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My Guide to Natural Fragrances

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above, some of my favorites

Newsflash: government regulation of the beauty industry is super shoddy. Despite a few smallish amendments, cosmetic laws haven’t changed since 1938. Yeah. Think about that for a second. (Over 10,000 new ingredients have been introduced since then, ahem.) If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend this book.

However, today, I want to talk about fragrance, which is a whole entity in itself.

I won’t go on and on about the intricacies of creating a fragrance (this post covers a lot of it!), but here’s a primer.

The biggest divide between natural and synthetic fragrances lies in the way they are created. Plants, trees or animals comprise the basic elements of natural scents and run the gamut from lilac to sandalwood to deer musk. Synthetic fragrances are created in a laboratory, and although it may not be common knowledge, Mother Nature has absolutely nothing to do with almost two-thirds of the most popular fragrances made today used in perfumes and other scented products.

The modern lab is their source, and basically, there are three different types. These include: full synthetics, which are composed almost entirely from petroleum by-products; semi-synthetics, or natural fragrances that have been modified by artificial means, and natural isolates, which are aromas which fall somewhere in between natural and synthetic because they are developed by isolating one scent from a more complex aroma base such as that of a red rose.

Additionally, in terms of government regulation, “fragrance” is considered a trade secret, so companies don’t have to disclose what it is. They just don’t have to. And so they don’t. Usually, it is a synthetic concoction that includes phthalates and synthetic masks, which are hormone disruptors, as well as chemicals that are allergens and neurotoxins.

In fact, because of these trade secret laws, the single word “fragrance” you see on labels can represent as many as several hundred additional chemicals that aren’t required to be listed. #WTF

But! It’s also important to point out that sometimes synthetics are a better choice for our planet. For example, massive deforestation has resulted from the production of natural sandalwood and rosewood, and the utilization of natural musk requires painful extraction from deer and other forest creatures. (Horrible!) All things to consider…it’s not so black and white. There are synthetics that don’t include phthalates, neurotoxins, and allergens, keep in mind.

Have I confused you enough? And, frankly, what does this mean for you? Well, it might behoove you to look into some cleaner fragrance brands – ones that are much more transparent about what they are using in their perfumes. Lucky for you, I’ve done some of the work already. These are some of the brands I’ve personally tested, which vary in their ingredients. Some use essential oils only, some use absolutes, some synthetics – so depending on how gung-ho you are, you might want to dig even deeper into the brands. (Frankly, after trying all these scents and writing this, I need a nap.)

Let’s get started!

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MCMC Fragrances

MCMC Fragrances is a small company founded in 2009, dedicated to creating original products made with the highest quality ingredients. Each fragrance in formulated by Anne McClain, who studied natural perfumery and aromatherapy before moving to Grasse, the perfume capital of France, for an intensive study of the history, techniques, and practices of modern perfumery. Based in Brooklyn, NY, all of the products are carefully crafted in small batches and bottled by hand by their in-house production team.

My two favorites from this line (which are very different from each other) are Noble, which is described as a floral woody and has notes of Indian Jasmine, Incense and Vetiver, and Mociun #2. Mociun #2 has notes of Wild Black Spruce, Patchouli, and Brazilian Rosewood. Very unique – haven’t smelled anything else like it. You can purchase samples here.

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Twinkle Apothecary

Based in Oklahoma City (woohoo!), Twinkle Apothecary was founded in October 2015 by Stefanie Grant-Cassel, who began crafting her own perfumes and body care after struggling to find a natural, vegan, and cruelty-free deodorant that was effective enough to keep her smelling great while working under pressure as a fashion production assistant in Los Angeles. After realizing that the deodorant she made in her kitchen was 1000 times more effective than anything from the store, she was inspired to quit her job in LA and move home to OKC to make her all-natural deodorant, perfume, and body care full time. She makes tons of amazing products, and even does a monthly subscription boxThis post Stephanie wrote on understanding fragrance notes is so spot-on and helpful.

