scents surround us every day, from that less-than-refreshing lemony bleach smell of a public restroom to a coworker’s unfortunate obsession with Axe body spray. there’s even a trend toward scented jewelry!
we can’t avoid scent in public spaces (short of wearing a gas mask to the office or the mall in protest!) but what about the products we bring into our own home? learn the surprising truth (& industry lies) about your favorite berry-scented lip balm or “summer breeze” in a spray bottle…
FACT: perfumery is as old as civilization
“…the Graces bathed [Aphrodite] with heavenly oil such as blooms upon the bodies of the eternal gods—oil divinely sweet, which she had by her, filled with fragrance.”
—Homeric hymn, 7th century BCE.
aromatic substances like rose oil, labdanum, myrrh & ambergris were symbols of status & wealth from ancient China to Rome. many also had sacred uses. back then, all the raw materials came from plant or animal sources. today, 90% of fragrances are synthetic, created in laboratories to mimic natural aromatics at lower cost.
(perfume making in ancient Egypt)
FICTION: fragrance is regulated for safety & quality.
there is no governing agency that regulates scent in commercial products, & little monitoring of the few standards that exist. companies don’t have to disclose specific ingredients in these formulas, hence the generic term “fragrance” you see on many ingredient lists. allergy testing before marketing is not required, & when testing occurs, it’s often on animals who are doused with toxic levels of the fragrance in question. (check out this list of companies that—still, in 2015!—test on animals.)
FACT: fragrance can have powerful physical & psychological effects.
fragrant botanicals contain active ingredients that can alter mood, memory, appetite & arousal. also, some fragrances are allergens, irritants, carcinogens & hormone disruptors (often synthetics, but some natural essential oils, too!). strong fragrance can also make some people feel ill—hence those signs in gyms, yoga studios, etc. requesting a “fragrance free zone”.
FICTION: natural fragrance = safe.
whether a product is natural or synthetic is not itself an indication of safety. natural essential oils have longer histories of use, but processing methods can vary widely. for example, essential oils are often extracted with toxic hexane gas. there’s also no legal definition of “natural”, so perfume marketers (like many other industries) often use this term misleadingly.
pure essential oils have a 2,000+ year history of helping people with conditions from anxiety to hormonal imbalances, so there’s no need to totally fear fragrance—I use a natural, gentle citrus aroma in many of my skincare products. look for organically sourced oils & consult a trained aromatherapist or do your own research. respect your allergies & follow usage instructions carefully, especially when oils are used topically rather than diffused.
so what scents inspire you & which make you want to rush for the nearest window?