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Creating Effective Natural Fragrances

By: Helen Feygin, Intuiscent
Posted: June 1, 2007

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The fragrance may need an additional spark of green notes to make it juicier, essential oils that fill the middle notes to add body and, especially today, you always need a sweet nuance. In a conventional fragrance, underscoring sweetness would not be a problem—just a touch of vanillin or ethyl vanillin, heliotropine or coumarin, depending on your creativity and project objectives. This same task is not so easy if the fragrance is all natural (or natural/organic); vanilla absolute and tonka beans are expensive. And, even if you can afford to use them, you will still need to solubilize them using natural solvents or fixed oils such as jojoba, grape seed or almond. A good perfumer can overcome these obstacles only to be faced with an even more rigorous task: creating a natural fruit fragrance.

There is no blueberry essential oil available to make a fragrance smell like blueberries, nor are there grape or raspberry oils. Matching these fruits with a palette of synthetic materials such as methyl anthranilate and raspberry ketone would be achievable, if not easy, for most perfumers. But limiting oneself solely to naturals, this process becomes a true test of creativity. As Lee Castleman, the perfumer with whom I work, says: you need to trust your nose and use materials that exhibit the notes you are looking for as nuances. Look for fruitiness in davana oil or fruity freshness in a combination of citrus and green naturals.

Cost and Regulatory Factors
The last—though definitely not least—point that I would like to make concerns essential oils and their availability. The constant and consistent pressure to lower fragrance costs is driving essential oil suppliers to stretch their stocks. It is therefore difficult to find essential oils that accurately represent the aroma of what the true oil should smell like, whether it is geranium Maroc oil or rose Maroc, rosemary Tunisian (not Spanish) and so forth. The “perfumery grade” 30 has come to mean a lower quality essential oil; one has to go to the P&N (pure and natural) or organic grade to find a great smelling gem.

On the other hand, the prices of essential oils are skyrocketing—how can anyone afford to use sandalwood oil at $1,600 per kilo, or rose absolute at $2,000 per kilo? In a trend that is diametrically opposed to the demand for natural fragrances, some essential oils are starting to disappear from the market (as Berje’s Kim Bleimann recently noted in a speech to the WFFC); juniper berry and rue oils are scarce. And one cannot address this topic without a word about regulations, which add a great deal of difficulty to the natural fragrance creation. The European COLIPA regulation identified 26 potential allergens and requires listing them on the product’s label. At first blush, this doesn’t appear to be such a big issue; however, the natural product manufacturers don’t want to list chemical (INCI) names like linalool and citral on the label of a product that claims to be natural. This alone eliminates a whole range of essential oils from the perfumer’s palette. The fact that the oil is natural doesn’t exempt it from the eagle eyes of COLIPA. Even if the ingredient is a natural constituent of the oil, it needs to be listed.

The complications in working with natural materials are well compensated by the sparkling elegance they impart to fragrances. Wonderful fragrances can be created using only naturals, the way it has been done since perfumery’s dawn. Synthetics, on the other hand, are essential as well—they extend perfumers’ palettes, adding complexity and diversity. The current “greening” culture and socio-economic trends have created very suspicious consumers who want to draw on the forces of nature by using all natural fragrances (whatever that may mean to each individual) and avoiding unnecessary contact with synthetics. In truth, there is room in the marketplace for safe synthetics and naturals, often complementarily blended together in the service of a fantastic fragrance.