The clean beauty movement has created some pretty murky waters to wade through, with widespread greenwashing and fear-based marketing perpetuating what has been dubbed “chemophobia”, an irrational fear of synthetic chemicals. This has led to a tendency to equate natural with good and synthetic with bad, but it’s much more complex than that, especially when it comes to fragrance. Luckily, the experts are here to clear up a few things about natural vs. synthetic perfumes.
The fact is that most perfumes today contain synthetic materials — sometimes upwards of 70% of the juice. While perfume will, in most cases, include some natural materials in the form of distilled or expressed essential oils, the lion’s share will be chemicals isolated either from a natural source or produced in a lab.
Regardless of whether or not consumers fully understand what’s safe and what’s harmful, demand for natural ingredients continues to strong arm the beauty industry, with perfume being yet another target of consumer scrutiny. Much like they want their skin care to be all-natural, consumers are now expecting the same of fragrances, calling on perfumers to create scents that are free of synthetics. But is the growing demand for natural fragrances a valid request in terms of safety? Or is it an extension of the established “clean” beauty marketing ploy, stoking fears and misunderstanding behind the product’s formulation?
“Natural” Does Not Always Equal Safer
“There is a tendency to believe that natural is safer than synthetic, and as much as I would love this to be true, it’s simply not,” says fragrance expert and perfumery teacher Karen Gilbert. Case in point: ingredients in perfume are governed by the fragrance industry’s steely watchdog, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) to examine their safety, and its standards are notoriously stringent.
Some of the strictest regulations in perfume are for natural materials, and many of them “have been eliminated from the perfumer’s palette, or their usage limited in a perfume formula because of their potential allergenic risks,” says Pascal Gaurin, VP, Perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF). Some examples include oakmoss, jasmine, and ylang ylang, as well as rose essence, which Gaurin says has a molecule present (methyl eugenol) that has mandated perfumers to limit the proportion they can use. David Moltz, Co-Founder of Brooklyn-based perfume house, D.S. & Durga adds, “most safety regulations in perfume restrict naturals. I can use a whole lot more habanolide (a synthetic musk) than I can rose, vetiver, or jasmine.”
When Michelle Pfeiffer first set out to create her fragrance collection Henry Rose, she hoped it would be organic and plant-based, but quickly learned in discussions with the Environmental Working Group that synthetics can in some cases be less allergenic than certain natural ingredients. “The safety profile is hard to regulate since the chemical nature of ingredients found in nature can vary from tree to tree and farm to farm,” says Debi Theis, President of Henry Rose. She goes on to add that “by using safe synthetics, we are able to eliminate most common allergens that would have naturally been present in aromatic oils extracted from botanical/plant sources.”
What’s more, recent studies suggest that key chemicals in plant-derived oils, such as lavender and tea tree, may disrupt the normal functioning of hormones.
The Dynamic Between Natural & Synthetic Materials
It’s worth noting that perfumers have been formulating with both synthetic and natural ingredients since the 19th century, so synthetics are nothing new. Without them, many scents that consumers have come to expect from their perfumes wouldn’t exist — think musky, clean, and fruity, which according to Gaurin, are very difficult to obtain with a 100% natural fragrance. Synthetics recreate the smell of natural ingredients when the natural raw materials are not available or cannot be extracted into an essential oil, such as florals like lilac and freesia. “We would not have the smell of almost any fruit note without synthetic molecules,” notes Dawn Goldworm, internationally-recognized olfactive expert and co-founder of olfactory branding company 12.29, “as we are unable to extract any smell from fruit (with the exception of citrus fruits).”
To better understand how these different ingredient types interact, Moltz equates perfumery to music. “Naturals are wonderful,” he says. “They [act] as the main players in most fragrances, but without synthetics they mostly become a mass of conflicting ideas. The blend of naturals and synthetics is what makes a perfume sing.” Artistically speaking, he feels that purely natural perfumes can lack clarity and structure, but an all-synthetic perfume can be jarring (though he notes that sometimes that can be interesting). From Gilbert’s perspective, the challenge with naturals is because they are so complex, fragrances can end up “muddy and heavy, with no lift, sparkle or radiance.” It is synthetics that bring these qualities to a perfume.
