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

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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