Perfume: how natural are you willing to go?

| 9th February 2010

Natural perfume: smell the roses

In a world of synthetic fragrances it's important to remember that there are natural alternatives. Here's where to buy them, what to look for and... how to go beyond patchouli

'Fragrance free' is perhaps the ultimate fragrance. When laundry products market themselves on such exotic odours as white orchids and passion flowers (but whose synthetic fragrances, designed to hang around for days, contain potent chemicals), you could be forgiven for wanting a break from fragrances.

We need more fresh air in our lives, not air 'fresheners'.

But there are always moments when everyone wants a mood enhancing scent buzz from a fragrance, and you'll be reassured to hear that these can still be had from entirely natural or an even organic fragrances. After all, perfume has been used for centuries for a range of purposes - religious ceremonies, to mask odours... even as an aphrodisiac.

The questions to ask

There are four key questions to ask when shopping for a natural perfume:

  • Where can I buy it?
  • How 'natural' is it?
  • Are the ingredients sustainable?
  • Does it smell any good?


In choosing to buy natural and organic, there are certain things you've got to accept. First, forget the department store and most of the high street: if you're looking for a natural perfume you'll need to search elsewhere, mostly online.

Choice is limited but this is no bad thing. Shopping beyond the mainstream means you avoid being seduced by the latest celebrity-endorsed, over-sexualised scent ad. It's an easy trap to fall into - up to 97 per cent of the cost of producing a conventional perfume goes on marketing, packaging and advertising. The liquid in the bottle can represent as little as 3 per cent of the total cost of production.

As 'professeur de parfum' and founder of the Haute Parfumerie at Harrods, Roja Dove laments, 'I think most people don't actually smell fragrances anymore. People are so influenced by marketing that people buy scents that they don't really like.'

Bottled-up nature

For those used to mass market scents natural fragrance can smell a bit earthy and, well... natural. Hardly suprising considering they are produced with essential oils derived from flowers and leaves. It's not all about reeking of patchouli or lavender though - thankfully things have moved on (see our top picks below).

'Natural fragrances are a little softer, a little more muted,' says Sadie Chowen, a 'trained nose' who runs the Burren Perfumery in Ireland. 'Synthetics tend to be stronger, sharper. Mainstream perfumes can also use fragrances which are very unusual, which don't reflect reality. In creating a natural perfume the palette is restricted.'

The other perceived problem with natural and organic perfumes is that the scent tends to wear off after a few hours. Perfumer Roja Dove says that with organics, 'you do not get the diffusion or the staying power'. He admits some are 'really very nice' but that 'for the majority of people they will not give them what they expect'. It all depends on your criteria for choosing.

Natural vs synthetic

Up until the birth of modern perfumery in the late 1880s, all perfumes were made from natural plant and animal sources. Then scientists discovered how to create synthetic aroma chemicals.  According to the Fragrance Foundation, around two thirds of modern fragrance is synthetically derived and the remaining fraction naturally sourced (although some 'prestige fine fragrance' brands are up to 50 per cent natural, or even higher).

These days the line between 'natural' and 'synthetic' is a fine one. There are three types of synthetics: natural isolates (substances extracted from natural oils), semi synthetics (natural isolates modified by a chemical process) and synthetics (brand new odiferous molecules made in the laboratory).

Synthetic fragrances aren't automatically bad news. They can be produced cheaply and in large quantities compared to naturals - it takes around 750 kilos of jasmine petals to make 1 kilo of jasmine oil.

Synthetics also don't rely on expensive, seasonal, natural resources some of which, such as sandalwood, are now regarded as a threatened species. Nor do they require animal derivatives such as musk, a dried secretion that is painfully obtained from musk deer, beaver, muskrat, civet cat, and otter genitals. Animal derived musk was once widely used as fixative but has largely been replaced by synthetic musk.

Then there's the issue of where and how the natural ingredients are grown. Were the roses grown using pesticides, fertilisers and fumigants? (For more on the local vs exotic flower debate click here).

What's that smell?

The problem with conventional scents is you don't know what's in them. The complex mixtures of hundreds of synthetic chemicals contained in mainstream perfumes do not have to be listed on the label. Instead they are summed up as 'parfum' in the EU or 'fragrance' in the US.

As far back as 1986 the US National Academy of Sciences targeted fragrances as one of the six categories of neurotoxins (chemicals that are toxic to the brain) that should be tested for impacts for human health. The report states that as much as 95 per cent of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.

