One Less Thing: Perfume

An important part of being a minimalist is realizing what you can do without. It’s a continual process of discovering One Less Thing that—despite what peers, advertisements, or societal norms tell you—you just don’t need.

Several years ago, I discovered One Less Thing I could do without: perfume.

As a young girl, I associated those fancy glass bottles of fragrance with glamour, sophistication, and femininity—and was thrilled to receive my first one (the lemon-y Jean Naté—oh, the nostalgia!) as a birthday gift in junior high. I graduated onto the hipper Calvin Klein Eternity in high school, had a brief fling with Le De Givenchy during an Audrey Hepburn phase, and spritzed daily with Chanel Allure as an adult. (Yes, I’m girly like that.)

A perfume bottle was a standard fixture on my bathroom counter—that is, until I started learning more about what was inside.

You see, I’d always assumed perfumes were made of pretty things like flowers, sunshine, and rainbows. ;-) I’d never stopped to question exactly what was in the stuff I was spraying on my body. As naïve as it sounds, it came as a surprise to me that I was dousing myself with synthetic chemicals on a daily basis.

As it turns out, perfumes are full of potential hazards—and current laws don’t require companies to disclose them. Neurotoxins, hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates, and harmful synthetic musks are common ingredients. But because companies can claim fragrance as trade secrets, you won’t find them listed on the label. Worse yet, very few of the thousands of ingredients used in perfumes have been tested for human safety; their effects on the skin, the brain, the respiratory system, and other organs are simply unknown. (To learn more, visit The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.)

Well, that knowledge was enough to make me drop perfume (and other fragranced products, from shower gel to body lotion) from my beauty routine. To me, smelling like a rose was hardly worth the health risks.

Furthermore, I became concerned about the environmental impacts of perfume production and distribution. Ninety-five percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are petroleum-based compounds, and the manufacture of both the perfumes and their bottles consume a great deal of energy. Not to mention shipping them to shops and department stores around the globe!

It may seem a trivial topic, but fragrance is a multi-billion dollar industry. Walk down any high street in Europe, or into any mall in America, and you’ll see shelves piled high with designer potions; open up any magazine, or turn on any TV channel, and you’ll likely see an ad for the latest celebrity-endorsed scent. And it’s not just a female thing; men’s cologne commands a significant share of the market.

Yet, ironically enough, although such perfumes promise to make us more attractive to the opposite sex, research shows that our natural scents are more appealing.

So as a minsumer, I have to question: do we really want to waste our precious resources, our precious dollars—and possibly our precious health—on something we really don’t need?

For me, giving up perfume is a joyful act of consumer disobedience. It’s also an opportunity to have One Less Thing to purchase, to own, to clutter up my countertop, to affect my health, and to poison our environment. I now get my fragrance fix the old-fashioned way: enjoying the smell of rain, grass, fruit, flowers, and freshly-baked sweets, among other (natural) things.

I’d love to know your thoughts on the topic, and plan to share more of my One Less Things with you in the future.

128 comments to One Less Thing: Perfume

  • Jeffrey

    Though I rarely use cologne, I do think it’s kinda neat to make up your own perfume a la essential oils. When you pay $50-200 for a 2 oz. bottle of perfume/cologne, what you’re really paying for is the specially manufactured bottle, the advertising, model photo-shoots, celebrity endorsement and on & on. Why give them your money when you could mix your own trademark scent, pack it in a $2 plain-Jane glass tube from Wholefoods and only pay for the raw materials? How and when did companies persuade people to believe that DIY wasn’t fun/cheaper/personalized/satisfying?

  • Labradorite

    One Less Thing… I have given up make-up.
    Everything you have written about perfumes also apply to make-up: it is full of potential hazards, it has a negative environmental impact and it is very often tested on animals who “live” in appalling conditions.
    We do not need make-up to look good: if we choose a neat and easy hairdo and keep our hair clean at all time, if we choose clothes that fit our style, our figure, our complexion, our eyes and hair colors… and – to top it all – if we radiate happiness, practically nobody will notice we are not wearing make-up and the few who will are going to be tempted to give up make-up as well.
    No make-up = more health for you and the planet, no more animals in tiny cages, more space in your bathroom, more time available for more essential activities.
    Let’s give ourselves the freedom and joy to show our face just like it is!

