We all have seen the square glass bottle with the iconic black and white label. Yes, today Chanel No.5 continues to be the world’s best selling perfume with a bottle purchased every 30 seconds. Marilyn famously wore it to bed- with nothing else. When Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel sprayed it around a dinner table in a Paris restaurant in 1921, women passing by asked her what the scent was. It was, and still is, primarily based on a blend of jasmine, ylang-ylang, may rose and sandalwood.  For Chanel, the goal was to make the wearer  “smell like a woman, not like a rose”.  We have been addicted ever since. 

A formula largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1921, Chanel No.5 has in recent years come under threat.  In Europe new EU rules aimed at protecting consumers from allergens in cosmetics are forcing perfume houses like Chanel and others to reformulate their product.  The allegation is that these classic fragrances contain molecules such as atranol and chloroatranol, now recognized as potential allergens in Europe. In response, Chanel has been working on different variations of their formulas with other brands such as Hermes, Dior and Guerlain soon to follow suit. This is no small task, as reformulating a scent is costly and time consuming and can often take a minimum of 30 different tests. If that weren’t enough, under new EU regulations perfumeries will also be required to disclose more on their labelling. Before perfumes were only required to list 26 compounds; now they are required to extend the list to more than 80. When asked how they can cram so many ingredients on the back of the bottle, one prominent perfume house replied, “… we aren’t sure.”

The average perfume consumer might be a bit perplexed.  What’s all the fuss about? Can’t we just spray, dab, and otherwise lovingly apply our favourite perfumes without worry, as Marilyn once did?


Stopping to smell the roses

As women we all hold dear and love to display the coterie of branded glass bottles that adorn our vanities. We tend to hold on to these bottles for as long as possible and are slightly pained when we have to dispose of them. A perfume is something for not just for everyday but also for those occasions when in our little black dress, we strategically place perfume on those areas of the body that we want to impart a scent… the base of the neck, the back of the ears, even behind the knees so the scent travels upwards. It is the finishing touch; the piece de resistance in the dressing room.  Fragrance is used to impress, seduce or even to make a statement. A woman’s choice in fragrance is also said to reveal much about her tastes and personality. It is no surprise therefore how many hours we spend labouring in department stores, moving from one brand to the next; sniffing, smelling, wrist testing, taking home samples in an effort to determine which scent we identify with most. 

These days however as more and more of us are beginning to question the toxicity of our cherished cosmetics we are in particular extending this deliberative process to examine what exactly fragrances are composed of.

What exactly is ‘perfume’ or ‘fragrance’? 

A million or so years ago (before the industrial age), fragrance was predominantly essential oil based. That meant that perfumes were created with the distilled ‘essence’ of the natural plant or flower. No fillers, no fuss. Everyone was more or less healthy and happy. With the rise of machines and white bread, things changed. Suddenly the market was flooded with a cacophony of unknown and largely untested chemicals, additives and ‘fragrances’. Enterprising companies recognized that the consumer liked the real thing but were also keen to the idea that perhaps things in nature could be duplicated in a cheaper, synthetic form. So the natural was made unnatural and ‘scents’ were born in flasks and in a laboratory setting. Ingredients were sourced in odd sounding ways such as from animal secretions (from the musk deer) and ambergris (a by-product of whaling used to make fragrance last longer on the skin). These days, it is has been reported that approximately 95 percent of the chemicals in synthetic fragrances are derived from petrochemicals. These chemicals include benzene derivatives, aldehydes, phthalates, and a slew of other known toxins that are capable of causing cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders and allergies—some of which are cited on the EPA’s hazardous waste list. Phthalates alone have been shown to disrupt hormone activity, reduce sperm counts, and cause reproductive malformation leading to tumour growth and have been linked to liver and breast cancer, diabetes, and obesity.  In a 2001 study, the EPA reported that synthetic fragrances were shown to cause”possible mutagenic and genotoxic effects” and that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to said chemicals. Do you sometimes feel a little headache-y or even nauseated in the fragrance aisle of the drugstore? Join the club.

What is important to understand here is that the majority of the chemical compounds posing as harmless ‘fragrance’ are in fact untested and whose short and long term effects on the human body are largely unknown.


A toxic bouquet

This lack of transparency regarding contents of commercial ‘fragrance’ did have a purpose. It was a way to protect the proprietary blend of the Chanels and Diors of the world from would be copycats. But these rules have also made it difficult if not impossible for the average consumer to navigate the cosmetics counter and assess product safety.

So what exactly is ‘fragrance’? On your average cosmetic label, alternate terms for synthetic fragrance include perfume, fragrance, fragrance oil, and parfum. These are very general terms for a chemical cocktail which can contain up to 200 undisclosed ingredients. Due to recent trends towards more natural and nature loving products, companies have been forced to get creative with their formulations and labelling. But don’t be fooled.

Some other common euphemisms for synthetic fragrance include:

  • Natural
  • Aromatherapy
  • ‘contains essential oils’
  • Fragrance oils
  • Fragrant oil
  • FO

Even brands that advertise themselves as ‘fragrance free’ are not necessarily safe and devoid of toxins. What ‘fragrance free’ typically means is that fragrances have been added to give the overall effect of not having a scent. So in order for your favorite skin cream to be fragrance free, scent-masking chemicals are used to make a given product have no distinct smell at all.

In a world in which nearly everything and every space seems scented or ‘unscented’, pine-coned, febreezed, or with a sprinkle of ‘aromatherapy’… what’s a girl to do?


