Have you ever become slightly dizzy after applying your favorite scent? Ever felt like your coworker's perfume is giving you headaches? These things might actually be caused by the ingredients in said perfumes.
As with other cosmetics, what goes inside perfume is not just pretty flower extracts as we sometimes like to think. There are also lots of preservatives, colorants, and artificial fragrances that—you guessed it!—are not good for your health.
Is My Perfume Toxic?
Not to be a bummer, but probably.
We all love how a favorite scent can lift our mood or bring back memories, which is evidence that perfume has a direct effect on our brains. However, studies demonstrate that certain chemicals can breach the blood-brain barrier when absorbed into the body, subsequently affecting brain function [source]. And in the case of toxic substances, they can accumulate in the brain tissue and possibly even cause damage.
A variety of toxic ingredients are used to formulate perfumes. In 2018, styrene was upgraded to a Group 2A carcinogen, which is considered a probable carcinogen in humans [source].
Musk ketone, benzaldehyde, ethyl acetate, and benzyl acetate all cause eye irritation, in addition to other negative effects [source]. Acetone, which is used to dissolve other ingredients, can produce dizziness, nausea, and irritation when inhaled [source].
The list could go on. But if there's one ingredient to avoid in your personal care products and cosmetics, phthalates should probably be it.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates, also known as plasticizers, are most often used to make plastic more flexible, for example, in children's teething toys. Since 2008, the use of six types of phthalates has been restricted in toys [source], but that doesn't mean you can't still find these chemicals in perfumes, nail polish, and feminine hygiene products, as well as in some food packaging.
There's a growing body of evidence that phthalates are endocrine disruptors that can cause harm to our bodies in numerous ways [source]. These chemicals have been shown in recent studies to have effects on thyroid and growth hormones [source] as well as an association with the birth of smaller infants and prematurity [source].
It sure seems worth taking the time to seek out phthalate-free fragrances—even if you have to do some investigative work before making a purchase. Reading the label carefully is a no-brainer, but in the case of phthalates, it can be a little tricky.
This chemical ingredient is often hidden under the umbrella term "fragrance," a vague reference to an array of hidden ingredients [source]. Since they're considered a trade secret, brands are not required to disclose what exactly they use to formulate certain fragrances.
What are My Options?
Choosing to use a natural perfume is safer for the body, especially when you have sensitive skin. The use of organic natural ingredients also makes these perfumes environmentally friendly, as they lack the harmful petroleum-based products commonly found in regular fragrances. If you're worried natural perfume is less intense and doesn't last as long as regular perfume, try these tips for making perfume last longer.
Companies that use natural ingredients tend to be cruelty-free because, unlike synthetic ingredients, natural products don't need to be tested on animals. However, you should always check for the Leaping Bunny mark to make sure.
We love making our own customized scents with essential oils. We're also big fans of travel-friendly solid perfume and spray perfumes made with organic alcohol.
If you're not into DIY-ing, then phthalate-free perfumes might require a little effort to find. To make things a little bit easier, we did some of the research for you and found 10 safer, phthalate-free perfumes that we love. We're pretty sure you'll love them, too.
1. Ellis Brooklyn Myth Eau de Parfum
Ellis Brooklyn's perfumes aren't only phthalate-free, they're also paraben-free, cruelty-free, and eco-friendly (and their scents still last all day long!). We love that Myth's top notes are floral and feminine, with a lingering layer of warm musk and cedarwood. This one is good.
Ellis Brooklyn Myth Eau de Parfum from Nordstrom
2. Kai Eau de Parfum
If light, floral fragrances are your jam, you'll love this tropical-inspired perfume. The scent of white gardenia will instantly transport you to places warm and sunny—I think it's impossible to be in a bad mood while wearing it. It's phthalate-free, phosphate-free, and cruelty-free. In winter, try layering it with Kai's hydrating body glow spray and lotion.
Kai Eau de Parfum from Nordstrom
3. Atelier Cologne Perfume
Atelier Cologne is made without paraben, phthalates, sulfates, or any animal-derived ingredients. This handcrafted French line has so many options you might not know where to start, which is why we love their Perfume Stories collection—it lets you try 7 of their fragrances before you take the plunge and narrow it down to one.
Atelier Cologne Perfume Palette from Amazon
4. Just the Goods Perfume Oil
Environmental Working Group (EWG) verified, this vegan perfume is gender-neutral and formulated with aromatherapeutic essential oils. It's free of chemicals, artificial scents, and preservatives. The Eucalyptus Twist blend is energizing, fresh, and fruity—perfect for summer.