I love so many fragrances in this line, but I really like Nasty Woman. (Yes, there is a fragrance called Nasty Women, and the awesome name isn’t the only reason I love it. Smells so good – sweet, herbal, and earthy…just the way I like it.)

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Lake + Skye

Lake & Skye was founded by Courtney Somer, a Kundalini and Prenatal Yoga teacher, Aromatherapist, and Holistic Nutritionist. Using the centuries-old art of healing with aromatherapy, Lake & Skye is a line of 100% pure, therapeutic grade essential oil products, natural fragrance and floral waters. Hand blended in a high vibrational environment in both New York City and Los Angeles, the ingredients are carefully chosen based on their therapeutic properties, their synergy with other oils and selected from conscious, experienced sources.

These fragrances are very potent and long-lasting (a plus for natural fragrances since most disappear quickly), and the two that stood out to me were 11:11 and Epic Love. 11:11 is a fragrance that has a blend of white ambers, and smells very ethereal. Epic Love is very different in its composition in that it’s an essential oil blend that combines the top note of Geranium with Jasmine, Rose Damask in a base of Vanilla and Patchouli. Sweet, warm, cozy.

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Phlur

Based in Austin, Texas, Phlur seeks out ingredients that are grown and cultivated with innovative, environmental methods and exclude raw materials that damage ecosystems. They’ve made tough but important decisions when choosing between natural ingredients and those made in a lab. Although they do use some synthetic ingredients that help sustainably source without depleting precious resources, all products are free of known skin irritants, parabens, phthalates, unnecessary stabilizers and animal products.

I’m a fan of this brand and the fragrances. (My husband has already bought the full size of Greylocke. I might pull the trigger on Hanami. Or Olmstead & Vaux. DECISIONS.) I would definitely recommend checking out their sample program – for $15 they will send you three samples plus a discount off a full bottle. Love.

joshrosebrook

Josh Rosebrook

Ethereal by Josh Rosebrook is a very lush, sensual fragrance that can be worn by both sexes. Quite powerful and lasts a long time. (The longest of any natural fragrances I’ve tried.) It’s a proprietary blend of Certified Organic, Organic and wildcrafted essential oils, extracts and absolutes in a base of certified organic grape alcohol. It’s a bit intense for me, but many rave about it!

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Tsi – La

Tsi-La Natural Perfumes are made with natural and vegan ingredients and contain zero synthetic chemicals and dyes. They are 100% flower and plant-based, non-toxic and vegan. I’m partial to Kizes and Kesu. Kizes is super fresh and easy to wear, and Kesu reminds me of sitting by a campfire.

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By Rosie Jane

Hand-crafted in small-batch runs and made using natural and organic ingredients, By Rosie Jane products are hand filled in Los Angeles, California. I first saw these at Anthropologie, and the scents are very sweet and flirty.

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LURK

LURK fragrances are made from 100% pure essential oils with no additives, synthetics, compounds, fixatives, preservatives, GMO’s, phthalates, or parabens. Tons of scents to choose from…my two favorites are RSW005 and BS003.

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Pour Le Monde

Pour Le Monde is dedicated to delivering safe, elegant non-toxic fragrances by using certified 100% natural essential oils and infusing them with a grain alcohol. I haven’t tried all of their scents, but I do enjoy Empower. It’s fresh, playful, and unisex. (Are you gathering that I enjoy unisex scents yet?) This particular one has a citrus top note, then hits you with some lemongrass followed by sandalwood.

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Ursa Major

Willoughby by Ursa Major is a great cologne that is, yes, unisex. Shocker. Made with organic jojoba oil and a proprietary blend of fourteen pure essential oils, the highest-grade natural ingredients (100% natural, 95% organic) are sourced wherever possible from family-owned, sustainable growers. Never any petrochemicals, sulfates, parabens, synthetic fragrance or color, glycols, silicones or PEGs. This product is gluten-free, vegan & cruelty-free. BASICALLY ALL OF THE GOOD, PEOPLE.

Bright citrus, subtle spice and deep woods topped with hints of mint, ginger and bergamot…Willoughby smells damn good if you ask me.

