of the ears, even behind the knees so the scent travels upwards. It is the finishing touch; the piece de resistance in the dressing room.

A woman’s choice in fragrance is also said to reveal much about her tastes and personality. It is no surprise therefore how many hours we spend labouring in department stores, moving from one brand to the next; sniffing, smelling, wrist testing, taking home samples in an effort to determine which scent we identify with most. 

These days however as more and more of us are beginning to question the toxicity of our cherished cosmetics and examining what exactly fragrances are composed of.


The rise of 'fragrance' 

Long ago (before the industrial age), fragrance was predominantly essential oil based. That meant that perfumes were created with the distilled ‘essence’ of the natural plant or flower. No fillers, no fuss.  With the rise of machines and white bread, things changed. Suddenly the market was flooded with a cacophony of unknown and largely untested chemicals, additives and ‘fragrances’. Enterprising companies recognized that the consumer liked the real thing but were also keen to the idea that perhaps things in nature could be duplicated in a cheaper, synthetic form. So the natural was made unnatural and ‘scents’ were born in flasks and in a laboratory setting.

Ingredients were sourced in odd sounding ways such as from animal secretions (from the musk deer) and ambergris (a by-product of whaling used to make fragrance last longer on the skin). These days, it is estimated that approximately 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. These chemicals include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, and a slew of other known toxins that are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders and allergies—some of which are cited on the EPA’s hazardous waste list. Phthalates alone have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts, and cause reproductive malformation leading to tumour growth and have been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity.  In a 2001 study, the EPA reported that synthetic fragrances were shown to cause ”possible mutagenic and genotoxic effects” and that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to them. Do you sometimes feel a little headache-y or even nauseated in the fragrance aisle of the drugstore? Join the club.


"What is important to understand here is that the majority of the chemical compounds posing as harmless ‘fragrance’ are in fact untested and whose short and long term effects on the human body are largely unknown."


Stopping to smell the roses

This lack of transparency regarding contents of commercial ‘fragrance’ did however have a purpose. It was a way to protect the proprietary blend of the Chanels and Diors of the world from would be copycats. But these rules have also made it difficult if not impossible for the average consumer to navigate the cosmetics counter and assess product safety.

Defining fragrance can be tricky.  On your average cosmetic label, alternate terms for synthetic fragrance include perfume, fragrance, fragrance oil, and parfum. These are very general terms for a chemical cocktail which can contain up to 200 undisclosed ingredients. Due to recent trends towards more natural and nature loving products, companies have been forced to get creative with their formulations and labelling- but don’t be fooled.

Some other common names for synthetic fragrance include:

  • Natural
  • Aromatherapy
  • ‘contains essential oils’
  • Fragrance oils
  • Fragrant oil
  • FO

Even brands that advertise themselves as ‘fragrance free’ are not necessarily devoid of toxins. What ‘fragrance free’ typically means is that fragrances have been added to give the overall effect of not having a scent. So in order for your favorite skin cream to be fragrance free, scent-masking chemicals are used to make a given product have no distinct smell at all.

In a world in which nearly everything and every space seems scented or ‘unscented’, pine-coned, febreezed, or with a sprinkle of ‘aromatherapy’… what are we to do?


Only the essentials 

Nearly every great civilization had some ritualized use of perfume or scent in their social fabric. In China fragrances were prized and although they did not wear scent they burned it in the form of incense and other fragrant materials in special, sacred rituals. In Egypt perfume was a treasured commodity and was strongly associated with cleanliness. Frankincense and Myrrh were among the favoured scents that the Egyptians believed to be the sweat of the Gods. The Greeks believed the gods from Mt. Olympus were attracted to sweet fragrances and medical thinkers connected its use to health and vitality via aromatherapy. And it is believed the Romans used some 2,800 tons of frankincense annually, and perfume was everywhere from public baths to beauty products and applied even to the soles of Roman feet. 

What these seemingly disparate civilizations all had in common however was their use of natural fragrance or essential oils.  Essential oils seem to be everywhere these days… but what are they exactly?

An essential oil is defined as a super concentrated, non-water soluble phytochemical essence of a plant, flower or root. For an essential oil to be a true essential oil, it must be isolated by physical means only. The physical methods used are typically distillation (steam, steam/water and water) or expression (also known as cold pressing). Technicalities aside, when one first experiences a true, quality essential oil one thing comes to mind: “This is potent stuff.”  Also one soon becomes aware that there are vast differences in quality among different brands of oils.  Quality will generally be dictated on where the flowers are from, how they are harvested and the method of extraction. 

But like with all things, you get what you pay for.  Just place a small vial of lavender essential oil next to the soapy, drugstore variety and you will forever know the difference. One is instantly addictive, soothing and calm inducing while the other is fake-ish, headache triggering and just a little bizarre. Potent indeed, as it can take more than 150 pounds of lavender flowers to make a single pound of lavender essential oil.


"...companies recognized that the consumer liked the real thing but were also keen to the idea that perhaps things in nature could be duplicated in a cheaper, synthetic form." 


But don’t take our word for it- just one sniff of Frankincense, Sandalwood, or Rose Otto and one is an instant convert. Why? Because essential oils are more than just ‘scents’… they are therapeutic.  Difficulty concentrating? Keep a bottle of rosemary or peppermint essential oils on your desk. Feeling a bit blue? Frankincense and Bergamot are instantly uplifting and stress relieving. Finding it hard to fall asleep? A few long purposeful breaths of true lavender and you will feel drowsy within five minutes. Hospitals and clinics have also embraced the value of natural scent. The next time you find yourself standing in the waiting room of a clinic you may notice that it smells faintly of sweet orange oil. This it is not simply because it is pleasant– it also reduces hospital related anxiety.


What about essential oil based ‘perfume’? While the idea is certainly not new, (see India’s thousand year old Ayurvedic tradition) it is fast becoming rediscovered and even the trendy even among established brands. Take Tom Ford’s recent fragrances Neroli Portofino and Oud Wood. Both are ostensibly based on specific essential oils with marketing that stresses a return to more ‘natural’ origins. Neroli Portofino is described as having “top notes of bergamot, mandarin orange, lemon, lavender, myrtle, rosemary and bitter orange”.

Looks however, can always be deceiving.  While the exact ingredient list of Ford’s perfume is difficult to locate online, once you do find it the essential oils listed in the description seem oddly absent on the back of the box. Instead, alcohol denat, water and the ubiquitous ‘fragrance (parfum)’ are front and center. While regulations in North America for toxicity in cosmetics are far behind those in Europe, this more ‘natural’ scent base is certainly progress and may be an example of how non-toxic cosmetics are indeed having an effect on the mainstream.


The nose knows

What seems certain is that the trend towards natural scent and use of essential oils instead of artificial fragrance is in no danger of slowing down.  Since essential oils don't just have a scent but also have researched and documented physical and psychological effects, it seems that they are not only more safe but have more raison d'etre.  More progressive indie brands are using them exclusively because simply put- they work and people love them.  So it begs the question: why make a skin cream or oil with a random 'fragrance' when you could be employing geranium, frankincense or lavender all of which are known to calm inflammatory skin conditions such as acne and are anti aging?  Why formulate hair care without rosemary or cedarwood essential oils as these have been shown to thicken and promote hair growth?  A few drops of these oils can even be massaged directly on the scalp as a therapeutic treatment.  

In the end, the power of scent cannot ignored.  It can trigger mood, memory and can be therapeutic or toxic.  Choose your scent wisely.




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