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INCI Name: Fragrance

By: Steve Herman
Posted: November 1, 2011, from the November 2011 issue of GCI Magazine.

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In 1970, changes were underway that fundamentally altered the fragrance landscape. The world of perfume technology pre-1970 was a very different one. Formulas were written by hand, the process of creating fragrances was almost a cult only practiced by a small group of initiates, and duplicating a fragrance accurately was a difficult process involving many hours of an experienced perfumers’ time. The results were never 100% accurate. And so it was quite reasonable that companies were firmly opposed to revealing the ingredients, and even if the ingredients were disclosed, a fragrance can have more than 100 components, so labeling each would be almost impossible.

In 1970, however, the GC-MS was introduced to the industry, dramatically lowering the barrier to duplicating a fragrance. A fragrance is a mixture of many chemicals intimately blended in a homogeneous liquid. The GC (mass chromatograph) separated the mixture into its individual components, allowing backwards engineering of the composition.

The GC output is initially just lines on paper, and someone can sniff at the output vent and identify the components, or a lot of known materials can be put through the machine so peaks can be identified by their location on the graph. Quantities can be estimated by the area contained by the peak. The MS (mass spectrometer) takes the individual peaks, blasts them apart and generates a component analysis. There still must be a computer library to clarify the output, and an experienced perfumer or chemist to complete the task, but it is all efficient and accurate. If the fragrance is in a product such as a shampoo or lotion, it can be separated with solvents and then analyzed. Every company does these duplications routinely both as a response to projects (“I want something that smells like Hypothetical Shampoo”) or to have the accords in the perfumers arsenal (“Here’s the report on the new Hypothetical Air Freshener). Consumers don’t copy fragrances, companies copy each other’s fragrances.

So fragrances are not really secret intellectual property anymore, at least not from the competition. The fragrance ingredients are only secrets to consumers—and modern consumers hate secrets, especially when it involves something they smell or put on their skin. This opens the door wide to industry critics, one of which describes fragrance as “an unspecified mix of chemicals likely to contain phthalates and allergens.” Not true, but how do we, the industry, correct the misconception that spreads to our consumers? Besides technology and the Internet itself, the biggest change since 1970 involves the level and speed of which consumer activism spreads. And the spreading of false or misleading information is easier than communicating facts.1 The science of fragrance safety is harder to promote than hot button words such as parabens, phthalates, endocrine disruptors and “chemicals” and the connotation of “bad.”

The only way to win in a battle such as this is complete disclosure. A fragrance formula may be cumbersome to put on a label, but not to place on a website. Some companies have made an effort to get fragrance information on their sites, with limited success due to push back from within the industry itself. The only way to make disclosure a reality is for a critical mass of brand owners to demand the information is open and available. Nomenclature is a valid issue to be examined. Some fragrance names do not trip off the tongue, for instance methyl 2,6,10-trimethylcyclododeca-2,5,9-trien-1-yl ketone—but undecylamidopropyltrimonium methosulfate doesn’t seem a problem for cosmetics. So long, ugly names work in practice.