The Beauty Desk
The latest beauty news & views, direct from PRIMPED HQ!
Natural vs Synthetic Fragrance. Or, When a Rose is Not a Rose.
Wed, 15 August 2012 11:38AM
I was chatting to a girlfriend the other day and we got onto the subject of fragrance (if it’s not Ryan Gosling or Revenge or rising electricity costs, it’s usually something beauty-related). “I only wear natural perfume,” she declared. Funny thing is, her favourite fragrance is far from ‘natural’. It might smell like a field of fresh flowers, and it might cost a bomb, which suggests that it should only contain oils that have been hand-wrung out of a thousand roses, but, hate to tell you, most such scents are actually chock-a-block full of chemicals. Not that this is a bad thing. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
Thing is, the perfume industry loves to fuel the myth that perfume is all-natural. For instance, take the press releases we writers receive with every new fragrance. They wax lyrical about their notes (scent-speak for ingredients), which are everything from night-blooming Indian jasmine to dawn-ripening Tibetan berries to mimosa soaked by the southern Italian sun … You picture the perfumer trekking to every corner of the globe, bringing a basket of fruit and flowers back to the lab to extract and then bottle it all up.
But little in this lovely, perfumed world is what it seems, or smells. Where you imagine freshly-plucked grass or a juicy orange bursting from its peel, chances are you’re in fact inhaling a synthetic molecule that has been concocted to evoke such an aroma.
One of my beauty idols is author and fragrance critic Chandler Burr. In his fabulous book, The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, he writes about how frustrated he is that the fragrance industry isn’t more transparent. He notes that the average perfume contains 80 percent synthetic ingredients. Which, in his opinion, are mini works of art. “Not only are synthetics fascinating; they’re basically completely misunderstood by everyone,” he writes.
A quick history lesson: once upon a time, perfumers only got to play with around a couple of hundred ingredients, which were all derived directly from nature. In the late 19th century, new fragrance technology opened up a world of synthetic molecule possibilities. If it weren’t for synthetics, we wouldn’t have the Guerlain masterpieces that are Jicky (from 1889), L’Heure Bleue (1912), Mitsouko (1919) and Shalimar (1925). Nor would we have the ultimate classic, Chanel No.5.
You often hear perfumers say that a dash or two of synthetic makes an otherwise all-natural blend ‘sing’. “A little bit of synthetic can make the natural better,” consultant fragrance designer John Lambeth once told me. “It’s like a cotton t-shirt containing a little elastin – it makes the fit that much better.”
There’s also the argument that natural isn’t always the superior option. In an article for The New York Times, my fragrance writing crush Burr noted that “a low-quality natural narcissus is going to smell like garbage”, and that nature-sourced ingredients are actually more likely to cause an allergic reaction. What’s more, natural may not always be green – according to Lambeth, “Indian sandalwood has been harvested to near oblivion, so synthetic sandalwoods are much more eco-friendly, plus in instances like this, synthetics ensure a consistent and long-term supply.” Interesting, huh?
Lambeth adds that synthetic is the ethical (not to mention legal) choice when it comes to animalic ingredients; think musk, once extracted from the private parts of poor musk deer. (As to how anyone thought to look there for a fragrance note in the first place … well, let’s not go there).
Synthetic notes also allow perfumers to recreate aromas that nature won’t give up; for example, lily of the valley, which has no essential oil. In this case, perfumers mix and match molecules until they’re close to their perception of, say, lily of the valley. There’s all sorts of clever fragrance technology that helps perfumers capture such elusive smells. You might have heard of ‘Headspace’ or ‘molecular extraction’, which are commonly used to recreate all sorts of food smells, from fruits to popcorn.
Oh and one more pro-synthetic point: recreating natural notes may also mean a lower priced perfume. Not that you want to go too low. This is when cheap chemicals are used and the result is a rose fragrance so rank you wouldn’t even want to scent your toilet with it.
I know I sound a little anti-natural. I don’t mean to. I’m a happy hippie at heart. I love my organic oils and sulphate-free shampoos and vegan goodness. And there are some great natural scents around. For example, the 100%-organic Honoré des Prés (from Libertine Parfumerie), or the Korres fragrances (Kit), which use rosemary instead of phthalates as their fragrance fixative. Clever.
But mostly, the best fragrances are a mix of natural and synthetic. Like that perfect-fitting t-shirt.
Do you agree, Primpettes? Or would you prefer your perfume totally au naturel?
And what perfume are you wearing right now?
Posted by: Katrina Lawrence