Gwyneth Paltrow on Toxins, Natural Fragrances, and the Scent of Heartbreak

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Photo: Hannah Thomson

Winter is coming and Gwyneth Paltrow wants you to smell like a fireplace by a library. Perhaps you expected that Paltrow’s first Goop fragrance, edition 01, would be something more Zen or cheery, but even the fragrance’s nose, Douglas Little, was pleasantly surprised when Paltrow pulled out an arsenal of “sexy church scents” as references. “It’s my other hidden side,” Paltrow laughs, as Little recalls the story at last week’s press event. “Sexy church scent” is a good way to describe edition 01 (on sale November 15), a rich mix of burning wood and incense, which is also free of artificial ingredients. The Cut talked to Paltrow about toxic fragrances, the scent of happiness, and how the scent of onions reminds her of love.

What’s your first scent memory?
My mother’s perfume. We used to go to Nantucket at the end of every summer for a couple of weeks and I remember the scent of box hedging —those little hedges with the small leaves. That is my most powerful olfactory memory.

Do you ever think about doing a scent related to that memory?That’s a good idea! Thank you! I’m going to steal that for edition 5.0. We are going to do four for the year. We’re starting with winter, and then spring, summer, and fall.

You’ve done skincare and makeup. Why go into fragrance?
From a straight business perspective, fragrance is a very tangible way for somebody to buy a piece of a brand at a good price point. Whenever we’ve done candle collaborations on Goop, they’ve sold very, very well.

But for me, it’s also very personal. Fragrance is a really important part of my life. This is a way that we can create something that was non-toxic and stay within the ethos of Goop, offering the modern woman a better, cleaner version of a typical scent. But it’s complex, romantic, sexy, cozy, and all of these things. It’s not just rubbing lavender oil on yourself from the health-food store.

Perfumers at the big perfume houses traditionally use a mix of natural and synthetic materials, because they claim there is no quality difference. Why do you focus on only naturals?
All I can speak to is my experience personally. Fragrance-ingredient labels aren’t transparent, and because of that, you don’t know what’s in it. There are synthetic fragrances that smell incredible that I’ve worn my whole life, but if they have phthalates and carcinogens, then, to me, it’s unjustifiable. There’s so much research on this now and even mainstream companies are being forced to look at what their fragrance ingredients are because the consumer is starting to demand a cleaner product. All I can do is make something that’s to our standards, which is to make non-toxic personal-care products.

Photo: Paulette Tavormina/Goop

Toxic is a strong word. Do you struggle with trying to define what is toxic and non-toxic?
The truth of the matter is our bodies are not equipped to deal with the toxic load that’s in our environment. Our bodies have a really hard time with the heavy metals that are in everything now. Our bodies are having a really hard time with certain chemicals and certain plastics. I’m not sure what the definition of toxic is in terms of the percentage of when it starts to become disadvantageous to the body. But we do know that we live in a very polluted world compared to a thousand years ago and that our bodies are constantly trying to deal with an overload of chemicals that it doesn’t like. The idea that you can avoid that when you’re putting something directly on your body or in your body makes sense to me.

What are you teaching your daughter about clean beauty?
Forget it. This is an area where I’m still in education mode, but she’s very into makeup, YouTube tutorials, and conventional makeup. That is one of the reasons why I want to do this even more. There really should be some kind of regulation so girls who are in puberty aren’t putting endocrine disrupters all over their bodies.

But you know, my son is more like, Is this a clean body wash? He’s so funny. But my daughter loves the Pink body fragrance. She’s like, I want the Pink body mist. And I let her do her thing! Because I can just educate her. She sort of vacillates between the two, but you have to let a teenager do her thing.

How about associating smells with different memories. What smell do you associate with love?
I have two answers, but they’re both really weird. Man-skin. You know? That sort of …

Not body odor.
Not body odor, but when you can smell the essence of the man. So not cologne, but when you can smell a man, in that romantic sense. Also, when I smell onions sautéing in butter, that to me is the smell of love and home. It’s so strong for me. My mom was always sautéing onions in butter.

What about one with happiness?
Lilies — fresh lilies in a vase. I don’t know if I’d want that in a perfume, but somebody sent me for my birthday two months ago big lilies, and they made the house smell amazing.

What smell do you associate with heartbreak or loss?
Cigarettes. When I think about all my worst break-ups or when my dad died, I remember smoking to get through. I think of that raw tobacco and burning tobacco smell.

This interview has been condensed and edited.