Last updated: November 2017
How much does your perfume stink?
Josie Wexler sniffs out the story on fragrances
This guide covers all sorts of fragrances – perfume, eau de parfum, eau de toilette, cologne, aftershave –for both men and women.
Many perfumes are made ‘under licence’, which means that they are made by a cosmetics company, but sold under the name of a celebrity or fashion house. ‘David Beckham’ perfume, for example, is made by Coty.
David Beckham will be receiving a fee for the use of his name, but we decided, as we did last time, that it would make it impossibly complex to rate him and all of the other similar celebrities and fashion houses who lend the use of their names. Thus we have just rated the company which makes the perfume.
Many perfume ingredients are the kind of things that you might want to know about. There are the ones with potentially toxic properties like parabens and, traditionally, there were a range of animal ingredients like the glandular secretions of musk deer and civet cats.
But, in most cases, you can’t know. Perfumers are legally allowed to keep their ingredients lists as trade secrets. And almost all of them do. All but one of the companies we looked at have the words ‘fragrance’, ‘perfume’ or ‘parfum’ somewhere on their perfume ingredients lists, which is the legal way of saying “something that we’re not going to tell you about”. The sole noble exception was Neal’s Yard which discloses a detailed list of ingredients.
So, what to do? Well, you can be sure that your perfume doesn’t contain real musk, as it is now banned in the EU. The other animal ingredients have largely been replaced by synthetics too but, to ensure you’re safe, you’ll need to buy a vegan brand like Dolma, Fairypants, Neal’s Yard, Lush or Pacifica.
Dealing with toxics is harder, but we’ve at least rated companies on their policies on the ones that have caused the most concern: parabens and phthalates.
Pollution and toxics
These companies said that they don’t use parabens or phthalates at all: Fairypants, Neal’s Yard, L’Occitane, Neom, and Pacifica.
These companies have vague targets for phasing them out, or they have good policies on some of them, but poor or unclear policies on others: Dolma, The Body Shop, Aesop, Procter and Gamble, Avon, and Lush.
All other companies had no policies to avoid these chemicals.
We rated companies down if they either have products listed on the International Campaign Against Microplastic website as containing microbeads, or if they have been criticised by Greenpeace East Asia for lacking commitment to tackling the issue.
Those marked down were: The Body Shop (Natura), L’Oréal, Coty, Chanel, Estee Lauder, Procter & Gamble, Puig, Shiseido, Avon, L’Occitane, and LMVH.
The EU banned the animal testing of finished cosmetic products (including perfume) in 2004, their ingredients in 2009, and the import of either cosmetics or ingredients that have been animal tested abroad in 2013.
However, there is another piece of EU legislation that is nonetheless currently causing many cosmetics ingredients to be tested on animals. The chemical safety regulation ‘Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals’ (REACH) requires all chemicals used in Europe to satisfy a series of safety tests – often including animal tests – by June 2018.
Because of the ban on testing cosmetic ingredients on animals, if an ingredient is used exclusively in cosmetics it is exempt from any REACH requirements to test it on animals. However, there are few ingredients that are used exclusively in cosmetics, so many cosmetic ingredients actually are being tested, even if they’re officially being tested for non-cosmetic uses.
What REACH means for consumers
What REACH means is that there is no way to guarantee that the ingredients in the perfume you buy (or indeed, any cosmetic product) won’t have been tested on animals in the past few years. Even if the company says that it will not use any ingredient that has been tested on animals after a fixed cut-off-date, this may not include some of the testing done under REACH legislation.
However, there are several reasons why it is still a good idea to buy cosmetics from companies who do guarantee a fixed cut-off date – Dolma, Neal’s Yard, The Body Shop, Lush, Aesop, and Pacifica. One is that it discourages unnecessary innovation in the sector on products being sold outside of the European Union.
There has been some discussion of whether the UK will remain part of REACH after Brexit. It almost certainly will, as having different regulations from the rest of Europe would be problematic for the industries concerned. It will, however, no longer be able to input into the process.
Palm oil-free companies are Neal’s Yard, Dolma, Fairypants, and Neom.
Lush isn’t palm oil free, but it has a sufficiently positive policy that it gets our best rating. It supplied us with its full list of suppliers.
Hundreds of chemicals are used in perfume, and many have poorly understood and potentially damaging effects on the environment and human health. Some may be endocrine (hormone) disrupters, or triggers for asthma and allergies, and several of them are bioaccumulative, which means that they build up in the body and in the environment.
