I’ve loved perfume since I was a little kid. In chronological order, I wore Love’s Baby Soft, L’Air du Temps, Eternity, Flowers—then, well, then I went wild and crazy and divided my devotion among a collection of dozens of fragrances. I visited perfume blogs and ordered samples, always searching for magic in a bottle. I never left the house without a spritz or dab of something.
So when I learned a few years ago about the dangers that lurked in those bottles—to find out that something that smelled so good could be so, well, bad—it was disheartening. I’m sure a lot of others are feeling as dismayed after reading a report released this week from the fine folks at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance.” In short: the news stinks. Testing shows that popular perfumes are filled with chemicals that can hurt you and/or the environment. Oh, and some of those toxins aren’t even listed on the ingredients labels. (I’ve published a blog post on the topic at the Care2 site.)
So here’s the thing. No one likes to hear that something they enjoy is dangerous. I don’t like to be a Debbie-Downer, but I believe it’s important to be informed and pay attention to this report—and to try to lobby for change in the industry. Loopholes in the law to let companies hide ingredients from labels? Come on—there’s nothing acceptable about that.
But if there’s nothing enjoyable about telling someone that the perfume they love contains hidden toxins, there’s something delightful about talking up the alternatives out there. When I was faced with giving up my own beloved perfumes (ouch, it really hurt), I went on a mission to find scents I could wear without sacrificing my health. I had low expectations and resigned myself to settle for safe but second-best.
Boy, was I wrong. I started with pure essential oils, followed by blends. Then, when I worked at a website about green living, I had the pleasure of writing a story about Mandy Aftel, a perfumer who makes fragrances out of pure essential oils for her Aftelier line; she wrote a book on the subject that I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in perfume: Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. Her passion for the art of perfumery is impressive and she is committed to creating only scents from pure sources—nothing artificial, nothing toxic. Spending time with her in her Berkeley studio (pictured, photos of her studio) was an absolute treat. I recall speaking to her about a recent hike and describing the smell of the wet fir when she pulled “Fig” off the shelf for me. Bingo. (It has become my go-to scent.)
I am now devoted to Aftel’s scents, along with others from perfume makers who don’t use nasty chemicals or hide what they use in their creations—so I can smell pretty without worrying about what my skin is absorbing. (Consult the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website for results of personal care products they test, including perfumes.) Best of all, I don’t miss anything I gave up.