Eucalyptus Twist Perfume Oil from Just the Goods
5. Thorn + Bloom Bird of Paradise Natural Perfume
The botanical fragrances from this artisanal Massachusetts perfumery are made with organic ingredients whenever possible and without synthetic aroma chemicals, preservatives, phthalates, or GMOs. Bird of Paradise is the perfect blend of citrus and floral, with some heady spices thrown in for good measure.
Thorn + Bloom Bird of Paradise Natural Perfume from Etsy
6. DefineMe Harper Perfume Oil
Citrusy and sweet, this coconut oil-based perfume has notes of grapefruit, bergamot, and honeysuckle. Wear it on its own, or layer it with other DefineMe fragrance oils. With every purchase, DefineMe donates $1 to She's the First, a non-profit organization that provides scholarships to educate and empower girls globally, wherever they face significant obstacles.
DefineMe Harper Perfume Oil from Macy's
7. Eden's Garden Natural Perfume
Their lineup includes 6 light, natural scents, all of which are fabulous for layering with their body oils or wearing alone. As someone who gets migraines from conventional perfumes, I absolutely adore these scents. They're not heavy or cloying, and they won't give you a headache. Shine is my personal fave because it's pretty much the scent of summer distilled into a bottle.
Shine Natural Perfume from Eden's Garden
8. Henry Rose Windows Down Eau de Parfum
Henry Rose perfumes are EWG verified, and you'll be charmed by their scents: Windows Down, Last Light, and Sheep's Clothing. We're personally in awe of the former, its bright grapefruit and bergamot mixed with honeyed neroli and soft Earl Grey tea for a light and floral finish.
Henry Rose Windows Down from Nordstrom
9. Pacifica French Lilac Spray Perfume
Who can resist the scent of lilac? We sure can't! This floral, micro-batched perfume is made with a natural grain alcohol base, without parabens, phthalates, and other harmful ingredients. It's vegan, cruelty-free, and rated a 3 by EWG.
Pacifica French Lilac Spray Perfume from Pacifica Beauty
This article was reviewed by Dr. Gina Jansheski, a professional medical reviewer and licensed board-certified physician with more than 20 years of practice experience. Learn more about Hello Glow's medical reviewers here. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
1. Sowndhararajan K, et al. Influence of fragrances on human psychophysiological activity. Sci Pharm. 2016.
2. Moore MM, et al. Critical review of styrene genotoxicity focused on the mutagenicity/clastogenicity literature. Environ Mol Mutagen. 2019.
3. Not so sexy campaign for safe cosmetics and Environmental Working Group. SafeCosmetics.org. 2010.
4. OHS answers fact sheets: acetone. CCOHS website.
5. Phthalates business guidance and small entity compliance guide. Consumer Product Safety Commission website.
6. Street ME, et al. Current knowledge on endocrine disrupting chemicals from animal biology to humans, from pregnancy to adulthood: highlights from a national Italian meeting. Int J Mol Sci. 2018.
7. Huang PC, et al. Characterization of phthalate exposure in relation to serum thyroid and growth hormones, and estimated daily intake levels in children exposed to phthalate-tainted products: a longitudinal cohort study. Environ Pollut. 2020.
8. Broe A, et al. Phthalate exposure from drugs during pregnancy and possible risk of preterm birth and small for gestational age. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2019.
9. Bickers DR, et al. The safety assessment of fragrance materials. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2003.
10. Compassionate shopping guide. Leaping Bunny Program website.
11. Who we are. She’s the First website.
I really think Aftelier deserves a mention in this article. She's the best and is THE high-end all-natural perfume pioneer. Love to see you interview her.
Oven Fresh Cake says
Very well Explained! Great work!
I just looked into the Atelier line of fragrances, as we have been pthalate free for over five years, but my teen/tween girls are wanting all the smells in their world. Just ordered the perfume palette. The second ingredient in every scent is fragrance (parfum), which is, by definition, a pthalate. Scads of companies are riding the wave of concenentious consumers' desires for 'cleaner' products, but it really irks me when companies label their products deceitfully just hoping for ignorance on the part of the consumer. It's going back to sephora :(
Upon a little more research, the atelier brand does not claim to be phthalate free...no parabens, no sulfates, no GMOs or animal products, but not phthalate free.
Thank you for this clarification! Phthalates are my highest concern so I appreciate you digging in on this one! Have you tried PHLUR? I got a sample of three and the first two really irritated my nose, which leads to wonder how nontoxic they really are. :(
Love this, I am going to try these!