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The Scent of an Industry – Natural or Synthetic Perfumes?

Perfumes by The Perfume Garden

Picture: (c) theperfumegarden.org

This is the first of a 2-part article series, and revolves around different aspects of sustainability in perfumery. The second article will be an interview with a natural perfume micro-enterprise – The Perfume Garden -, and ask questions about the company’s commitments, ethics and transparency.

In 2005, Greenpeace published an analysis of 36 mainstream perfume scents. And the results were – how could it be otherwise? – sobering: They showed that phthalates and synthetic musks were present in virtually every perfume brand that was tested. Phatalates are, in essence, plasticising chemicals, while synthetic musk is bio-accumulative, can trigger hormone disruptions and some research even suggests that certain varieties are carcinogenic.
At the same time, and from difference research, a list of the 20 most common chemicals found in scented products revealed there may a be lot of other ‘interesting’ stuff knocking about, such as acetone, or benzyl acetate.

According to the Fragrance Foundation, around two thirds of a modern fragrance are synthetical derivatives, while the remaining fraction may be naturally sourced. Some ‘prestige fine fragrance’ brands may contain up to 50%, or more, of natural ingredients. And as far as the famous branded fragrances are concerned, the more natural ingredients the higher the price point – in an industry that already now sometimes adds a 1000% mark-up to its cheap products just to fit with the consumer’s price expectations and the brand’s ‘luxury’ image.

Of course, nothing ever is quite as straight forward, and it goes without saying that also the ‘natural’ versus ‘synthetic’ debate is dipped in a wide range of grey shades rather than just mere black and white. First of all, natural and synthetics are used for their different odour characteristics in perfumery as Arnaud Winter, perfumer for Cosmo International Fragrances, explains: “There are just certain notes you can't extract from nature, like fruit scents, but synthetic formulations give you the options to create scents that nature can't give you, like lily of the valley, for example.” Further, the natural perfumer’s palette is limited to a range of between 400-500 ingredients compared with at least 5’000 aroma chemicals used in synthetic perfumes. But then again the latter contain generally aromas manufactured from coal tar or other petro-chemical derivatives …
And then there is the fact of ecological limitations on how much can be used or produced at all because the production of the essence’s oil requires insane amounts of natural resources.

These difference are but the a tiny fraction of a much more complicated picture, as the Ecologist explained not too long ago:

[...] there are three different types of synthetic and with two of them, the line between man-made and natural is very blurry indeed. Natural isolates (geraniol, coumarin and so on) are molecules extracted from leaves, bark and fruit. Then there's semi-synthetics which are modified natural isolates, and finally, you have true synthetics (persol) which are made from scratch in a laboratory. Natural isolates and semi synthetics are often better than the natural alternatives, particularly when used in place of an endangered species. Take sandalwood for example. A fine-grained yellow wood, over-harvesting of the slow growing Mysore variety (Santalum album) in India has had frightening repercussions for biodiversity. Alternatives include Santalum spicatum – a sustainably farmed Australian variety, which produces decent oil but of slightly poorer quality than Indian – and of course synthetic substitutes.
Other instances where synthetics are a better choice than the real thing include civet, musk and rosewood. Musk is a case in point, with hunting of musk deer for their scent glands leading to a major population decline. Although the trade in real musk has been banned under CITES [Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna] legislation, some of the synthetic alternatives – musk ketone for example – is thought by some to pose a risk to health and doesn’t biodegrade. Just when you think things are totally clear cut, and the obvious choice is to avoid musk altogether, comes the revelation that much of the musk used in perfumery is musk tonquin – an innocuous extract from the tonka bean, which like many ‘synthetics’ is actually derived from a natural source. Tonquin musk, like linalool (Malabar leaf) and benzoin (styrax resin), is technically as natural as the plant it came from.

And finally there is the issue of allergies and similar immediate health effects.
Research by the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has found that “Roughly one in five adults in northern Europe are believed to suffer from contact allergy to one or more chemicals. The most common is nickel allergy, but many people also suffer from contact allergy to perfumes – even perfume substances that at first glance appear to be harmless can cause allergic reactions. New eczema-provoking allergens are formed by reaction with acid in the ambient air (known as autoxidation) or with skin enzymes.” And there is no difference in this respect between natural and synthetic perfumes or cosmetics.

In short – whether synthetic or natural perfumes, much of the discussion should be about quality of ingredients and their impact on the human body as an organism. Going (too) cheap on either side of the spectrum will invariably have negative side-effects of one kind of another: allergies, bio-accumulation of a toxic material, or simple, but nonetheless unbearable, head-aches.

The principle difference between ‘ethical’ perfumers and the rest of the lot likely may be down to a very simple thing, commonly overseen: product labelling.
By listing the ingredients that have gone into the product, they allow
- the sensitive consumer to assess whether or not the may be allergic to it,
- the interested and educated consumers to evaluate the type of ingredient and whether or not the want to vote with their £/$/€ for or against it
- the public at large to make sure that whatever goes into it is not of some dodgy provenance or containing substances that are otherwise declared unsafe or illegal.
And further: By using product labels, the producers become legally liable to public misinformation if the listed ingredients do not correlate with those actually found in the product. A fact that can be fairly easily checked given the right analysis equipment and chemistry skills, and hence a reasonably good way to make producers more ‘aware’ of what they put into their goods.

This is the first of a 2-part article series, and revolves around different aspects of sustainability in perfumery. The second article will be an interview with a natural perfume micro-enterprise – The Perfume Garden -, and ask questions about the company’s commitments, ethics and transparency.

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