How to Shop for Sustainable Perfume - Public Goods

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How to Shop for Sustainable Perfume

Among all five senses, our sense of smell is most closely linked to memory.

perfume bottle, flowers

The olfactory organs located in the nose bear responsibility for the moment a particle odor, aroma or fragrance stimulates a specific snippet in the brain’s catalogue of memories. Like a slideshow, we are transported to an ephemeral memory that flickers by. The rich buttery aroma of movie theater popcorn can easily trigger childhood memories just as the scent of pina coladas might conjure tropical islands and marmalade skies.

When memories are set off from certain scents or smells, the inner workings of the olfactory system are at play. Nerve impulses, generated after detecting a given scent, travel along the olfactory nerve to the limbic system. This section of the brain plays a significant part in dictating our emotions, memories, moods and behaviors, a discovery scientists believed as early as 1878, as indicated in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

Perfume companies have capitalized on the correlation that exists between fragrance and emotion. By concocting fragrances that mirror the traits and personalities we either already project or wish to, these companies have made a fortune.

Now with the convenience of online retailers, perfume is one of the top three most-sold online products among cosmetics, according to Orbis Research. In 2018 Research and Markets reported that the perfume market was valued at $38.8 billion and is projected to reach $48 billion in the next five years.

Many of those billions, unfortunately, are funding dangerous, synthetic products. Hopefully, as individuals continue to gravitate toward adopting more sustainable practices in their lives, they include their choices in perfume, too.

Long before the rise of perfumeries, the ancient Greeks dabbed their skin with oils they made from flowers and plants native to the Mediterranean. After Alexander the Great had vanquished Egypt — where fragrance was already customary in both beauty and ceremony — he pilfered the land of exotic spices and incense, then returned to Greece with new materials that evolved Grecian perfume.

Perfume, the ancient Greeks believed, brought them closer to the gods.

Perfume, the ancient Greeks believed, brought them closer to the gods. Both men and women spritzed themselves on their wedding days to portend good fortune and used it in burials to promote an auspicious afterlife.

Perfume continues to be time-honored in tradition, but the scents we wear contain far more ingredients than that of our ancient counterparts. The ingredients found in fragrance are loosely regulated, and no governing body exists that can recall anything toxic in a fragrance, a startling truth noted by the FDA. These chemicals have also been linked to hormone imbalance and allergic reactions.

According to the Environmental Working Group [EWG], the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 — under the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] — contains a discrepancy that exempts fragrance companies from listing the ingredients used in their products. A Scientific American article titled “Scent of Danger” reported that perfume makers are “allowed to withhold fragrance ingredients, so consumers can’t rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside.”

“A rose may be a rose,” the EWG added, “but that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely, concocted from any number of the fragrances industry’s 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer.”

Advocates such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an agency dedicated to seeking transparency in cosmetic products, supervises independent laboratory experiments to expose the egregious toxins perfume makers put in their products. One of the worst offenders: Chanel Coco.

Good Chemistry, a division of Illume based in Minneapolis, came out with a line of safe, aromatic colognes and body sprays made from essential oils in natural, earth-conscious scents such as Mineral Desert and Rustic Woods.

“Because it matters to us,” reads their label, this product is “vegan and cruelty-free with essential oils. We’re also really happy that it doesn’t contain paragons or propylene glycerol.”

The appeal to natural, stripped down elements is no new ageism. Jo Malone London, a British fragrance company, recently launched Wild Flowers and Weeds, a limited edition line inspired by the “unruly weeds and wildly-wonderful plants and flowers that line the banks of a winding river.” Cologne scents, including Hemlock & Bergamot, Cade & Cedarwood and Willow & Amber, are available for a limited time, and a single ounce bottle will cost you $72.

Chanel No. 5, labeled “the iconic fragrance for her” by its maker, retails between $80 and $2,150, depending on size and exclusivity. That price comes from several factors: Extracting oils from thousands of rose and jasmine flowers that are grown in a patch of the Pégomas countryside in France exclusively for Chanel is not only time-consuming, but also expensive. Also, the flowers must be both harvested and extracted within a very short window of time because once pruned from the bush, the flower petals’ fragrance alters.

Once the roses have bloomed — all 50 acres — they must be harvested in two weeks, a task carried out by a team of 70 pickers. While on assignment for The New Yorker, Lauren Collins overheard Songul Ozer, one picker, admit that she preferred her desk job to her current role.

Because of its ideal weather, many perfume houses source their raw materials from France. Shipping costs, as a result, are tacked on to the price.

Adopting healthy, sustainable practices in our daily routines might seem overwhelming, especially when there are so many factors to consider. It also becomes difficult to adopt such practices when it requires us to trash the cosmetic products we have cherished for years.

