Scent Sleuth: Natural Fragrances—Creating Balance

“On a woman, a natural flower scent smells artificial. Perhaps, a natural perfume must be created artificially.”—Coco Chanel

With all of the focus on the environment these days, consumers are looking for ways to reduce exposure to chemicals—including those in personal care products. This emphasis on a return to nature begs the question: Can we improve on Mother Nature?

The natural fragrance trend itself is a marketer’s dream, and, therefore, a positive answer to the question above would be a boon. However, “natural” is a confusing term in the labeling of products. There are no official government definitions, and numerous organizations are in the midst of a battle to position their guidelines as the most appropriate and apt for labeling. But even the nomenclature is baffling. How can a consensus on nomenclature for what is natural and what is not be achieved when there are so many divergent motives and opinions? Further, organizational certification seals meant to guide consumers tend to add an additional layer of confusion—they tend to be just another aspect of the label consumers don’t really understand.

One thing, though, is clear—consumers, right or wrong, tend to believe anything termed natural or plant derived is better for them. Even when the nature-based ingredients on the label are at such minimal percentages as to have little benefits or, in reality, afford the product no natural merit, the claims still sway.

In fragrances, the natural label creates a very difficult quandary for the brand owner. Developing a natural line of personal care products that includes legitimately natural fragrances is an incredible challenge. In addition to being from a natural source and not derived from a petroleum stock, there are clear limits in the types of pleasant scents that can also achieve natural labeling goals.

Most companies tend to include the fragrance with the 5.0% allowable “other” materials on the label, which also allows for the achievement of some natural certifications, despite the presence of synthetic ingredients. Most ingredient listings, in fact, list the fragrance components simply as “fragrance.”

And if “natural” as a label claim isn’t confusing enough to consumers, the fragrance material itself tends to be somewhat difficult to categorize. Consider, many of the components of a naturally occurring flower or plant can be extracted, and those extraction methods can vary. So once there is an overarching agreement of what “natural” means in personal care labeling, what are the implications to the creation of the scent itself? Will the scrutiny reserved for the former shift to the latter? Not if common sense prevails and there is an honest evaluation of what actually best meets true consumer desire.

According to Ashley Wilberding, a perfumer at Mane who trained in France, fragrances that meet some of the more stringent definitions of natural are unlikely, because many require synthetic solvents.

Natural in Modern Perfumery

Naturals are, in fact, being used less and less in modern perfumery because modern chemistry has made it possible to duplicate the odoriferous portion of plant and flower molecules. When they are used, natural ingredients tend to be only a component of a blend, allowing the creation of beautiful new bases. These blends provide far more character and diffusion, and are simply more interesting. In addition, the use of natural fragrance materials has other intrinsic disadvantages—including prohibitive costs, dwindling supply, lack of solubility, increased allergen issues, quality inconsistencies from crop to crop, and resulting color changes.

“Modern perfumery is indeed a blend of the wonderful aromatics developed from naturals,” says Wilberding. “In fact, natural florals are so expensive that they would be prohibitive to use in any significant amount. Naturals also produce more allergens, since they have many trace materials that we have no control over.”

She notes that Colipa, the European cosmetics association, stipulates that baby products must be hypoallergenic—meaning that the raw materials, including fragrance, cannot contain naturals due to potential allergens.

In her own work, Wilberding says she always likes to use at least a trace of natural materials to create warmth and beauty on the skin. But it is likely consumers would be less then enthusiastic about fragrance if perfumery reverted back to an almost total use of natural materials. Fragrances created this way would have little lift and diffusion. They would be rich, heavy and long-lasting on the skin, but they would lack the enveloping quality of modern fragrances. Tastes have changed, and fragrance does not exist in a bubble. Modern perfumery has evolved to suit the needs and tastes of consumers, who also want something new all of the time.

Steve DeMercado, perfumer and vice president of Fragrance Resources, feels that limiting raw materials to fit a natural product seal is far too limiting for the expansive world of raw materials that’s been developed in perfumery. “There are few pluses to a totally natural fragrance,” he says. “They tend to be mostly psychological for the consumer.”

He, too, notes both the limitations in natural materials and the benefits of judicious use, particularly in covering bases in functional products and candles. “Few naturals would hold up in stability to achieve the aroma or diffusion we are looking for,” he says. The best blends, may include a small inclusion of naturals, he says. Where cost permits, DeMercado uses a small amount of natural bergamot, tuberose or iris to enhance a synthetic formula.

For now, as various arguments for the reduction of synthetics are also weighed by those marketing to consumers, it is clear that answers to natural vs. synthetic material questions will hinge on the level of use that (either singularly or in combination) produce salable results. To the question: Can we improve upon Mother Nature? In scent, absolutely—when we partner with her to complement innovative technology, and use temperance and caution with some of our chemical advancements.

Nancy C. Hayden is a chemist and a pharmacist with more than 30 years in the fragrance industry. She worked as a nose for Jovan from the company’s beginnings and as fragrance director for Jovan Beecham until 1988. Currently, she is a consultant to the fragrance and cosmetic industries.

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