  • Labradorite

    One Thing Less : I have given up self-improvement books. I read so many over the years I could fill a library with them!
    Then I realized that the basic assumption of all these books is that we are not OK as we are now. Is that true or is this thought (I am not good enough yet) inner clutter?
    Well, my answer was: the idea of my inadequacy is clutter because it does not serve me, quite the opposite. Oh the joy of getting rid of all these books!

  • Wow I’m seriously in love with your blog! You’re an excellent writer. I’m just wondering now what you use in place of body lotion? O.o

  • I’m one of those people don’t want the smell of perfume even it is expensive brand. For me you stay smell good if do practice good hygiene everyday.

  • Mark

    Oddly enough, I’ve never been bothered by the natural smell of other people. It’s possibly because I grew up in a hot country. When you are being physically active with other people in 105F/40C you’re gonna smell, no matter what you slather yourself with.

  • Ann

    Loved this article. I remember releasing my last bottle of perfume – ‘Flowers’ – did not smell like flowers. Latest release toe nail polish. Loved the colors hated the smell and the smell of the remover.
    Now I am free and my toes are a beautiful shade of natural pink.

  • Perfume gives me headaches! In my whole life I’ve possessed two tiny bottles of perfume – one smelled like lavender and was quite nice, but very strong, the other one was a traditional German cologne which is quite icky. I can’t stand fragranted beauty products, only exception at the moment is a natural pomegranade scented shampoo and conditioner combo (but on many days I still use a vinegar rinse afterwards). Must say I totally agree with the folks here who use essential oils! You can choose one or two you really like, maybe throw in a third for special occasions, et voila :) My personal favourites are lemon grass (also a slight insect repellent) and cedar wood (has antiseptic and antidepressant properties), and sometimes a bit of lavender for the sake of nostalgia (my parents’ front yard is full of wild roses and lavender most years). I use them diluted with water and combined with tea tree oil as a body/clothing/bedding spray, a few drops in my homemade deodorant powder, in my sugar and oil facescrub, etc.

  • Nicole

    Whenever I feel the urge to smell a certain way, I just dab on a little vanilla extract for baking. Smells like cookies and I know exactly what is in it since I make my own.

  • Tina

    Extracts in the baking aisle smell good and are edible. Lemon, vanilla, maple, and others. Keep clean and you’ll be fine. Another item–I have never dyed my hair because the smells at the beauty parlor are horrible so a quick cut does it for me. I wonder what’s in hair dye and what it does to the environment?

  • Tina

    I can’t wear deodorant so my Dr. said just use foot powder. My husband has only one kidney and his Dr. Told him no deodorant just use foot powder. I have never worn very much makeup unless we are going somewhere very fancy. Then I wear a little concealer, a little eye makeup, and lip gloss. I am 65 and people compliment me on my beautiful skin.

  • Dylan

    The hospital where I work is fragrance-free, as are many public facilities and health care centers. It’s almost an affront these days to smell perfume or strong scents on people.

    I used Red by Giorgio for years but somehow ended up with 3-4 bottles of the stuff from gift-givers who knew it was my favorite! I gave all but one away a couple of years ago on Freecycle and finally ditched the last bottle during my minimalist purging many months ago. I know Giorgio makes a Red lotion, so I guess I have the option of buying the lotion if I want to use the scent again.

    But I’ve turned into an unscented girl – bar soap, shampoo, dish soap, laundry detergent. I’m glad we have these options now.

    Great post!

  • Juliana

    I’ve given up perfume about 3 years ago. At first it was because of my rhinitis – my nose just doesn’t like strong smells at all. Then I started switching to organic/safe cosmetics and make up, and was happy that this one was out of the way.
    Question – how about essential oils? I use them for some DIY recipes, around the house and makeup remover. What do you guys think of them?

  • Tina

    When I give talks on living frugally, I tell people not to buy perfume or cologne. Buy flavor extracts in the baking aisle. The ingredients are listed. I also tell people not to buy air freshener, scented candles, etc. Baking soda works well, you can open a window, grow some green plants, or light a match. A bar of soap lasts longer than shower gel, and you can find some with very few ingredients at reasonable prices. Drug store makeup is made by the same companies that make the department store brands. Being minimalist is also being thrifty.

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