In particular, three ingredients have come under fire: parabens, phthalates and synthetic musks.
Synthetic musks, also called ‘white musks’, are chemicals that imitate the smell of animal musks, such as those that male musk deer secrete from a gland near their genitals to attract females. Many synthetic musks have been implicated in hormone disruption, and some may be potentially cancerous. Those against which there is the most evidence have now been banned in the EU (although not in the US) but, in other cases, there are just restrictions on where they may be used and in what quantities.
Parabens and phthalates are both suspected of being disruptive to hormones. Both are widely used in cosmetics and perfumes: parabens as preservatives, and phthalates as fixatives. As more concerns have been raised about these two chemicals than any others, we have rated companies specifically on their policies regarding them. We expect companies to either state that they don’t use them, or to have clear dated targets for phasing them out. If neither applies, we have marked them down in the pollution and toxics category.
You should be able to make your own perfume from essential oils and extracts, diluted with alcohol or oil. Guides can be found online.
You may have to apply home-made perfume more frequently than shop-bought perfume. This is because many of the traditional animal ingredients like civet and ambergris, and their synthetic equivalents, are fixatives – they make the perfume last. Plant-based fixatives do exist, but they generally don’t work quite so well.
However, it is worth noting that there is no guarantee that, just because something comes from a plant, it is safe. Essential oils are very concentrated, and there is some evidence that some can interact with medicines, be allergens, or be damaging to the skin or other organs. The all-round safest option is to just learn to love the earthy scent of you.
The Body Shop
The Body Shop, owned by L’Oréal for 11 years, has just been sold to the Brazilian cosmetics giant Natura. It now no longer has a link to Nestlé which owns 23% of L’Oréal. The sale means its score has increased from 3.5 to 9.5.
The sale has been seen by many as returning The Body Shop to its activist roots, as Natura has a reputation as a company committed to sustainability. It has a raft of policies to promote sustainable development in the Amazon, and it is working to ensure that 30% of its total inputs in value come from the Pan-Amazon region by 2020 (in 2014 it was 17%). It is a certified B Corp and, in 2015, it won recognition by the UNEP as a ‘Champion on the Earth’.
Naturewatch has had a long-standing boycott call targetting The Body Shop due to L’Oréal’s use of animal testing – to many people this seemed particularly egregious as The Body Shop presented itself as so virtuous on the issue. Naturewatch has not yet removed the call, as Natura’s policies on animal testing are ambiguous.
The Body Shop and Aesop both get our best rating for animal testing, as they both have fixed cut-off dates for ingredients. However, Natura itself gets a middle rating. All of its websites give a date for when the company stopped doing animal tests. The only problem is that all the dates are different. It makes no public mention of a fixed cut-off date for ingredients.
Are Natura’s ethics genuine?
Natura was founded by two men (who are still involved with the company, and own a proportion of it, although how much is unclear) who are both now billionaires. One of them lives in London, and the other ran as the Green Party vice presidential candidate in the 2010 Brazilian presidential election.
Natura’s UK website replaces the usual pictures of emaciated models with pictures of its products and ingredients, which is refreshing. However, it is noticeable that the skinny models come back in force on the websites aimed at other countries like Brazil and the US.
However, overall, Natura’s ethics seem reasonably genuine. Its 2016 Annual Report contains far more detailed discussion of social and environmental issues than is normally seen in an annual report, including detailed environmental data with multiple targets and impact measurements, data on its employees' well-being, information on its suppliers, data on the gender, age, disability and cultural balance within the company, and discussion of its community projects.
Company behind the brand
Chanel sells all things in the high-fashion sector, including perfume, jewellery, luxury goods and fabulously expensive clothes. The company does not seem to have any concept of corporate social responsibility, basically having no policies on anything, hence it does extremely badly in our ratings. It also owns a high-class British gunmaker called Holland & Holland, which makes sporting rifles.
Chanel has a dark history. It was founded in the early twentieth century by a woman known as ‘Coco’ Chanel. She was known for her conservative political views and declassified documents strongly suggest that she was a Nazi spy.
There is also good evidence that when she was arrested as a Nazi collaborator after the war, her friend Winston Churchill secretly intervened to ensure her release.
However, Chanel is far from unique in having some murky history from this era. Many French fashion houses collaborated with the Nazis to various extents during the occupation, including the two other major French companies in the perfume sector: L’Oréal and LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy).
Want to know more?
If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table.
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