Only the essentials 

If history is any indication, we are not likely to give up on our love for fragrance and perfume anytime soon.  Nearly every great civilization had some ritualized use of perfume or scent in their social fabric. In China fragrances were prized and although they did not wear scent they burned it in the form of incense and other fragrant materials in special, sacred rituals. In Egypt perfume was a treasured commodity and was strongly associated with cleanliness. Frankincense and Myrrh were among the favoured scents that the Egyptians believed to be the sweat of the Gods. The Greeks believed the gods from Mt. Olympus were attracted to sweet fragrances and medical thinkers connected its use to health and vitality via aromatherapy. And it is believed the Romans used some 2,800 tons of frankincense annually, and perfume was everywhere from public baths to beauty products and applied to even the soles of Roman feet. So suffice it to say, our love of perfume isn’t likely to go away.

What these seemingly disparate civilizations all had in common however was their use of natural fragrance or essential oils.  Essential oils seem to be everywhere these days… but what are they exactly? An essential oil is defined as a super concentrated, non-water soluble phytochemical essence of a plant, flower or root.

For an essential oil to be a true essential oil, it must be isolated by physical means only. The physical methods used are typically distillation (steam, steam/water and water) or expression (also known as cold pressing). Technicalities aside, when one first experiences a true, quality essential oil one thing comes to mind: “This is potent stuff.”  Also one soon becomes aware that there are vast differences in quality among different brands of oils.  Quality will generally be dictated on where the flowers are from, how they are harvested and the method of extraction.  Generally however, you get what you pay for. Just place a small vial of lavender essential oil next to the soapy, drugstore variety and you will forever know the difference. One is instantly addictive, soothing and calm inducing while the other is fake-ish, headache triggering and just a little bizarre. Potent indeed, as it can take more than 150 pounds of lavender flowers to make a single pound of lavender essential oil.

But don’t take our word for it- just one sniff of Frankincense, Sandalwood, or Rose Otto and one is an instant convert. Why? Because essential oils are more than just ‘scents’… they are therapeutic.  Difficulty concentrating? Keep a bottle of rosemary or peppermint essential oils on your desk. Feeling a bit blue? Frankincense and Bergamot are instantly uplifting and stress relieving. Finding it hard to fall asleep? A few long purposeful breaths of true lavender and you will feel drowsy within five minutes. Hospitals and clinics have also embraced the value of natural scent. The next time you find yourself standing in the waiting room of a clinic you may notice that it smells faintly of sweet orange oil. This it is not simply because it is pleasant– it also reduces hospital related anxiety.

What about essential oil based ‘perfume’? While the idea is certainly not new, (see India’s thousand year old Ayurvedic tradition) it is fast becoming rediscovered and even the trendy even among established brands. Take Tom Ford’s recent fragrances Neroli Portofino and Oud Wood. Both are ostensibly based on specific essential oils with marketing that stresses a return to more ‘natural’ origins. Neroli Portofino is described as having “top notes of bergamot, mandarin orange, lemon, lavender, myrtle, rosemary and bitter orange”.

While the exact ingredient list of Ford’s perfume is difficult to locate online, once you do find it the essential oils listed in the description seem oddly absent on the back of the box. Instead, alcohol denat, water and the ubiquitous ‘fragrance (parfum)’ are front and center. While regulations in North America for toxicity in cosmetics are far behind those in Europe, this more ‘natural’ scent base is certainly progress and may be an example of how non-toxic cosmetics are indeed having an effect on the mainstream. Baby steps.

As rules and regulations protecting unsuspecting cosmetic and fragrance consumers continue to move at a glacial pace, The Beauty Arcana has uncovered a few non-toxic and essential oil based perfume brands to once again inspire your faith in humanity and fragrance.


Hailing from sunny Australia, Ayu handcrafts its custom essential oil blends in small batches based on Indian Ayurvedic tradition. They are “made and measured with the ancient art of perfume, combined with knowledge of balancing the mind, body and spirit.” We aren’t exactly sure what this means but what we do know is that their scents are at once addictive and clearly something from the Gods. Gorgeous bottling aside, we love the fact that Ayu scents are oil based and that this confers two distinct advantages: a nourishing component (jojoba oil) as well as a natural fixative rich in vitamins (wheatgerm oil) that helps the scent to linger on the skin a bit longer. And linger it does, as when our expert tester took Ayu perfume out for a spin one evening two things were of note. Not only did she get a complement from the server at a restaurant (“What is your perfume?”) but also from an accompanying friend who at the end of the evening noticed that (“… I can still smell the scent”). If that weren’t indication enough of a product well formulated, Ayu adds superherbs such as ashwaghanda and amla to further fortify and add a nutritive quality. Superfoods in perfume? Why not, we say. Why not. Our current faves are Ode, Souq and Carnal.




From Montreal, Canada comes Lvnea, a mysterious, darkly brooding apothecary brand that we instantly fell in love with. Lvnea is defined as “the moon’s day; the day of the moon” and whose brand “explores the spaces between the natural world and that of the ethereal.” With names such as ‘Spirituum’, ‘Ghost Pine’, and ‘La Foret Dormante’, Lvnea uses traditional French Parfumerie techniques to craft their scents. Their fragrances come in 3 different forms: as an eau de parfum (alcohol based), a parfum botanique (coconut oil based roll on), or a parfum crème (jojoba and shea butter solid) all using natural essential oils and botanical essences. Their sampler kit came to us with 10 or so itsy bitsy vials of gorgeousness lovingly placed on a moody bed of moss. A few of their select scents also come in a gorgeous puffer spray bottle that is a beautiful addition to any vanity. Terres D’Etoiles (land of stars) is one in particular that we adored. With featured notes of frankincense, smoke enfleurage, lapsang souchong, mimosa, jasmine, orange blossoms, and mitti attar it’s floral and smoky complexity is far too challenging for us to clearly put into words. But after misting it and having it linger on a piece of clothing or in a room (as it invariably did) words are really not necessary.