Natural and Green Beauty 101: Where to start and what to remember

04th July, 2017

As sustainability goes mainstream, “green” fragrances can be found and purchased everywhere these days. The 2016 Organic Market Report revealed that UK sales of “green” beauty products increased by 21.6% percent last year and is expected to grow rapidly. So why do some fragrance lovers switch from synthetic to naturals, what can we learn from natural perfume and should we avoid certain synthetic ingredients in beauty products? Several experts in the field give their advice on what to do when you’re going green.

The green, the natural and the eco-friendly

Once you’ve decided to take the green path, it’s a good idea to determine which green path you are actually taking. Do you go for a perfume says I’m “100% percent natural”, “super sustainable”, “completely organic” or “genuine and green”? According to Sonia White, managing director of Amarya and founder of the green beauty platform LoveLula, these different terms have been ‘used, misused and in some cases abused, to the point where some consumers are rightly confused’. Sonia explains that the term with the strictest definition is “organic”. ‘Products can only claim to be "Certified Organic" if they have been certified as such by one of the certifying bodies like The Soil Association in the UK or Ecocert or Cosmos in Europe. "Natural" should mean that the ingredients are from nature rather than synthetic, but nobody enforces this, while "green" merely implies it - hence the term "greenwashing", where brands claim to be green without actually containing natural ingredients. Finally, "Sustainable" refers to the whole value-chain used in the production of a product and whether it minimises the impact on the environment.’

But before you go shopping in the section of your choice, keep in mind that “organic” or “sustainable” doesn’t automatically mean that it’s free from animal testing, something that many customers assume. After all, why would you protect nature if you are not willing to protect animals? A question that keeps several PETA members awake at night. ‘We have seen a variety of "green-washed" products,’ says PETA’s science policy advisor Julia Baines. ‘Including some household cleaners and detergents, these labels can be slapped onto items containing chemicals that have been force-fed to, injected into, or inhaled by mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, birds, and other animals in massive doses.’ She adds that the applicability of these tests to humans and the environment is not even reliable most of the time. It should come as no surprise then, that Baines advices us to scan the bottle for certified labels such as PETA US’ cruelty-free bunny logo before spritzing it on the wrists.

But besides preventing animal cruelty and protecting our environment, why may we wish switch to green?

Well, because it’s better for our health, Sonia White says. ‘Everything we put on our skin is absorbed and has to be processed by our organs. A natural ingredient might last three to six hours, then part of it has evaporated and the rest has been absorbed. Natural perfumes don’t last as long as synthetic ones, and this is actually a very good thing.’

Rich Hippie founder and perfumer Nannette Pallrand agrees. ‘Natural perfume is great because you are not exposing yourself to hazardous chemicals. Second of all, as the demand for natural and organic grows, the more we need organic growers and this in turn keeps the air clean and the water supply clean. Not to mention that natural fragrances have a much more beautiful smell.’

‘Synthetics are like good prints of an original artwork,’ adds White. ‘The print might have been printed with stronger colours or on brighter paper and might last longer, but it will never capture all of the nuances of the original work.’

Going Green

So once you’re in front of the massive fragrance hall at Harrods or clicking away online, what do you do? With so many natural and organic fragrances on the market today, it can be difficult to know where to start and what to look for. ‘I highly recommend buying samples of things that sound interesting to you before investing in a full size,’ suggests Susannah Compton, the perfumer behind Florescent. ‘It gives you a chance to try it and learn about the fragrance,’ adds Pallrand. ‘I would also suggest sampling many different types of scents including floral, citrus and deep earthy scents to really experience it.’

Another tip? ‘Buy a natural perfume from an artisanal perfumer and let go of the idea that it will last longer than a couple of hours on your skin or project like a mixed media or all synthetic perfume,’ says Mandy Aftel from Aftelier Perfumes. ‘The idea of a fragrance lasting all day must be reassessed and let go of in order to truly enjoy natural perfumes.’

But if you are looking for a scent that lasts a little longer than your average natural fragrance, you should look for deeper, more oriental (resinous / woody / balsamic) and earthy ( mossy / woody / rooty) perfumes, recommends niche perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. ‘These fragrances tend to last longer because they contain molecules that are less volatile by their nature; such as patchouli, oakmoss, benzoin, vetiver, and peru balsam.’

What to avoid

Spencer Hurwitz works with both naturals and synthetics in her overall perfume practice, but discovered that several synthetic ingredients such as nitro musks (banned in the industry already), phthalates and some fixatives can cause headaches, which is why she chose not to use these materials in her perfume.

Perfumer Susannah Compton too, is not a big fan of synthetics and has her doubts about ingredients such as phthalates and parabens. ‘I worry about the cumulative effect of these chemicals on my health, so I try to limit my exposure to them. Research indicates that phthalates are a type of endocrine disruptor, and in the past few years, studies have linked these plasticizers to asthma, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, breast cancer, obesity and type II diabetes, neurodevelopmental issues, autism spectrum disorders, altered reproductive development and male fertility issues. Parabens, which are commonly used as preservatives, are also known to interfere with hormone production.’ Compton suggests that the fragrance world should be more transparent about certain ingredients.

Something which is also relevant when looking at the discussion about natural perfumers and the use of scarce ingredients or when thinking about animal cruelty. The lack of transparency is exactly why PETA developed the Beauty Without Bunnies programme, an online database where you can search for cruelty free companies. ‘The companies that are included have all signed a statement of assurance that they and their suppliers do not – and will not – conduct, commission, or pay for tests on animals for any of their products, ingredients, and formulations, anywhere in the world,’ Baines says.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t be swayed by words such as “natural” and “green” because natural doesn’t automatically mean that the fragrances is sustainable and green doesn’t always mean that it’s cruelty free. Most of the experts therefore advice to look carefully at the list of ingredients on the bottle, the certified labels, and decide what you are okay with.

