In 1884, the debut of Houbigant’s Fougère Royale marked the perfume world’s first use of coumarin, a vanilla-like aroma compound first synthesised from tonka beans in 1820. The blend of coumarin with lavender and oakmass inspired the fougère olfactive family, still used as a base for perfumes today. Chanel No. 5, launched in 1921, wasn’t the first perfume to use aldehydes, but its overdose of the synthetic chemicals among familiar floral notes created a scent unlike anything found in nature.
A century later, perfume trends have swung in the opposite direction: Chanel No. 5 might still be a top seller, but consumers are craving new scents made from natural products. Brands tout their plant-derived ingredients, from essential oils to sugarcane alcohol. Some promise a “clean” perfume, which are free from a long list of allegedly harmful chemicals. Others aim to show their fragrances are made with minimal environmental impact.
The trend has inspired a technology arms race. Firmenich, a giant in the fragrances and flavours world, in 2020 launched dreamwood, a biodegradable sandalwood alternative. Last month, Coty announced it was teaming up with LanzaTech to develop ethanol from carbon emissions. The goal is to make the majority of its perfumes with carbon-neutral alcohol by 2023. And in April, Givaudan, a Firmenich rival, launched Blossom Lab, a mobile laboratory made from repurposed shipping containers that will allow the company to process natural ingredients at their origins.
For consumers, the onslaught of clean and green branding can be confusing. Many of the chemicals on clean brands’ “free from” lists have little scientific evidence to support claims they are harmful. And switching from synthetics to natural ingredients can involve tradeoffs.
“It’s something like 10,000 pounds of rose petals to get one pound of rose oil … if you chemically synthesise, you can use half a gallon of oil and you can make half a gallon of rose oil,” said cosmetic chemist Perry Romanowski. “It’s a different story about sustainability. And so it depends which one you’re going to follow.”
Creating a safer or more ecologically-friendly perfume is far more complicated than simply going back to nature. But with consumers more concerned about cosmetics’ impact on the environment, brands have ample motivation to make their products as sustainable — or seemingly sustainable — as possible.
A Rose by Any Other Name
In the fragrance world, the natural vs. synthetic battle lines have been drawn around essential oils, the compounds derived from natural plant materials like bergamot or rose using a variety of extraction methods, like cold pressing or hydrodistillation. Unlike many synthetic ingredients, essential oils are derived from renewable resources rather than petrochemicals. Proponents believe they offer greater nuance and complexity than their chemical counterparts, as well as a connection to traditional perfume production methods.
“Working with essential oils and pure, plant materials rather than synthetic aroma chemicals creates dynamic fragrances that have authenticity that connects the wearer to the plants and places of origin,” said Douglas Little, founder of natural perfume brand Heretic, in an email. “Essential oils have a sheerness to them that makes them like watercolours.”
But the molecules responsible for aroma are identical in their chemical structure whether they are isolated from an essential oil or synthesised in a lab, said Nadeem Crowe, founder of vegan perfume brand Rook.
“If brands really cared about sustainability, they wouldn’t be launching all these new products.”
“If I say that I’ve used some Damascus rose essential oil, that will be taken as a very positive thing,” Crowe said. “If I say that I’ve used beta damascone, citronellol, geraniol, and phenethyl alcohol, people go, ‘I don’t want to touch it.’ When in fact, those are the four things that make roses smell like roses.”
Consumers won’t always know which version they’re getting. In the US, regulators do not require ingredient labels to list the components of a product’s scent, and the European Union only requires certain allergens to be disclosed on fragrance labels.
Some clean brands, like By Rosie Jane and Henry Rose, list all of their ingredients on their websites. Consumers can then cross-check them against no-go chemical lists of their choosing. Even these labels don’t list the amount of ingredients in each bottle; fragrance formulations can’t be copyrighted in the US or EU, so too much transparency would open brands up to copycats.
“If we were to do that, that would be our whole intellectual property on a label,” said Charlotte Purcell, technical director of CPL Aromas, which develops fragrances for brands such as Molton Brown and Penhaligon’s.
Masking the Scent
A fragrance’s environmental impact can be clearer cut — though not always.
Perfumery has contributed to the endangerment of certain plants and animals, including musk deer and sandalwood. Many fragrance producers have switched to synthetic alternatives to those popular aromas (even Heretic uses synthetic aroma chemicals to create the musk notes in its new Bergamusk scent).
When Julian Bedel founded his brand, Fueguia 1833, in Argentina in 2010, he used natural ingredients largely out of necessity, as high rates of inflation and import restrictions made it difficult to source synthetic materials from abroad.
Since relocating his manufacturing to Italy, Bedel advocates the use of synthetics and naturals that are developed with more sustainable technology, such as fermentation. The brand’s Muskara Phero J fragrance uses civetone, made from citronella, as a starting source rather than musk. But substitutes don’t come cheap; civetone costs up to €7,000 per kilo.
“There are synthetics that come from green sources, or from biotech, which are spectacular. We use that a lot for substitution of animal origin notes,” says Bedel. “For example, for musk, Muskara Phero J has civetone, which is produced with citronella as the starting source.” But such products don’t come cheap; Muskara Phero J retails for $346 per 100ML bottle.
Bedel points to recaptured carbon dioxide as a potential path to creating more sustainable, and safer, ingredients in the form of supercritical CO2 extraction. The method compresses carbon dioxide into a liquid, which then acts as a solvent to draw out aroma compounds from plant materials like vanilla or rose. Unlike other extraction methods, it doesn’t leave behind trace solvents or use high levels of heat.
The ingredients responsible for a perfume’s fragrance are a relatively small part of the overall formula, however, the majority, upwards of 60 percent depending on its concentration, is alcohol. Coty’s partnership with LanzaTech takes the principle of recaptured carbon dioxide and applies it to ethanol, the chemical name for alcohol. The partnership aims to manufacture the majority of the perfumes in Coty’s portfolio, which includes brands like Gucci and Lacoste, with ethanol created from recycled industrial emissions.
The most environmentally sustainable action available to brands is perhaps not the most economically viable, however.
“If brands really cared about sustainability, they wouldn’t be launching all these new products,” said Romanowski, the chemist. “We’ve got plenty of products. They’re not different. There’s plenty of things out there, and every new brand that comes out is just adding to the problem.”