The good news is there are plenty of transparent perfume companies creating healthy, affordable products. Consider these points the next time you shop for perfume.

Support Small Businesses

Be wary of online retailers and imitation products. Amazon, for instance, is riddled with suspect sellers who offer diluted bottles of knock-off perfume, and one need look no further than the scathing reviews from outraged online shoppers who fell victim to such fraud. Unless the seller’s name matches the company name, you cannot be sure you are receiving the true product. Dozens of product reviews expose such claims.

Also, consider shipping costs. Perfume made outside of the United States will inherently cost more to send overseas.

Safe, Sustainable Ingredients

Most commercial perfumes and fragrances contain ethanol that is fermented from corn. A sustainable alternative to the dehydrating property of alcohol is organic sugar cane alcohol. Skylar, a perfume company that practices organic and sustainable practices, reported that “an acre of sugarcane produces double the amount of alcohol than corn does, which means you don’t need as much land to produce the same qualities.” This harvesting method is not only energy-efficient, but also cost-effective.

Lavanila, “The Healthy Fragrance,” is sourced from organic natural cane alcohol — free of herbicides and pesticides and does not contain those egregious chemicals, whose names are so convoluted, attempting their pronunciation feels like barbed wire on the mouth: phthalates, propylene glycerol or aldehydes. Lavanila added that sugar cane alcohol “softens skin and helps to prevent irritation while also possessing valuable antiseptic qualities.”


“Cruelty-free” is not synonymous with “does not test on animals.” The rules forbidding noxious testing on animals are “woefully inadequate and rarely enforced,” according to Public Goods Blog contributor Courtney Cole. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS], a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, reveals that “cruelty-free” is a loose definition that changes according to the bias of the companies in which it is used.

Speaking of which, sourcing raw materials from organic matter found in nature most likely does not require much testing on the perfumery’s part.

Cruelty-Free Kitty, a website devoted to animal testing vigilantism, exposed dozens of leading perfume companies that test on animals. While the site concedes that “some of the brands don’t conduct any animal testing themselves, [they] fund animal testing by selling their products in mainland China.”

That list includes but is not limited to Burberry, Chanel, Dior, Elizabeth Arden, Fendi, Givenchy, Lacoste, Marc Jacobs, Prada, Ralph Lauren, Versace and Yves Saint Laurent.


Being sustainable also means being economical. A bottle of perfume should not break the bank. Extraction methods, shipping costs and packaging all contribute to high markups, but there are plenty of affordable perfumes currently on the market. Good Chemistry, sold exclusively at Target, retails between $10 and $25, and Lavanila, “The Healthy Fragrance,” offers $16 rollerballs perfect for the purse (the 50 mL bottle sells for $47.99). Spend over $40 at and receive free shipping and a free natural mini deodorant.

Phlur, an online membership company, offers high-quality fragrances “designed for the skin” that are free of chemicals and boast cruelty-free and vegan characteristics. $18 gets you a set of three 2mL bottles to sample, which are shipped to your door for free, and the $18 can be applied toward a full 50mL bottle of the scent of your choice.


Opt for perfumes and colognes that come in packaging made from recycled materials to eliminate waste. Glass bottles and cardboard boxes, for instance, will not waste away in a landfill. The whimsical plastic flacons many of today’s pop singers affix to their perfumes (Justin Bieber’s Girlfriend, Katy Perry’s Meow) will, however.

Floral Street, an online perfumery that has previously been named the National Retailer of the Year by the Fragrance Foundation Awards, was recently praised for its sustainable packaging: a box made from 100% renewable natural wood fibers. Floral Street founder Michelle Feeney stated in an interview, “We really wanted to change the way perfume is presented with Floral Street and do it in a way that had a reduced effect on the planet — that means no cello-wrap, no rigid carton and no plastic inserts.”

Check Labels

Highlighted in the New York Times, TED blog and NPR, Think Dirty allows consumers to shop for safe cosmetics with ease by scanning product barcodes with their smartphones. Once an item is scanned, the built-in “dirty meter” rates products on a scale of 0 to 10; a barcode reading of 10 indicates that the product’s ingredients pose serious long-term health issues. With thousands of verified cosmetic and personal care products logged in its database, Think Dirty not only provides straightforward answers to the toxins that may lurk inside health care bottles, but also allows consumers to conveniently and efficiently shop for safer products.

Make It Yourself

A less expensive alternative to perfume is making it yourself with essential oils. Alcohols evaporate on the skin at a much quicker rate than do essential oils.

Take a class that teaches the basics, and use that knowledge to create unique scents that match the varied emotions you may encounter throughout the year. The grounding, comforting scent of sage and palo santo, for example, is ideal for mitigating anxiety while rose and jasmine make for the perfect elixir of sensuality.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

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