What’s especially interesting is that synthetic materials can often smell realer and more “natural” than the naturals themselves, with Goldworm noting “while raw materials are beautiful and complex, they can in fact smell completely different from what the consumer expects, because once they are in a form that can be used in perfumery, they don’t smell like ‘nature,’” she says.
There’s also the issue of cost, with Goldworm noting that “perfume products would be exponentially more expensive without synthetic ingredients.” It is much cheaper to synthesize an ingredient in the lab than it is to grow, harvest, and distill its natural counterpart, according to Dallmeier. “A typical synthetic may cost $50 per kilogram, while a typical natural may cost 10-100 times that,” she says.
What About The Environmental Impact?
There’s much to be said about the beauty industry’s environmental impact, and the fragrance sector is not exempt from that discussion. “It is generally much better for the environment if we are not harvesting whole populations of plants, flowers and trees to be turned into ingredients for the cosmetics industry,” says Lorraine Dallmeier, Chartered Environmentalist and CEO of online formulation school Formula Botanica. Many plants in the fragrance industry, including rosewood, Indian sandalwood, and frankincense, are suffering as a result of over-harvesting.
Hannah and George Lawrence, Co-Founders of London-based fine fragrance studio The 5th, hope to help remove the stigma around synthetics and to raise awareness of their advantages, particularly as a more environmentally friendly alternative to many natural ingredients. “Our use of safe synthetic ingredients helps to prevent the over-farming of natural ingredients at risk of extinction due to their demand for use in fragrance,” says Hannah Lawrence. Moltz agrees, stating that “Synthesizing molecules certainly can help lessen the burden on farmers and the environment, as can the responsible extraction of naturals,” and notes that most of the major perfume companies have these practices in place.
According to Gilbert, if all synthetic fragrance was switched to naturally derived ingredients, supply wouldn’t be able to keep pace with demand, making the entire industry wholly unsustainable. She encourages consumers to accept that sometimes lab-made is more environmentally-friendly than naturally-derived, and to be prepared to compromise for the sake of the environment (although sacrificing quality is not the issue in most cases).
What Type Of Perfume Should You Pick?
According to Gaurin, while it’s always challenging for a perfumer to not have access to the totality of their catalogue (even more of a challenge when you take out the synthetic ingredients) “difficult certainly doesn’t mean unattainable, and we have some fantastic examples of 95% [and up] natural origin fragrances,” he says. “It’s also important to remember that “at the end of the day, everything is a chemical,” says Goldworm, and even naturals ingredients contain chemicals.
Still, there are fragrance professionals who prefer to embrace the challenges of natural fragrances and raw ingredients, like Douglas Little, the perfumer behind Heretic Parfum. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Little shares “Using only natural materials is incredibly challenging because they are wildly expensive, difficult to obtain, can vary from batch to batch, and do not appeal to a broad audience, and this is why I love them,” he adds.
For the uninitiated, Lawrence encourages consumers to be more open to scents that use safe synthetics, and “know that in doing so, they are able to explore adventurous and unique creations beyond nature’s palette, that are safe, and help protect against the extinction of natural resources too,” she says.
If consumers are concerned about the use of naturals or synthetics in their perfumes, Goldworm suggests sticking to brands who follow IFRA protocol (which should be listed on their website). “We are an old industry based in craft and science,” she says. “Nothing is created in a vacuum without strict guidance and safety in place.”
As much is it might appeal to the clean beauty industry’s push to demonize certain ingredients, the reality is that naturally-derived options in fragrance are not always safer. As Moltz says, “The fantasy of clean is troublesome. Here are some unclean things that are toxic/carcinogenic: burnt food, potato chips, alcohol, red meat. We all do our best. If you eat burgers or fries, I think you’re fine to wear perfume.”
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