The Right Stuff?
Word on the street is that
natural = good, synthetic = bad.
Hold on a minute, says Geza Schoen, life – and fragrance – are not so simple.
As human beings we have a profound feeling that nature is best. With food, for example. We don’t eat concrete or plastic for good reason. And while we do eat highly processed foods, we know they aren’t good for us.
It would seem logical that natural = good would hold true for perfumery too. But it isn’t that simple. Some fragrance ingredients can be reactive, particularly for people with sensitive skin. This is the kind of issue that IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) was set up to deal with. Over the last few decades, IFRA have been testing the raw materials of perfumery.
Nowadays perfumers are allowed to use only 3 parts per 1000 of natural lime oil.
What they found was that naturals can be particularly reactive. As a result they have restricted ingredients that most of us would assume were super-benign. Citrus oils for example. Nowadays perfumers are allowed to use only 3 parts per 1000 of lime oil (at a 20% dosage) because it is photo-sensitising. At that concentration the effect of lime oil is zero. If you smell lime in a fragrance, you will be smelling lemon oil with some added sweet notes or else a furocoumarin-stripped lime oil which has nothing to do anymore with the lime peel we all love.
For centuries we had dozens of mosses for per- fumery, now we are down to three or four.
Some of the most beautiful natural materials are now banned. Real musk was banned in the early nineties. I am 100% supportive of this one, because the animal has to be killed for the musk to be extracted, and there aren’t that many musk deer out there. When you see ‘musk’ listed as a fragrance ingredient, it’s not real musk, it’s a synthetic equivalent. The truth though is that there is no exact equivalent of musk. It is irreplaceable. And probably the best thing I have ever smelt.
Costus root is a natural ingredient with a weird and sexy smell like nothing else out there. It was banned around the same time as musk. After that, IFRA started in on the mosses. For centuries we had dozens of mosses available for perfumery. Now we are down to three or four, and we can use them only in small amounts. This has had a huge effect on most classic men’s fragrances and some women’s too, where moss has been a major part of their character.
Just like chefs who need the full range of seasonings to make exquisite dishes, perfumers need the full palette of materials.
And there are important synthetics which have gone too, like Lyral and Lilial. Lyral and Lilial are radiant, stable, beautiful, inexpensive to produce, and so unique that perfumers are scratching their heads over how to replace them.
What about when it comes to aesthetics - Are natural ingredients superior to synthetics there? For me, the answer is a definite no. Fragrances that are made of all-natural ingredients miss the radiance that only synthetics can give. On the other hand, all-synthetic perfumes usually smell pretty awful. They miss the complexity and beauty of the naturals. This is why only very few molecules would work for Escentric Molecules, where we foreground a single molecule. They are the rare molecules which have a complex character, closer in this way to a natural.
Fragrances made of all-natural ingredients miss the radiance that only synthetics can give.
Here’s the other thing, many synthetic molecules are identical to molecules found in naturals anyway. These are isolates, the first of which was coumarin, which smells of new-mown hay, and was isolated from tonka beans 150 years ago. Whether isolates are isolated from a natural source or today created in the lab, the molecule that results is the same.
Lets take the example of eucalyptus oil, which is 80-90% eucalyptol. We can produce eucalyptol easily in the laboratory. But because eucalyptus exists in such vast quantities it is normally extracted from the natural oil.
We are lucky that most flowers did not evolve to smell like the titan arum of Indonesia.
Linalool is found in a million flowers and fruits. It’s the most basic floral ingredient there is. It too can be isolated from nature, from bergamot for example. Bergamot oil costs around €100 per kilo, and linalool is about 30% of bergamot, which means linalool extracted this way costs €300 per kilo. But you can also produce linalool in the lab for €10 per kilo. It’s the self-same molecule, of the self-same quality – a no-brainer. Tens of thousands of tons of linalool are produced every year for perfumed products. Making it in the lab means you don’t have to exhaust natural resources to produce it.
Nature has been kind to us humans when it comes to perfumery. We are lucky that most flowers did not evolve to smell like the titan arum of Indonesia. It is pollinated by insects that feed on rotting flesh, and it smells disgusting. Instead, most flowers evolved to smell sweet and delicious to bees and other airborne pollinators, but also, coincidentally, to humans. The evolution of flowers worked out well for us.
I love the richness of the natural materials in perfumery, and I love the different, purer scent profile of synthetics. To my mind, naturals and synthetics complement each other beautifully. Just like chefs who need the full range of spices, herbs, oils and seasonings to make exquisite dishes, perfumers need the full palette of materials to produce the best perfumes.