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Limbic Fragrances

And the award for the most beautiful bottle (and packaging!) goes to Limbic Fragrances. So lovely, yes?

Limbic Fragrances source the finest raw materials from across the globe, and are committed to creating a space where mindfulness is embraced. I like it. And if you love Bergamot, you will very much enjoy Lark. Violet fan? Try the Violet Smoke.

losfeliz

Los Feliz Botanicals

Los Feliz Botanicals believes in supporting families and communities around the world by using ethically sourced materials, tested and certified for purity. The perfumes are never adulterated, and never contain synthetics, preservatives, or fillers. Each perfume is made by hand, blending as many as 40 different essences together, drop by drop, until the perfect balance is achieved.

These fragrances are super fun. Named after California landmarks, I’ve really enjoyed experiencing these unique scents. You can check out the scent profiles here…Red Rock reminds me so much of Joshua Tree, and if you like spicy, you must try Yucca Valley.

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Prim Botanicals

Prim Botanicals makes two fragrances, Mademoiselle Swell and Flor Oscura. Mademoiselle Swell is bright, feminine, and lovely. Neroli, lemon, and jasmine fans will love. Flor Oscura is much more sensual, using rose, sandalwood, and amber.
Both fragrances are composed of organic fractionated coconut oil and a proprietary blend of ethically sourced essential oils, absolutes, natural essences and plant-derived extracts. Phthalate, paraben and sulfate free.

aroma

Aromavedic

Aromavedic is described as luxurious liquid adornment for everyday gods and goddesses to cultivate joy and radiance! Sacred and rare scentual botanical treasures formulated according to the universal principles of Ayurveda, the Science that teaches us how to heal WITH Nature.

This line of fragrances was brought to my attention by a few Southern California ladies. I think my favorite from the grouping sent to me for review is the Sacred Masculine scent, which isn’t surprising given I veer towards unisex scents. Oh, I did also enjoy the Sunshine in Her Hair Botanical Perfume! It’s meant for hair, but it has a very fresh and clean scent on the skin that is easy to wear.

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Hollybeth Organics, Lotus Wei, Tata Harper, Root Pretty, Laurel Whole Plant Organics

I grouped these scents together because they seem to be more stress-relieving and/or mood-enhancing treatments than traditional fragrances. Kind of the roll-on-throughout-the-day type. The Calming Perfume by Hollybeth Organics is a blend of Marjoram and Geranium, Bergamot and Ylang-Ylang. The Energy Treatment by Tata Harper is lovely! I put this on my pulse points when I’m working hard on long posts (ahem, like right now) and it smells super fresh and invigorating. Two of my favorites that I’ve worn for years by Lotus Wei are Infinite Love and The Captivator – both were created to bring more love into your life. (Ooh la la!) Root Pretty’s XO perfume is a blend of Jasmine, Organic Lavender & Organic Rose Geranium, but I really only pick up Lavender on this one. Laurel Whole Organics recently came out with the Spiritual Warrior Plant Essence, which smells lovely, but it just doesn’t last that long, sadly. (In fact, most in this category need to be reapplied often.)

So, the BIG QUESTION. Through all of this rigorous testing, research, and reviewing, did I find the ONE? My signature scent?

Well, the answer is…drumroll, please….um, no. Although the first photo in this post shows the fragrances that I reach for the most, I have yet to find the “perfect” scent for me. The search continues! I WILL NOT GIVE UP. (So be on the lookout for Part 2 of this journey in the future.) In the meantime, two online retailers that carry a great selection are Detox Market and Credo Beauty.

As always, questions and comments are welcome, and let me know if there are any other brands you love (or would like me to check out)!

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18 Comments
  • Renee

    March 13, 2017 at 9:06 am Reply

    I’ve been using OLO fragrances for a few years and both my fiance and I are big fans. I love their more masculine scents like Lighting Paw and Victory Wolf. They’re also easy on the wallet and last a long time! https://olofragrance.com

    • Melanie Whittaker

      March 14, 2017 at 12:22 am Reply

      i second OLO – lightning paw and derek wave are my faves.

