Did you know that many well-known fragrances contain a number of synthetic and toxic chemicals? An Instagram post by Frank contributor Liberty Mills prompted us to look into what makes some perfumes harmful and why natural is best. We spoke to Liberty, a health and nutrition coach, and Catrin MacDonnell, co-founder of sustainable perfume brand Jones & Modha.

Many of us have a favourite perfume that we love, identify with, and feel is our ‘signature scent’. Some even have an almost addictive smell to them.

While we know how expensive some fragrances are, did you know they come with hidden health costs? Most are laden with synthetic and toxic chemicals such as styrene, phthalates, musk ketone, benzyl acetate and methylene chloride, which can all have a detrimental impact on our health, especially over time.

Certified Integrative Health and Nutrition Coach Liberty Mills is passionate about raising awareness of how damaging these perfumes are.

She feels we should stop buying big-brand fragrances, not only to protect ourselves and the environment but for the protection of the workers in factories who are faced with prolonged exposure to these health-damaging chemicals.

Here she tells us about some of the worst offenders:


Commonly known side effects of styrene are headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, fatigue and dizziness. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has evaluated styrene as possibly carcinogenic to humans.


The liver, kidneys and lungs can all be affected by repeated exposure to phthalates. Further, since 2008 there has been a proven link to them lowering sperm counts.

Liberty says, “With the rise of male sub-fertility, this is something I urge my male clients to be aware of. Harvard Medical School also reports that phthalates are associated with an increase in miscarriage and gestational diabetes in pregnant women.”

Musk ketone

A huge hormone disruptor and according to the EWG (The Environmental Working Group) it may also be linked to developing brain cell degeneration.

Toxic to the brain, liver, lungs, and aquatic life, and may be associated with gynaecological abnormalities, such as ovarian failure and infertility.

Benzyl acetate

This chemical is banned in many countries and restricted in others. However, there are no restrictions on it in the USA. It can produce respiratory tract irritation and have a depressant effect on people.

According to data, this is one of the less toxic chemicals in the spectrum. That said, one must take into consideration what happens to these chemicals when they mix with others. 

Methylene Chloride

This is basically paint stripper. Methylene Chloride has now been banned in the UK for personal use. Known side effects are drowsiness, dizziness, irritation to the eyes, and skin and may even cause certain types of cancer.

Liberty adds that it is also used in many coffees to remove the caffeine to make decaf, so always look for the Swiss water method here when choosing decaf.

So what impact do these chemicals have on our bodies? With her clients, Liberty Mills sees symptoms including migraines, coughs, asthma and other respiratory issues, dry skin, lack of concentration, irritated throat and eyes, nausea, forgetfulness, kidney issues, autoimmune disorders and Leaky Gut Syndrome.

Some symptoms may occur only when wearing the perfume, but many will be a result of the build of reoccurring, regular use over time.

As a fertility specialist, Liberty is also concerned about the impact perfumes have on our reproductive hormones. 

The way I think about it, anything you pop on your skin, your skin is eating and your body will see it either as friend or foe. Think of HRT, often now it comes in the form of a transdermal gel that affects the user’s hormones. The same goes for perfume. However, this is not balancing your hormones, but it is creating an unbalance. They can damage follicles in their development into eggs. “

“Many women now have a low follicle count, so protecting them is imperative to your fertility. Phthalates also disrupt your ovaries’ ability to produce estrogen and progesterone, thus creating another hormonal imbalance. So this is important not just for those in the fertility stage of life but also for perimenopause and menopause.”

Liberty Mills - How Healthy Is Your Perfume?
Liberty Mills

When she works with a client Liberty will go through all of their home-care products, laundry detergents, candles, personal hygiene care and cosmetics. While she doesn’t expect anyone to remove and replace all of these, she educates them on the implications of daily toxic exposure and build-up and shows them the scientific evidence of what effect it can have on the body now and long term.

She encourages her clients to stop using perfumes with synthetic chemicals, especially because we tend to spray them around the neck, where the glands are located and the skin is very thin. 

