What Makes Scents

Natural perfumes offer flawless fragrance without chemicals.
By Jolene Hart

The cluster of perfume bottles fanning across my vanity table represents a whole wardrobe of moods and treasured memories. As any fragrance lover can attest, a spritz of just the right scent at just the right moment provides unparalleled pleasure—precisely why I found synthetic perfumes so tough to quit cold turkey. But I did it.

Why do these luxurious—and pricey—beauty staples now sit in my bedroom unused? Because synthetically formulated fragrances pack in dangerous ingredients like phthalates and musks (linked to reproductive and fertility issues), benzaldehyde, propylene glycol, ethanol, acetone, and petroleum by-products, all of which can pose serious health risks. Synthetics also trigger allergies, irritate skin, and cause headaches. The National Academy of Sciences found that 95 percent of synthetic fragrance ingredients come from petroleum-derived materials, which have been found in human tissue. And these toxins don’t just accumulate in our bodies: A 2005 Greenpeace study deemed perfume chemicals “environmentally persistent,” meaning they make their way to lakes, rivers, rainwater, wildlife, and even the dust in our homes.

On ingredient labels, these toxins hide behind one seemingly harmless word: fragrance. Laws don’t require manufacturers to disclose the components of fragrance blends—they are considered trade secrets—so you never know which chemicals you’re spraying onto your body.

Nevertheless, you need not swear off fragrances for good. Natural perfumes free of nasty chemicals are gracing more people’s wrists—and these formulations aren’t your hippie aunt’s aromatherapy.

Back to nature
Chemists can mass-produce synthetic fragrances so they smell of honeysuckle, sandalwood, lemongrass, and peaches, for instance—yet these scents have no origins in real sources. Conversely, natural and organic fragrances, often referred to as essential oils and absolutes, are harvested from actual fruit, flowers, bark, leaves, resins (such as sap), roots, and seeds. Most essential oils are concentrated plant essences extracted through steam distillation, while absolutes, typically more delicate, require alcohol extraction.

“The aesthetic of natural fragrance is very different,” explains natural perfumer Ayala Sender, founder of Ayala Moriel Parfums. “When you smell [a natural essence], you experience a scent that is real. A rose essence actually came from a rose; it’s not someone’s idea of a rose. We learn to associate apple with the symbolic representation of it in synthetic compounds, but that isn’t the scent of an apple in nature.”

Mandy Aftel, founder of Aftelier Perfumes and author of Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume (Gibbs Smith, 2004), agrees: “Natural materials are incredibly nuanced and have a layered quality that synthetics do not. I compare it to the way cashmere feels in your hand or the complex taste of an heirloom tomato.”

And while potent synthetic perfumes often penetrate every space, public and private (hence the creation of fragrance-free workplaces), naturals are more subdued and intimate, posing less risk of offending passersby. “The scent projection of a natural perfume is nothing close to that of a synthetic,” says Sender, who abandoned synthetics after they gave her frequent headaches. “If you’re looking for a scent to fill up a boardroom or trail behind you in an elevator, you won’t likely get that from a natural perfume, because they stay close to the skin.” With as much as 30 percent of the population prone to irritation from fragrance—natural options included—keeping perfume closer to the belt is a welcome change.

Because natural perfumes don’t linger on your skin and clothes for days like synthetics do, you may need to apply them several times throughout the day. Solid and oil perfumes are ideal for dry skin types, because they create a moisture barrier that slows the absorption of essential oils into the body. Apply them to pulse points where your body heat is highest, such as your wrists and neck, to diffuse the aroma. You can even sample many different scents in a single day to match your changing moods without fear of overpowering or overwhelming yourself or anyone nearby. For those of us who find joy and self-identity in personal scents, let there, once again, be guilt-free pleasure in every whiff.

Jolene Hart’s favorite natural perfume is The Soap & Paper Factory Gardenia.

Your Scent Style
Want to explore natural perfumes? Use your scent style or favorite synthetic perfumes to pinpoint the best natural alternatives.

White Florals
Jasmine, gardenia, freesia

You wear: Robert Piguet Fracas, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein Eternity
Go natural: Tsi~La Natural Eau de Parfum Oil Mini in Fleur Sauvage ($45, 4 ml; tsilaorganics.com); Persephenie Perfume in Beauty ($45, 5 ml; persephenie.com); Acorelle Organic Fragrance in Orchidée Blanche ($48, 50 ml; nimli.com)

Cinnamon, clove, oakmoss

You wear: Yves Saint Laurent Opium, Guerlain Shalimar, Lancôme Trésor
Go natural: In Fiore Parfum Solide in Fumée D’Ambre ($65, 0.25 oz; beautyhabit.com); Tallulah Jane Natural Perfume in Gotham ($58, 8 ml; spiritbeautylounge.com); Pacifica Spray Perfume in Spanish Amber ($22, 1.2 oz; pacificaperfume.com)

Sandalwood, patchouli, cedar

You wear: Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely, L’Artisan Premier Figuier,
Yves Saint Laurent Elle
Go natural: Ayala Moriel Parfum Oil Travel Size Roll-On in Bon Zai ($65, 5 ml; ayalamoriel.com); Florascent Cologne in Santal ($60, 60 ml; saffronrouge.com); Aftelier Perfumes Eau de Parfum Spray in Fig ($150, 30 ml; aftelier.com)

Vanilla, coffee, spice

You wear: Aquolina Pink Sugar, Miss Dior Chérie, Thierry Mugler Angel
Go natural: Wholearth Organic Perfume Spray in #4 ($65, 1.7 oz; wholeearthbeauty.com); Lavanila The Healthy Fragrance in Vanilla Coconut ($58, 50 ml; lavanila.com); Intelligent Nutrients Organic Scent Blend in Seductive ($50, 28 ml; intelligentnutrients.com)

Lemon, orange, grapefruit

You wear: DKNY Be Delicious, Chanel Cristalle, Jo Malone Lime Basil & Mandarin
Go natural: Red Flower Organic Perfume Concentrate in Guaiac ($186, 15 ml; redflower.com); Honoré des Prés Eau de Toilette in Honoré’s Trip ($145, 3.3 oz; spiritbeautylounge.com); Strange Invisible Perfumes Eau de Parfum in Fair Verona ($135, 50 ml; beautyhabit.com)

Grass, green tea, herbs

You wear: Bulgari Omnia Green Jade, Gucci by Gucci,
Estée Lauder Knowing
Go natural: The Soap & Paper Factory Solid Perfume in Green Tea ($18, 0.5 oz; soapandpaperfactory.com); Honoré des Prés Eau de Toilette in Bonté’s Bloom ($145, 100 ml; spiritbeautylounge.com); Ayala Moriel Parfum Oil Travel Size Roll-On in Ayalitta ($65, 5 ml; ayalamoriel.com)

Fruity Floral
Berries, summer fruits, light florals

You wear: Dior J’adore, Burberry Brit, Ralph Lauren Ralph
Go natural: Aftelier Perfumes in Cassis ($100, 0.25 oz; aftelier.com); Acorelle Organic Fragrance in Baies Sauvages ($48, 50 ml; futurenatural.com); Pacifica Spray Perfume in Nerola Orange Blossom ($22, 1.2 oz; pacificaperfume.com)