We don't just want to stop and smell the flowers; we want to smell like them, too. At least since the days of the ancient Egyptians, people have been using perfumes to give them that extra, appealing pizzazz. They used to come from natural sources—flowers, fruits, roots, leaves, seeds and resins. But somewhere along the line, those seemingly harmless bottles of perfume became filled with innumerable man-made, potentially harmful and downright nasty chemicals.
You may have thought that purchasing a premium-brand perfume at the department store was only damaging your bank account, but the ingredients found in most conventional products can cause serious allergic reactions and sometimes worse side effects. Phthalate esters, synthetic musks, petrochemicals, aldehydes and other potentially harmful chemicals are common ingredients in most perfumes found behind conventional beauty counters. The long-term effects of these chemicals are as yet unclear, but—as with so many other categories—several naturals companies are providing the consumer with an alternative to the synthetic. They're taking the perfume business back to its roots.
"Many conventional fragrances contain phthalates," says Casi Hudson, director of marketing at Culver City, Calif.-based Nature's Gate. "There's been a great deal of controversy and discussion surrounding phthalates, and while the jury may still be out, why take a chance?"
Curt Valva, general manager for Tampa, Fla.-based Aubrey Organics, agrees. "The fragrances that you find out there in department stores are primarily synthetic," he says. "Many people will not necessarily have allergic reactions to them, but they may have some kind of reaction or a sensitivity to them. They may not have a sensitivity to the fragrance itself but rather [to] the ingredients that are in there either to boost the fragrance or help the fragrance last longer. There are a lot of synthetics and petrochemicals used in that process."
Nature's Gate introduced its Fragranza line of three unisex organic fragrances at Natural Products Expo West in March. One of the key features of the line, Hudson says, is its use of 100 percent certified organic alcohol. "[For the consumer], choosing a fragrance with certified organic alcohol ensures the most pure formulation possible. Certified organic alcohol has not been denatured—a process that is in and of itself unnatural. Accordingly, a consumer who chooses fragrances with certified organic alcohol is not only supporting the small, organic farmer but also an overall green, healthy lifestyle." She says that denatured alcohol is an alternative for anyone with sensitive skin. She also says natural fragrances are good for the consumer who prefers to wear scent but doesn't want to be overpowered by a strong, dominating smell.
Aubrey's new Natural Essential Oils Eau de Parfum line contains 95 percent certified organic ingredients, including a wide array of essential oils, which, in addition to possessing a pleasing scent, can have aromatherapeutic benefits as well.
"The fragrance that you get in the bottle is truly the fragrance of the essential oil rather than something that was concocted in a laboratory," Valva says.
He also notes that using organic alcohol—a natural preservative—eliminates the need for synthetic preservatives, which are often the cause of negative reactions to perfumes and fragrances. Aubrey's fragrances also contain natural grain alcohol, which is used to bind, or dissolve, the oil ingredients of the product together.
"You shouldn't think of it as the rubbing alcohol that you'd buy at [pharmacies like] CVS or Duane Reade," Valva says. "It's more like vodka, actually—fairly odorless. So you're getting a much cleaner product, a natural product, and the chances of having sensitivities to it are diminished tremendously."
But that more natural product has a downside—it's more expensive to make than some synthetic fragrances. "Using pure essential oils, using organic whenever possible, and using organic alcohol versus conventional alcohol or the fragrances you buy in blends from some mainstream manufacturers—all of that comes with a higher price tag at the manufacturing stage," Valva says.
And yet, Aubrey is keeping prices down on its fragrances. "You can buy three or four of these bottles for the price of one in a department store," Valva says. "But the quality of these is as good if not better than anything you will see in those mainstream outlets. We don't want price to be an obstacle between somebody and a really high-quality product."
V'Tae, a Nevada City, Calif.-based formulator and manufacturer of perfume and body care items, also prides itself on its high-quality, low-cost products.
"We can keep prices low because we aren't putting a ton of money into advertising and packaging in the way that conventional perfumes do," says Alanna Haley, V'Tae's director of sales and marketing. "We put it all into the product itself, into getting the high-quality ingredients." The company even buys surplus packaging that would otherwise be thrown away from large manufacturers.
V'Tae's Esoterics line of fragrances—which are designed to function as natural aphrodisiacs—are chock-full of essential oils. "The best thing about our products is that you're not just getting a pleasant-smelling scent to put on your skin," says Belinda Carville, the company's president and founder. "You're getting three things out of the bottle. One, you're getting a beautiful fragrance. Two, you're getting this really beneficial aromatherapy experience. And three, you're getting a spiritual benefit as well. Each scent is composed with a person's chakras in mind."
The natural fragrance market remains small—there still aren't that many products available. But Hudson sees great potential for the category. "The organic fragrance category is experiencing tremendous growth and will likely continue expanding," she says. "As consumer awareness grows, and as technology becomes more and more advanced, the category really has nowhere to go but up. With our recent breakthrough in utilizing certified organic alcohol, we have already experienced the buzz surrounding this category. … Consumers now do not have to sacrifice quality or esthetic for a pure formulation and scent."
Tyler Wilcox is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 8/p. 34, 36, 38