“As a Post Natal Doula and perfume is one of the things I bring up with my new parents. As exposure to these synthetic chemicals has been linked with behavioural symptoms in children (Kim et al, 2009; Engel et al, 2010) and these chemicals have also been shown to make their way into breast milk.”  Liberty Mills

It was concern about the dangers of synthetic fragrances, plus a lack of natural alternatives, that led Bristol-based Catrin MacDonnell and Hemali Modha to set up the natural, vegan fragrance brand Jones & Modha. They have created a citrussy and earthy natural scent made sustainably in Somerset.

“We were frustrated at the lack of natural beauty products, in particular fragrance, which seems to be dominated by some large commercial players,” says Catrin. 

”Legally, they are not required to stipulate what ingredients they use and can just say ‘fragrance’ or ‘perfume’ on a label.  We were concerned about the health and environmental impact of the ingredients that went into them and that consumers weren’t given the information to choose whether they wanted these ingredients on their skin, or indeed released into the environment.”

“A brand can use the word ‘fragrance’ on all sorts of products from household cleaners to shower gel,” Catrin adds.  “There is no requirement to disclose the actual ingredients and some can contain ingredients derived from petroleum for example which are not good for us or the environment. Imagine spraying petroleum-derived chemicals on your skin! It’s just unacceptable.”

She and Hemali were also concerned that many perfumes on the market are tested on animals, or the ingredients are. 

Whilst it’s assumed that most beauty products in the UK are not tested on animals, if a brand sells in certain countries such as China, they may be animal-tested on animals as that country will make it a condition of import.

“It’s this lack of transparency that frustrates us, as well as the fact that testing on animals is just wrong,“ says Catrin.

Catrin MacDonnell and Hemali Modha - How Healthy Is Your Perfume?
Catrin MacDonnell & Hemali Modha

Apart from reducing our toxic load, what are the benefits of switching to a natural fragrance? Catrin says that as their #1 perfume is made with natural plant and flower oils and resins, the health benefits are similar to those of essential oils, bringing feelings of uplift, energy and calm.

“We wanted to create something green and bright, that makes you think of Spring, green leaves and brightness along with undertones of warmth and wood, and that made you feel open and optimistic,” she explains. “Our perfumer, who is also committed to sustainability, listened carefully to our ideas and preferences and we tried and tested many iterations before settling on this.”

Jones & Modha #1 - How Healthy Is Your Perfume?“Another positive aspect of choosing a natural perfume is the peace of mind it can bring. Jones & Modha customers say their scent helps them feel more positive, knowing that they are wearing a perfume from a company that cares about the environment. Their customers also say they were tired of heavy, cloying, synthetic scents and were delighted to find something light and pure.” Catrin Macdonnell

“Some say it is their new signature perfume and that they’d been searching for something natural and sophisticated for years. It’s been an absolute delight to hear this as perfume is such a personal thing and people can tend to be very loyal to a brand they might have worn since their teen years,” Catrin says.

Another natural and vegan perfume brand to check out is Eden, a favourite of Liberty Mills. They have a website, a shop in London’s Portobello Road and also sell through Holland and Barrett. 

“I love them not only because they are toxic free and vegan, but because it’s a small family-owned company and they come in refillable glass bottles too, so there is less waste,” Liberty says.

So do her clients notice a big difference when they remove synthetic perfumes from their routines? The answer is definitely yes.

“Often clients mention that their skin is clearer and they find it easier to focus at work,” she says. “I get all my clients to journal when removing anything, so they can see the day-to-day difference with the replacement chosen.”

Those clients who do swap to a natural scent rarely go back. “If they do slip back, say at Christmas or a birthday when someone has bought them a traditional perfume as a gift, it’s then they see and feel a dramatic change. They often don’t go back for more than one or two days as they really can feel the effects of the swap.”

To learn more about Liberty’s work, head over to her Website and follow her on Instagram

You can buy Jones & Modha #1 HERE and follow the latest updates on Instagram


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