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English version | Test Drive: Forbidden issue

Notícias 7. 4. 2021

English version | The war on herbs

by Ana Saldanha

 

If you always dreamt of a relationship for life, think twice. Especially if that relationship is between you and a bottle of perfume. The love story with a signature scent hasn’t been the same since ingredient regulation got in the way. 

A sweet aroma in the air, maybe ginger or cinnamon, coming from the oven, from the kitchen, can transport us to those festive days at our grandparents' house. Fragrance and memory go hand in hand. We close our eyes and can connect certain smells to moments of our childhood or adolescence. We also can connect people to their perfumes of choice, and trademark fragrances that have been used since forever and because of that have become their smell. However, the consumer does not always notice that these fragrances - their fragrances - undergo reformulations and change components. Like other fields of the cosmetic world, the ingredients used in perfumes are under analysis and scrutiny. And they can even be banned.

Until the 19th century, perfumes were completely formulated with natural ingredients that were obtained by pressing or distilling plants. After that, chemists began to discover how molecular structures worked and how to isolate them and this was the embryo for modern perfumery. Guerlain's Jicky (1889), which can still be found in stores, is considered the first perfume formulated with the vertical structure that we know today - the one that contains top notes, heart notes, and base notes. These notes are classified according to the time it takes for them to evaporate: the top notes are the ones we smell first and the first to fade, the heart notes last longer and are the ones that define the perfume and the base notes are the final moments and those that last several hours after applying the perfume. Over the last few decades, concerns about allergens have been more and more frequent and made their way into perfumery. If traditional fragrances were mostly composed of natural extracts, now this is no longer the case: for budget reasons as well as for health concerns. While a synthetic ingredient is composed of only one molecule, natural raw materials are more complex, opening the way for some problems - the more ingredients there are in a formula, the bigger the chance that one of them is harmful.

“When we talk about perfumery, we are talking about a universe of products that obey to different segments and markets: the mass-market, the prestige market, the luxury, the niche, the independent and the handcrafted markets. The quality of the fragrances and the price depends on these segments with differentiated marketing and distribution. When we talk about the most common segment, the so-called mainstream luxury, the one we find in most perfume stores, in which the majority of brands are owned by fashion designers, the percentage of natural raw materials is very low, since natural raw materials are expensive and complex to obtain, with fluctuations in quality and price that are not in line with mass distribution. In a perfume of this range, I believe that there is less than 20% of natural extracts in the total concentrate, which is then diluted with alcohol. An exception will be Chanel, which focuses on the superior quality of its perfumes, and uses more natural raw materials. For example, the mythical Chanel Nº5 crucially depends on the roses and jasmines of Grasse, to such an extent that the brand owns its plantations,” tells Vogue Miguel Matos, perfumer distinguished with the award for Best Independent Perfume at the 2019 Art and Olfaction Awards. But what can send an ingredient to the blacklist? "To be banned, an ingredient may be carcinogenic, cause some type of allergy, hormonal disruption, photosensitization, irritation, or other health hazards. It may be related to pollution, animal cruelty or contribute to the extinction of plant species”, explains Miguel. 

Back to the famous Jicky, by the same time of its creation, a German called Albert Baur was creating musk, Baur. He created this synthetic fragrance when trying to create an explosive similar to TNT. The only thing explosive about this would be its historical value since this was considered the first synthetic molecule in perfumery. Six years later Baur created ketone musk, which would be the closest synthetic alternative to natural musk which was obtained by killing deer. Not only did Baur found a more ethical alternative, but it was also cheaper, becoming the choice of manufacturers. These alternatives to musk have become completely essential in perfumery for almost a century until research proved that this ingredient was photosensitizing and allergenic. Since then an alternative close enough to Musk Baur hasn’t been created. Other examples of molecules created for the delight of perfumers and fragrance fans are Ethylvanillin (Shalimar, Guerlain), Methyl dihydrojasmonate (Chanel No. 19), ethyl maltol (Angel, Mugler), and karanal (Gucci pour Homme).

The main regulator in the world of perfumery is the IFRA - International Fragrance Association, but just as in skincare and makeup, legislation is not unique and universal, and the European Union has tighter rules than other areas of the globe. “When we talk about ingredient restrictions, it is necessary to mention that they vary according to the continents and countries. In the European Union, which is the most austere scenario of all, without a doubt that oakmoss is the most worrying case, because a huge amount of perfumes, especially the classics, depend on this material. But also jasmine and rose are gradually being more restricted, and the time will probably come when it will be impossible to produce Chanel Nº5. At this moment all the chypre family was wiped out, as it very dependent on the oakmoss and the substitutes are not comparable. Also, the molecules that were used to recreate the scent of the lily of the valley, like lyral and the lilial, are completely prohibited. One ingredient that I particularly appreciate, which is costus, is also banned. The most recent limitations restrict the use of materials like benzyl benzoate, anise alcohol, cyclamen aldehyde, helional, cashmeran, etc.”, the specialist elaborates. Oakmoss, for example, has been the subject of scrutiny since it was suspected that two of its molecules would cause about 20% of contact allergies found in fragrances. But this ingredient is the heart of the chypre olfactory family (whose dominant notes are bergamot, amber, patchouli, and oakmoss, creating a sensual and woody atmosphere) and its synthetic version doesn’t have the same body, depth, and texture, experts say.

Currently, brands are only required to disclose 26 allergens in their compositions, but the path is to bring that number up to at least 100 ingredients. This would be a death sentence for Chanel No. 5 and Miss Dior, for example, and raises questions regarding the full disclosure of the formula, which would leave them unprotected against plagiarism and the counterfeit market since perfumes are not considered intellectual property. On the other hand, synthetic molecules can be protected by patents, leaving them in the hands of big corporations that have more money to invest in their research and creation, which does not leave many alternatives to independent perfumers and indie brands. In addition to the banned ingredients, there is also a list of restricted ingredients, whose percentage in the formulation must not exceed the number dictated by IFRA - some ingredients are prohibited over 0.01%. In many cases, we are looking at a complete reformulation of the formula, in others, only an adaptation. In the event of a banned ingredient it is possible to create a synthetic molecule to replace it, “but if we talk about a natural ingredient, it is almost impossible to recreate all its complexity in a lab”, explains the perfumer. 

Today, the perfumes we use contain a mixture of natural and synthetic ingredients with synthetics being more sought after since they are cheaper alternatives, lowering (even more) the costs of production and, therefore, increasing the final profit. Chemistry is at the service of perfumery and there are perfumers whose main task is to reformulate fragrances with new ingredients, keeping them as close as possible to their original version either to lower costs or to find alternatives to banned molecules. The world of perfumes is already used to adapting, but with the growth of the forbidden ingredient list and synthetic molecules failing to perfectly replicate the originals, the future doesn’t look very bright. There are rumors that Guerlain has received complaint letters about Shalimar, which has already undergone multiple reformulations since its creation in 1925, especially after 1990, when IFRA tightened regulations. “What we are seeing is a degradation of the quality and richness of the perfumes with each makeover. There are few successful cases, and almost always we hear consumers saying their perfume doesn’t smell like it once did” says Miguel. And for the ones who have a fragrance as a signature, a change, even a slight one, can cause a lifelong relationship to end.