They include toluene, benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other toxins capable of causing cancer and central nervous system disorders.

Perfume has also long been known to be an environmental risk for asthma. Many fragrance ingredients can also cause allergic skin reactions headaches, or nausea.

Safety concerns

The most talked about common ingredients of concern are synthetic musks and pthalates. Both these potentially hazardous man-made chemical groups have been found in many well known brands of perfumes (see this Greenpeace study). Synthetic musks are suspected hormone disrupters and some types (nitro musks) are carcinogenic. Traces of synthetic musks have shown up in breast milk and in umbilical cord blood. A 2008 Swedish study showed how women using high levels of perfume during pregnancy had elevated concentrations of some polycyclic musks in breast milk raising concern over the safety of breast feeding.

Phthalate exposure has been linked to male reproductive damage. The main phthalate which may be used in personal care products in Europe is diethyl phthalate (DEP). Research suggests a link between exposure to DEP and DNA damage to human sperm.

The Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association says that both synthetic musks and DEP are safe for use, citing the EC independent Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), and that all ingredients are under continuing safety review.

Occasionally spraying yourself with conventional perfume is probably nothing to worry about. But if you want to know what's in the bottle, go natural, preferably organic. Here is our pick of the bunch. All the fragrances (except one) claim to be from natural origin, some are up to 100 per cent organic, and most use plant based alcohol.


Cheap and cheerful

Lavera Eau de ToiletteLavera's Body SPA 'Lime Sensation' is sporty, stimulating and good for freshening up. From selected stores or online  £15.95 (30ml)

‘Remedies to roll' by Neal's Yard Remedies, are essential oil blends in a handy little bottle for on-the-go aroma. From NYR stores or online £5.70 (9ml)

Balm Balm Mandarin Single Note 100% Organic Perfume - Made with only two ingredients (essential oil and grain alcohol), use on its own to smell like a mandarin or blend with some of the 7 other varieties.  Buy online from Balm Balm £20 (12ml)

Pure and luxurious

Jo Wood Organics 'Usiku' Eau de ToiletteJo Wood ‘Usiku' Organic Eau de Toilette is a spicy, woody and warm scent for men and women alike. For stockists click here or buy online  £36.00 (50ml)

Tsi-la ‘Misaki' - an unusual fragrance containing lavendar, warm tea(!), mint and bergamot. UK online stockists are: and £90.00 (50 ml)

Rich Hippie organic perfume is made in small batches from organic and wildcrafted plant and flower extracts. The aromas evoke their names ('Bohemian Wedding' and 'Marrakesh'). It's an eyewatering $105 for 1/8 oz, but they are creating an eau de toilette for $25.00. Available online

Frazer 'Parfum Solide' - Natural perfume infused into organic beeswax. Rub warm wax on pulse points for a slow release lasting scent.
Available online at The Natural Store £79 (5g)

Potent, long lasting

Burren Perfumery BotanicalsTOP PICK - Burren Perfumery ‘Botanicals' Spring Harvest - This Irish perfumery produces gorgeous, fresh, herby scents inspired by the Irish landscape and the changing seasons. Available online €35.00 (100ml)

Ren ‘Maya Rose' - An instant floral hit, more like conventional perfume than the rest. Ren says it 'contains only natural and nature identical ingredients.' Available from many UK stockists - see £40 (50ml)

Les Fleurs de Bach ‘Presence de Bac' is intensely fragrant and based on Dr Bach's flower essences. Available from selected outlets and online,  £44.50 (50 ml)

Dolma ‘Compassion' - Our one exception. Yes it does contain some synthetics, but Dolma takes a strong stance on animal welfare - all their blends are long-established vegan ingredients and they are HCS (BUAV) approved. Buy online from Dolma £15.95 (15ml)

Smell good enough to eat... (but only last a few hours)

Wickle Fig and Mace perfumeWickle 'Fig and Mace Perfume' is a spicy, sweet and fruity blend. Apply with care as it's oil- (rather than alcohol-) based. Attractively presented in a recycled box tied with ethical lace. Normally £59.50 but reduced to £25 at

Intelligent Nutrients' multi-functional ‘Aromatics' are made entirely from organic, food-grade essential oils and flavours. Spray onto skin, body and hair to 'attract, purify, stimulate, soothe, deodorize and refresh.' Available in the US - launching in the UK in 2011 $50 (28 ml)

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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