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About the author: Marloes Hagenaars

Marloes Hagenaars comes from the very small town Langeraar in the Netherlands. Her interest in fashion started growing when she did her Bachelor Journalism in Utrecht and later did a Masters in Fashion Journalism at the London College of Fashion. During her Masters she started Freya Magazine (, a fashion magazine that explores current issues through fashion. Currently she is working as an editor for Harper’s Bazaar Netherlands. Her favourite perfume is L'Air du Desert Marocain by Andy Tauer



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      • David Ruskin | 5th July 2017 16:45

        A huge amount of mis-information and in some cases downright lies. I really hate this type of article which is badly researched and designed to frighten without telling the truth. Two examples that stood out when I read the article:-

        "Everything we put on our skin is absorbed and has to be processed by our organs". Not true. Very little of what we put on our skins is absorbed into our bodies.

        "Natural perfume is great because you are not exposing yourself to hazardous chemicals". Utter tosh. Many natural extracts, including Essential oils used in Perfumery contain chemicals which are considered hazardous.

        This subject deserves a well written, well researched and truthful article. This is not it.

      • gandhajala | 6th July 2017 09:15

        Wholly agree with David.

        These kinds of fallacious claims should not go unchallenged.

        Bit disappointing to read this in an article on the front page of Basenotes.

      • epapsiou | 6th July 2017 16:43

        Completely forgot about that. Needs bumping

      • ysatis | 6th July 2017 19:41

        Completely agree to David Ruskin! And may add, that some naturals can be carcinogens, as well as sensitizers!.

      • Redneck Perfumisto | 6th July 2017 23:53

        Yikes! I wanted to bump something to get vibrant vulva off the top of the marquee, and what's for dinner is bull feathers au naturel.

      • Chriz | 7th July 2017 00:23

        I totally agree with David Ruskin's points. Also I have to ask why there is no mention of the adverse affects of some essential oils like bergamot or clary sage. Basenotes' deserve a more informed and balanced treatment of this subject rather than a puff piece built around product placement.

      • flathorn | 25th May 2018 21:53

        I just stumbled on this article. I think an important issue got lost in the commentary. As a counterpoint, I’m one who’s adversely affected by quite a few synthetic fragrance molecules, some of which I have such a vile reaction to I’m made sick. Two notes in particular, the rose note of Perfumer’s Workshop ‘Tea Rose’ and a certain newer chemical called variously dark fruit, dark berry, blackberry, etc., (think ‘L’Ombre Dan L’eau’ by Diptyque), practically take away my will to live, so deranged are their effect on me. Aldehydes are a negative, causing me headaches and sneezing. The aquatic genre is a minefield.

        I’ve used essential oils on a personal level for several decades, and simply do not have reactions of this type with them, no matter how oakmoss, clary sage, begamot and others are mentioned as villains tainting natural perfumery. They’re all pretty easy to live with and be around. Oakmoss was a huge loss to perfumery - a natural fragrance I’ve never had a problem with.

        It was deemed by those who had power to make it law that these caused health issues with wearers and were limited/banned. I don’t know how these findings came about - one hopes it was responsibly, with no vested interests. I understand health concerns.... so my question is, will the powers that be take note of those of us who are sickened by certain synthetic molecules, do the same and limit/ban them? Or is there a different issue going on here, in reality?

        I was never queried before these bans. I want to give my late and unasked for response:

        I had no adverse reactions to Oakmoss. Ever.

        I’ve used clary sage and bergamot essential oil for close to 20 years with no reactions, let alone ill effects.

        I have bad bodily reactions to many or all aldehydes.

        I’ve had almost violent reactions to particular synthetic chemicals in certain perfumes.

        I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a reaction going past the perfume counters of department stores now.

        Aldehyde intolerance has been noted for a long time, before oakmoss came under fire. Why were aldehydes not included in the bans?

        What I know now, in my simplistic world as a perfume wearer, is that perfume is slowly becoming a more noxious commodity for me. It used to be easy to wear nearly all perfumes, the only issue being whether I liked it or not. But that isn’t the reality I’m faced with now. I’m being assured older, easier-wearing perfumes (I’m going back a ways, pre-PW ‘Tea Rose’, to my mother’s era), had ingredients that caused health issues, and were reformulated. But I now find myself reacting badly to some of those reformulations. Most I don’t wear anymore. This is a simple fact.

        Regarding absorption - no, I don’t think everything is absorbed through the skin either. Skin is designed to partially be a protective device. But perfume is absorbed by the body enough to have a presence inside. I take a certain medication in a cream rubbed on my wrist because it’s readily absorbed there, per my doctor. Who has not rubbed perfume on their wrist also? So we’re talking more about what amount is acceptable in our body. It’s a concern that needs to be addressed. Writing 'all' may have been too black and white, but let's not blow this dialogue off. Certain natural fragrances were banned under a reasoning that I’m not sure was applied to synthetics. My experience with aldehydes tells me ‘No’.

        Am I in the minority? Possibly. But my story is real, my concerns valid. I’m a fragrance lover who’s having more and more problems with new perfume formulations. So natural perfume is very welcome to me. As was this article. I found it informative. The biggest takeaway for me: to reset your expectations of how a natural perfume behaves. To not expect it to last like iron. To be willing to reapply after several hours. My mother used to tell me the story of going out on a night with my father, when nightclubs and dancing were the rage. The women would go into the bathroom half way through the evening, to refresh their lipstick and perfume. I think that’s a delightful ritual.