Dear Dot: How Can I Smell Good Without Toxic Chemicals?



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Dear Dot,

I like to wear fragrance. Is there a company that will make me smell great but has healthy ingredients for both me and the planet?

– Bobbi

The Short Answer: Check out databases like Think Dirty or EWG’s Skin Deep. Simply type in the product name, and these databases will tell you what data is and isn't available, and will conjure up a list of ingredients and their potential health effects. And try out some of Dot's suggestions below for fragrances that smell good while doing good.

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Dear Bobbi,

Spritzing on your signature scent before you leave the house is luxurious, confidence-boosting, and — carcinogenic? As you mention, the ingredients in your perfume bottle might really stink — there may well be some dark secrets lurking in your perfume bottle. 

If you’ve ever checked out the ingredients on a bottle of perfume or cologne — or for that matter any number of scented products from shampoo to detergent — you might have noticed one ingredient simply labeled “fragrance.” Well, it turns out that there are over 3,000 chemical ingredients that could be included in the “fragrance,” but there are no current laws in the U.S. requiring manufacturers to list fragrance ingredients. The EU, on the other hand, requires the individual labeling of certain ingredients listed as allergens when they appear in concentrations greater than 0.001 percent  in leave-on products and greater than 0.01 percent in rinse-off products. And among these fragrance ingredients are some harmful chemicals that have been linked with endocrine disorders, cancers, and other adverse health effects. 

According to a story in the Guardian, “more than 1,200 fragrance chemicals currently in use have been flagged as potential or known ‘chemicals of concern,’ according to a 2018 report from [Women's Voices for the Earth]. These include seven carcinogens, 15 chemicals prohibited from use in cosmetics in the EU, and others cited in various international warning lists.” Of particular concern, the article notes, are endocrine disruptors, which mimic human hormones. Those, researchers warn, can harm us even in small doses. 

Canadian environmental organization the David Suzuki Foundation reports that  “Environment Canada is currently assessing one synthetic musk (moskene) under the government’s Chemicals Management Plan and has flagged several others for future assessment. Health Canada recently announced regulations banning six phthalates in children’s toys (including DEP), but the use of DEP in cosmetics is unrestricted.” DEP is diethyl phthalate, widely used in fragrances to make the scent last longer.

According to a 2018 study, “Fragranced consumer products, such as cleaning supplies, air fresheners, and personal care products, are a primary source of indoor air pollutants and personal exposure.” The study found that 34.7 percent of people exposed to fragrance products reported adverse health effects, such as migraines and respiratory issues. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that 75 percent of products that list the ingredient “fragrance” contain phthalates, which have been linked to hormone disruption, reproductive harm, and cancer. And your favorite fragrance may not just be unhealthy for you — those synthetic chemicals affect our air quality as well. 

So without a mandate on ingredient transparency, how can you verify that the perfume you want to buy is free of such harmful synthetic chemicals?

If the ingredient label on your product just lists “fragrance,” you might want to be wary, because you don’t know exactly what’s in the fragrance. If the ingredient label offers more elaborate information, that could be an indication that the product isn’t hiding harmful chemicals. But Dot gets dizzy just looking at all of the unfamiliar ingredient names. And it’s a full-time job to research each one. 

This is where clean cosmetic databases will come in handy — where it has literally been someone’s job to examine the ingredients for us and flag those of concern. Check out databases like Think Dirty or EWG’s Skin Deep. Simply type in the product name, and these databases will tell you what data is and isn't available, and will conjure up a list of ingredients and their potential health effects.

Dot urges you to do some digging into those sources. But also, my motto is, “why take chances where better options exist?!” So here are a few suggestions that pass Dot’s smell test to get your clean fragrance journey started: 

The 7 Virtues

Let Dot briefly wax poetic about The 7 Virtues, an aromatherapy clean perfume company. I adore their scents and the company’s ethos (woman-owned; supports small farmers around the world rebuilding after war or natural disaster). And I promise anyone who wears The 7 Virtues scents that people will trail you, demanding to know what scent you are wearing — they are that tantalizing. (Incidentally, Dot’s current fave is Santal Vanilla.) You can find The 7 Virtues in Bluedot’s Marketplace

This brand received a 1 (low hazard) from Skin Deep. This is the best possible rating. 

Henry Rose

This company offers fragrances for men and women, and is EWG certified. 

Just the Goods

You’ll find a few options for perfume oils by this brand on Skin Deep, and better yet, they are EWG certified. 

Rosy and Earnest

This brand offers just two scents — one each for men and women. They are also EWG verified. 

Scent is so personal, Bobbi. But once you’ve found a fragrance absent those nefarious synthetic chemicals, you won’t have to worry that there’s something not-so-beautiful behind that gorgeous scent. 



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