      • Melanie Whittaker

        March 14, 2017 at 12:23 am Reply

        DARK. dark wave.

      • Kristen

        March 17, 2017 at 6:40 pm Reply

        Derek Wave is a quality porn name, though!

    • whoorl

      March 21, 2017 at 3:57 pm Reply

      Thank you! Will check out…

  • Rachel

    March 13, 2017 at 9:31 am Reply

    My fragrance is the last thing I haven’t switched over yet. I absolutely love Chanel Chance and I fear I won’t find anything to replace it.

  • Emily Wood

    March 13, 2017 at 12:58 pm Reply

    Sarah, I just love you for doing this research so I don’t have to! As a beauty fan with an autoimmune condition I have to do what’s best for my body or it rebels. It’s nice to find beauty products that still let me play without going full on hippy. I’m always happy to support the brands you recommend for a beauty fix I can feel good about. Thanks again :)

    • whoorl

      March 21, 2017 at 4:03 pm Reply

      You are welcome!

  • Kristy B

    March 13, 2017 at 10:10 pm Reply

    I so very much appreciate the time and energy that went into putting this pose together! A lot of thought went into it and it shows. Thank you so much for doing the research. I can AlWAYS Rely on your blog when i need answers regarding healthy living. …the write up you did on anxiety a while back was so helpful and Im forever grateful for your blog

    • whoorl

      March 21, 2017 at 4:04 pm Reply

      Thank you, Kristy! I’m happy my posts have been helpful for you.

  • Alison

    March 13, 2017 at 10:41 pm Reply

    It’s actually not possible to extract the fragrant essences of lilac from lilac flowers using the traditional distillation or cO2 extraction methods. You can use an enfleurage method, but the yield is very low and thus producing lilac oil from actual lilacs is cost prohibitive. Any lilac scent is usually an “accord” that is derived from a bunch of other aroma molecules (which could be synthetic or natural) that are combined together to smell somewhat like lilac, but it’s never “the real thing”.
    For what it’s worth, IFRA (the international fragrance association) has been pretty active in the past few years about proactively regulating which natural AND synthetic ingredients can and can’t be used in fragrances. Similar to synthetic ingredients, natural ingredients can also be harmful to your health, cause allergies, or skin irritations.

    Just putting that out there, cuz these things are actually quite complex. .

  • Ellie

    March 14, 2017 at 6:21 pm Reply

    Wow, what a review! I’ve got some samples to order. My favorite natural perfume line is Marble and Milkweed. I love the rose, cardamom, and sandalwood scent, but Forest is a very close second. Plus, the shop owner is committed to social justice, fair trade, and sustainable farming.

    • whoorl

      March 21, 2017 at 4:04 pm Reply

      I will check out Marble and Milkweed – thanks!

  • Ellie

    March 14, 2017 at 6:22 pm Reply

    Also meant to say I love MCMC Fragrance’s Noble.

  • Heidi J

    March 15, 2017 at 10:00 am Reply

    Have you tried Sarabecca fragrances? I think they are based out of Santa Barbara. Not sure how green they are but they look like small batch, non synthetic.

    • whoorl

      March 21, 2017 at 4:05 pm Reply

      Will look into them!

  • Christina

    March 15, 2017 at 2:37 pm Reply

    Prim Botanicals Mademoiselle Swell is my daily go to, and I get tons of compliments. I used to have a scent I wore most of the Fall/Winter (spicier, warmer), and then another one for Spring/Summer (cleaner, fresher), but I find myself liking this one all year round. I also own a bunch of Lotus Wei, Captivator and Infinite Love being my favorites of those for wearing as perfume – the rest I wear for a purpose. I have Tsi La Fiori D’Arancio, but I always forget how much I like that one until I wear it again,

  • Amanda

    March 23, 2017 at 9:12 pm Reply

    (Would you also do a post about the London and Paris trip for those of us with kids about that age? My husband and I are planning a Paris and Amsterdam trip, and our son is a year younger than yours and a fellow Pokémon enthusiast [hee!] Would love to know which spots you enjoyed, tips, etc. Thanks so much!)

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