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Safer scents: Sniffing out greener alternatives

The average fragrance contains only 3 percent natural ingredients, while the rest of the list is primarily made up of synthetic compounds. GreenDAY’s Marisa Belger highlights more natural, unique and customizable fragrances.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

The transition to natural beauty came easily for me. I happily ditched my antiperspirant for an herbal-scented deodorant. I easily traded chemical-laden shampoos and conditioners for those made with naturally derived ingredients. And it was with a smile that I substituted my big-brand conventional toothpaste for a natural tube enhanced with Mentha piperita, peppermint essential oil. But there was one area of old-school grooming and primping that I just couldn’t give up: perfume.

I wasn’t a fragrance hound, nor a collector of scent in any way or form, but I held fast and strong to one. The elegant glass bottle sat front and center in a bathroom cabinet filled with organic hair gel and biodynamic eye cream, glistening and shimmering among all that recycled plastic. After a lifetime without a scent to call my own — I had given up looking — this perfume had fallen in my lap, sent for review to the women’s magazine where I was an editor. At first sniff I thought it was OK. It wasn’t until later that night that I found myself staring in awe at the blipping pulse point on my inner wrist. I was on the subway and had been looking for the source of the intricate, delicate fragrance that had subtly but completely enveloped my nasal passages. Some quick deduction (I was sandwiched by two hairy men) led me to my own wrist, where I had sprayed the perfume before heading out.

This was not your average scent — not beachy or fruity or musky, not an obsession or an eternity or happy. It was uplifting and fun and feminine without being simple or predictable. It was a summer in the south of France, a rowdy night in a Texas dive bar, a hike in the Canadian Rockies. It had become my signature scent, and as I learned about the synthetic ingredients used in pretty much every conventional perfume, my dirty little secret.

Until quite recently, natural fragrances couldn’t even begin to compete with the conventional perfume that had won me over. I didn’t want to smell like patchouli (too hippie) or lavender (too potpourri) or grapefruit (too breakfast) and even if I did, I wouldn’t want the aroma to fade in five minutes. But now perfumiers like Natalie Szapowalo and Annie Morton of Tsi-La Organics are tempting me away from the dark side with complex, interesting scents derived from essential oils and plant botanicals.

“The average mass-market fragrance contains only about 3 percent natural ingredients,” Szapowalo says. “The rest of the list is primarily made up of synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, like benzene, an additive in gasoline, and propylene glycol, an additive found in antifreeze.” Tsi-La fragrances, on the other hand, are free from preservatives and synthetic colors and are either made with organic and GMO-free alcohol or are oil-based (which may take some time to get accustomed to if you’re used to the spray-on experience).

For Szapowalo perfume is an experience that will be different for every woman. “Synthetic fragrances stay stagnant on your skin, while naturals blend with your chemistry. We ask a woman to roll our scents into the palm of her hand and then rub her palms together. The body’s own natural chemistry mixes the fragrance. Then she can rub it through her hair or on the back or nape of her neck,” she says. “It is a customizable experience. Because all of our fragrances are 100 percent natural, you can mix our scents to create your own scent.”

I took the roll test and found that Tsi-La’s pretty packaging gave me an aesthetic jolt of joy comparable to that of my chiseled glass bottle and, more importantly, that the scents held within were nuanced and intriguing — fit to be called my own. 

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.