The Health Risks Lurking In Your Perfume—And 5 Nontoxic Scents To Try

Your guide to buying perfume that's free of endocrine disruptors and carcinogens.

June 5, 2017
natural perfume shopping guide
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Popular perfumes like Coco Chanel and Eternity are kind of like frenemies. Sure, on the surface they’re all roses, but behind the seemingly sweet exterior, they’re hiding some dirty little secrets. We’re talking undisclosed ingredients that could be sabotaging your health and messing with your hormones—chemicals you’re not only spraying on your body, but rubbing right into your skin. According to the Environmental Working Group, the average perfume contains 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label—yikes! To help you sort out the good from the bad, here are the top three ingredients to skip and five natural scents worth the spritz.

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Ingredients To Avoid

Don’t be fooled by the words “fragrance” or “parfum” on labels. Although sweet-sounding, they could represent an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals that by law aren’t even required to be listed on labels. In fact, according to the Environmental Working Group, that rosy smell could be concocted from a complex cocktail of some 3,100 stock ingredients. “That ‘cocktail’ of ingredients can wreak damage to one’s skin by causing contact dermatitis and/or flaring rosacea and acne,” says Gervaise Gerstner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City. (Air fresheners use them, too. Make this simple essential oil-based three-ingredient room spray that boosts your mood instead.)

How to avoid: Skip the catchall “fragrance” as an ingredient unless followed by specific ingredients and essential oils listed in parentheses.

Chances are your perfume also comes with parabens, a commonly used synthetic preservative used to extend the fragrance’s shelf life. “Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen, and exposure to external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer,” warns Gerstner.

How to avoid: Avoid products that list parabens on labels, including methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben; look for “paraben-free.”

Related: 7 Steps To Minimize Your Exposure To Health Toxins

The third strike goes to phthalates, endocrine disruptors that can throw off your natural hormonal makeup. They’re added to perfumes (and other personal care products) to help fragrances dispense evenly. Research has linked phthalate exposure to infertility, miscarriage and birth defects as well as lowered sex drive, early-onset menopause, obesity and a possible increased risk of breast cancer. (Scented candles have phthalates, too. Read more about the ways scented candles are messing with your health.)

How to avoid: Phthalates can show up as DMP (dimethyl phthalate), DEP (diethyl phthalate), DBP (di-n-butyl phthalate), and DEHP (di-(2-ethylhexyl), but since phthalates fall under the “fragrance” catchall, chances are they’re not listed at all. Choose beauty brands that eschew phthalates altogether.

Safe Scents To Try

Why coat yourself in chemicals when there are plenty of non-toxic options out there, scents infused with natural ingredients like herbs, distilled flower essences, plant extracts and essential oils—many handcrafted in small batches. These aren’t wimpy perfumes that wear off after an hour, but layered scents with staying power and complete transparency of ingredients.

natural perfume shopping guide
Photograph courtesy of Lake and Sky
Epic Love by Lake & Skye

The name isn’t an understatement. Created by aromatherapist, holistic nutritionist, and yoga teacher Courtney Somer (who combines therapeutic grade essential oils in her small-batch scents), this perfume bridges sweet and sexy with the passionate embrace of geranium, jasmine, rose damask, and patchouli.

Buy Now: $48,

Related: The 6 Most Important Beauty Products To Buy Organic

natural perfume shopping guide
Photograph courtesy of Florescent
Gâteaux by Florescent

Soft yet sophisticated, this floral and flirty scent, a combo of rose geranium, blood orange, spearmint, orange blossom and tolu balsam, is 100 percent natural. That’s because perfumer Susannah Compton works with organic or wildcrafted essential oils and absolutes: nothing synthetic and no additives, ever—and how pretty is the packaging!

Buy Now: $79,

Related: The Most Toxic Stuff In Your Drugstore Makeup—And 8 Natural Brands To Try Instead

natural perfume shopping guide
Photograph courtesy of
Flourish Calming Perfume by HollyBeth Organics

Imagine if a sweet flower gave you a kiss. That sums up the handcrafted blend of marjoram, geranium, bergamot and ylang ylang essential oils from this floral-powered roll-on, the signature scent from a USDA certified organic line that boasts earth-friendly packaging too.

Buy Now: $60,

natural perfume shopping guide
Photograph courtesy of Sigil
Aura by Sigil

This combo room and body spray, a delicate balance of woodsy agarwood and subtly sweet Palo Santo with undertones of grapefruit, is free of harsh chemicals or synthetics. Permission to spray everywhere, from your pillows to your pulse points.

Buy Now: from $19,

natural perfume shopping guide
Photograph courtesy of
Envision All Natural Eau De Perfum by Pour le Monde

The top is citrusy and uplifting (thank bergamot and lime), the base is sweet and sexy (thanks to patchouli and sandalwood); put them together and you have nuanced notes that change with the rhythms of your day. Free of parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrance, the line gets the NPA Natural Seal, meaning it’s composed of at least 95% natural ingredients.

Buy Now, $82,