It takes 10,000 rose flowers to produce one pound of essential oil. Natural disasters and fluctuations in harvest yield mean these raw materials are more prone to supply-chain shortages and potentially different odor profiles. The market has seen a recent influx of “clean” fragrances, but the term itself is unregulated, although it often denotes natural ingredients. These can have quality control issues. India Times claims that 98% of the country’s perfumes and essential oils are adulterated. In a counteract effort, producers are curbing their environmental impact. Firmenich recently signed a partnership with Coop SCA3P to ensure a sustainable farming model for its lavandin supplies.
Another argument on the naturals vs synthetics front is allergen potential: some consumers argue that naturals are “less toxic” than synthetics. In a recent study, 34.7% of the US population reported migraines and respiratory issues after being exposed to fragranced products, although this category wasn’t limited to fragrances, and it wasn’t specified whether these were naturals, synthetics, or a mix of both. “There is a tendency to believe that natural is safer than synthetic but it’s simply not true,” states perfumer Karen Gilbert. “Natural materials are highly concentrated and packed full of allergens.” In the example of rose, the essential oil has over 275 constituents, whereas the synthetic variant is a single molecule, meaning the likelihood of an allergic reaction is less. Synthetics also need to undergo safety testing before launching to market. Look at IFRA’s list of banned or regulated raw materials and you will come across naturals and synthetics alike.
Natural fragrances have a shorter shelf life than their conventional counterparts, wear more subtly on the skin, and are often more costly due to the higher price of the ingredients. Most independent perfumers will nonetheless use a mix of naturals and synthetics to get the best of both worlds in their creations. In the future, transparent supply chains and ethical sourcing will play a large part in ensuring consumer trust.
A recent fusion of manmade technology with earthgrown ingredients are amplified naturals. Firmenich’s 100% natural Dreamwood is a white biotechnology-engineered captive using sandalwood oil. IFF’s Patchouli Heart N. 3 employs both hydro and fractional distillation of the plant for a more refined aroma profile. Coty partnered with LanzaTech to create carbon-captured ethanol (the alcohol used in spray fragrances) in its products. L’Atelier Français Des Matières, launched by former global head of natural specialties & ethical sourcing at Givaudan Rémi Pulvérail, focuses on expert smallholder agriculture and small-batch distillation, crafting a more bespoke approach to raw material cultivation and processing. For example, their solvent extraction uses green chemicals, aided by ultrasound, reducing extraction time and required temperature for the process.
Simply put, the concept of “clean” fragrance is largely marketing, although fragrance producers and houses should be more transparent about the source and quality of their ingredients. Follow your nose, but also read the fine print (and a scientific study or two).