What’s Really in Your Signature Scent?

Why your favorite fragrance isn’t what you think.

by Eric Korman

Searching for answers from the dizzying fragrance industry.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact: The fragrance industry is barely regulated by the FDA. Crazy, right? You can hardly buy a cup of coffee these days without learning the name of the farmer who grew the beans. So you’d think people would demand a little more transparency from something they spray right on their skin (considering it’s our largest organ).

But no. Legally speaking, all perfume brands have to disclose is that they use water, “fragrance” and denatured ethyl alcohol. Water is water, of course. And denatured ethyl alcohol is just a fancy way of saying you can’t — or at least shouldn’t — drink your bottle of Daisy. But that middle one, “fragrance,” is where the big companies can pull a fast one. It could refer to anything — something innocent (like citrus oil or tree bark) or something that’s anything but.

Don’t expect the situation to change anytime soon. If anything, the current regulatory environment is going the other direction. (Just ask anyone interested in protecting waterways from coal-mining waste.) And, of course, the big brands want as little transparency as possible. They claim they need secrecy to protect their formulas, although anyone with a little knowledge of chemistry knows how to use mass spectroscopy to basically figure them out. The real reason: you would probably stop buying their products if you understood what went into them.

It all starts with light. Simply put, light damages fragrance. And yet, your favorite perfume probably comes in a clear bottle. Why is that? Because colored liquid grabs attention more at a department store counter. People respond better to seeing what’s inside, even if they don’t actually know what’s inside.

But the truth is, what’s inside is not so good. It’s pumped up with dyes so it looks more like fragrance, whatever that means. And it’s loaded with stabilizers and preservatives like BHT, a chemical compound that General Mills considered so dangerous they removed it from their cereals a couple years back. Is your favorite perfume made with that stuff? Good luck finding out.

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I think there’s a better way to create beautiful fragrances that enhance — not take away from — our existence. In fact, I searched for a brand that was doing things the right way (and wasn’t charging a fortune for its products), and came away empty. So I decided to build it myself.

I call my company PHLUR. We launched nearly a year ago, and we are reimagining fragrance from inspiration to experience.

Instead of using a fashion designer or a celebrity for name recognition, we drew inspiration for our scents from real-life moments, from desert road trips to an invigorating walk through Central Park. We then designed a better fragrance by scouring the earth for the best ingredients — everything is responsibly sourced, and our partners pay their workers a fair wage. We bypassed the toxins, dyes, phthalates, parabens, animal products and known allergens that many of our competitors use. Then we gave the world’s best perfumers the time, resources and creative freedom to practice their craft at the highest level.

We created an opaque bottle to protect what’s inside from light damage, which also kept us from using the same dyes and toxins the big boys use. We sell it online, so we can charge an honest price. (We also invite you to try a Sample Set at home first, since we want you to experience our scents on skin before committing.) And as of this week, we now publish our ingredients list online — something very few other fragrance brands are doing.

To put it another way, we’re crafting fine fragrance made with better, safer ingredients, and doing so in the spirit of full transparency. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re perfect — there are plenty of things I think we can (and will) do better as we grow. With that in mind, I welcome you to leave your ideas and suggestions in the comments below. We’ve learned a ton since we’ve launched, and have made a number of improvements based on the great ideas of others.

But in an era where you can literally find out the name of the responsibly raised chicken you’re about to consume, shouldn’t you demand to know just as much about something you spray all over your body? I certainly think so, and so I invite you to experience it for yourself. And once you have, I hope you’ll let me know what you think.