Science has long proven the strong connection between scents and memory. While a steaming pot of coffee conjures vivid pictures of a loved one, the smell of rain can transport you back to that summer you spent camping with your best friends. However, there are other scents—perfume, to be exact—that can trigger an entirely different thing: allergies.
While we all have a favorite scent that captures our mood and personality, not many of us know that underneath that sweet smell is a concoction of harsh chemicals—about 3,000 of them to be exact—that pose serious threats to our health. Most of these chemicals are petroleum-based compounds, “which are not something you should be putting on your skin as it blocks pores, is a nerve toxin and a respiratory irritant,” says beauty and aromatherapy expert Janice Rosenthal, owner of Garden of Essences. One component, styrene, has even been found to be a human carcinogen. Another common ingredient, phthalates—used to make scents linger and last longer—have also been banned by the European Union for its potential to interfere with hormone function and cause birth defects.
“Phthalates are chemical compounds, commonly found in almost all fragrance, unless specifically stated otherwise,” says Stefanie Walmsley, co-founder and CEO of Prim Botanicals. “Studies have shown that these can be endocrine disruptors that mess with your hormone levels and can potentially cause birth defects. At Prim Botanicals, we make sure all our products are plant derived, and contain no phthalates. We also steer clear of parabens as they have been known to interfere with hormone levels. This goes for candles, too! Be careful about what you are burning and inhaling.”
Fragrances are listed as the most common cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. In a 2009 study, as much as 30 percent of Americans reported sensitivity to scented products. Though it’s easy to conclude that synthetic fragrances are causing allergies, the right answer is “not quite.” While chemicals in synthetic fragrances are different from allergens, they’re considered skin irritants that trigger the same symptoms as that of allergies.
“Allergies trigger a histamine response whereas irritants disrupt the skin surface,” explains board-certified dermatologist Janet Prystowsky of Livad Skincare. “An ingredient in your perfume, skin care product or any scented product could either be an irritant or an allergen. You can grow a sensitivity to an ingredient over time, meaning allergens and irritants can creep up on you.”
Dr. Prystowsky adds that allergic reactions caused by irritants from fragrances can occur in two forms. “First, inhalation of odor from the perfume or fragrance may incite a respiratory response like sneezing, wheezing and coughing. Second, application of the perfume or product with fragrance may cause a reaction similar to what happens when one is allergic to poison ivy. Very itchy red bumps appear on the skin.”
In other cases, “scents trigger headaches, facial pain or even nausea and may simply worsen pre-existing allergies or even trigger a migraine,” says New York-based beauty expert and plastic surgeon Monica Tadros.
Fortunately, there is still a way for perfume-lovers to smell good without feeling miserable. With the rising demand for safe and natural products, more environmentally conscious brands are turning to nature-derived ingredients when creating scents. Natural perfumes are free of phthalates, parabens and sulfates and use only “truly natural aromas obtained from essential oils,” says Rosenthal. To make fragrances safer, Susie Wang of 100% Pure adds that “manufacturers can use processes such as steam distillation with natural ingredients to purify liquids in a current of steam.”
However, even natural fragrances come with a word of caution. “Natural perfumes and fragrances may still have strong odorants that trigger allergies and sensitivities because they are so potent,” says Dr. Tadros. “Skip the aromatherapy if deep inhalation triggers an immediate headache or nasal congestion.” To avoid exposing yourself to potential irritants, Dr. Tadros recommends “trying the perfume a couple of times before purchasing it to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions.”
Think you’ll never look at (or smell) your perfume the same way again? Don’t fret! We’ve listed our favorite natural fragrances to help you find your new signature scent!
Perfect for daytime use, this perfume oil enchants with notes of light floral and citrus derived from jasmine, lemon, neroli and ethically sourced essential oils.
A soothing, fresh scent that expertly blends pure essential oils and Madagascar vanilla, this travel-friendly fragrance comes packed with 30 essential vitamins and minerals from a formula that features antioxidants, goji berry, kakadu plum and chamomile.
True to its name, a whiff of this eau de parfum transports you to the vibrant California coast. It’s a light and charming fragrance with top notes of lemon blossom and a base of salty sea breeze.
Love adventure and exploring (or dreaming about) exotic locales? Let the fresh tropical aroma of this perfume oil transport you to sunnier corners of the world with notes of lush greens, freesia, white jasmine, bergamot and rose.
Versatile, modern and sultry. This long-lasting fragrance features delicately layered aromas of soft lilies and woodsy violets. Complementing any wardrobe, this scent will take you from the office to drinks with the girls.
Using only the highest-grade natural ingredients, this cologne—made from 14 natural essential oils—is a heady yet refreshing scent, evoking aromas of the deep woods and bright citrus with undertones of mint, ginger and bergamot.
Inspired by the wood-aging tradition of American distilleries, this cologne features a woodsy top note of red cedar with a smoky vanilla finish. It’s a masculine and sophisticated scent that can easily transition from day to night.
Featuring jojoba seed oil and calming floral extracts that include lavender, ylang ylang and chamomile, this perfume easily lives up to its name. Aside from its fresh, soothing smell, its blend of essential oils leaves skin nourished and protected from environmental stressors.
Formulated to complement both men and women, this clean citrus scent delicately combines top notes of Kaffir lime and grapefruit with a subtle base of Haitian vetiver and cedar wood. Summer Rain is reminiscent of the humid Florida Everglades with its refreshing take on the old phrase, “I smell rain in the air.”
Delicately formulated with pure essential oils to encourage mindfulness and a sense of well-being, this mist features a blend of rosewood, sage and lavender to create a calming, earthy aroma. Spritz above your head or around your room for an instant pick-me-up.