Sustainable Perfumes; Natural vs Synthetic

What ingredients should we be avoiding in perfume?

It really depends on the individual. There is a tendency to equate synthetic with bad and natural with good but its a bit more complex than that.

The dosage makes the poison and so it really depends on how much perfume you use, where you use it and how sensitive you are rather than individual ingredients being “bad” for everyone. If you have extremely sensitive skin then all scented products should be avoided (including naturals) as all fragrance has the potential to irritate. Instead spray perfume on a scarf or handkerchief instead of skin.

Avoid anything with citrus oils if you are going out in the sun as the combination can cause a skin reaction.

These days we tend to use so many layers of scented products we are increasing the chemical load on our bodies.

It’s a bit like eating cake – one slice won’t do any harm but if you eat tonnes of it every day you’ll run into problems eventually.

So, if you are concerned, my advice would be to minimise the other scented products you used in favour of a spritz of the gorgeous scent you love.

Fragrance in the UK/Europe is highly regulated, if there are particular materials you are concerned about look up scientific papers rather than reading soundbites online. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

Should we be looking for natural blends? If so, why?

It really depends on personal preference.

There is a tendency to believe that natural is safer than synthetic but as much as I would love this to be true it’s simply not. Natural materials are highly concentrated and packed full of allergens. Oakmoss, Rose Absolute, Jasmine and Ylang Ylang are all highly restricted in perfumery due to the skin sensitising effects.

There are some styles of fragrance that rely heavily on synthetic ingredients for their effects and longevity which really can’t be achieved with naturals. Without the gorgeous natural oils and absolutes perfumes wouldn’t have the richness and depth they do but synthetics add the structure that hold it all together.

If you want to choose an all natural scent be prepared to compromise on the strength and longevity – they stay much closer to the body and are not as loud and diffusive as a scent that includes synthetics would be.

Advantages/disadvantages of natural ingredients?

Advantage of natural ingredients is that they add depth and interest to a scent. Essential oils can also have a therapeutic effect on the body and mind. We feel comfortable with them – as humans we tend to associate naturalness with health and wellness. Disadvantages are that they are highly allergenic and can be difficult to standardise. This means your all natural perfume will vary from batch to batch as materials are at the mercy of weather and growing conditions as well as natural disasters.  All natural fragrances will not last as long on the skin as their synthetic counterparts due to the natural volatility of the materials. Some materials might be endangered and not sustainable. Many natural perfumery materials are grown in politically sensitive and war torn areas which can mean fluctuations in price and availability as well as ethical concerns.

Advantages/disadvantages of synthetic ingredients?

Advantages of synthetics are that they can be modified to ensure there are minimal allergens. They can also be standardised so your perfume will always smell the same and have a long lasting power on skin. Disadvantages can be that newer molecules might have no long term in use safety data so although they are considered safe now they might not be in a few years time. Some materials might have biodegradeability issues and be created from non sustainable petrochemicals. This is not the case for all synthetics as many use natural materials as a starting point and the industry is always looking to be more sustainable due to environmental issues and consumer demand.

In the UK and E.U, we have to comply with the E.U cosmetics regulations which mean that every product must be signed off by a specially appointed safety assessor who is a qualified chemist/toxicologist and have accurate ingredients labeling. From a fragrance perspective, this means all allergens must be listed on the label.

What are the regulations for synthetic and natural ingredients in perfumery?

Most respected fragrance houses are members of IFRA which is the fragrance industry’s self-regulating body and is very strict. Materials both natural and synthetic are restricted and banned when new safety issues come to light.

As a perfumery teacher, I always advise my students to make sure their fragrances are IFRA compliant which can be a challenge for 100% natural scents as many of the chemical components present in essential oils are allergens. Many students do go down the route of adding a small number of synthetic materials to make their perfumes safer and therefore compliant.

What should we be looking out for ensure our perfume is environmentally friendly/sustainable? 

This is a great question and one we all need to be looking at. 

I think we have got bogged down for too long in the “chemical free” “no toxic chemicals” language of the green beauty movement when what we should actually be doing is educating people about environmental impact and sustainability. 

If all synthetic fragrance was switched to naturals (aside from the increased skin sensitisation we would see) we would not be able to keep up with the demand and it would be unsustainable.

Look for companies who can trace the provenance of their materials and use naturals from an ethical sustainable source especially for things like Vanilla, Patchouli, Sandalwood and Bois de Rose.

Look for brands that have a sustainability policy and only use biodegradeable/sustainable materials and minimise excess packaging.

Accept that sometimes lab-made is more environmentally friendly than naturally derived and be prepared to compromise for the sake of the environment.

Want to learn more? Why not come to a live perfumery class or study at home with my online perfumery course

Want to make your own perfume?

In the Create Your Own Perfume Starter Guide, you’re shown exactly where to buy the best perfumery materials & equipment PLUS the essential steps to get started with making your own scent.