Caroline Dumur

Caroline Dumur: “Without synthetics, you have to learn to formulate differently”

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When they work for several brands, perfumers have to deal with different accepted definitions of what is natural as well as various specifications. How do they cope? And how does the formulating process differ between natural and traditional perfumes? We asked Caroline Dumur, a perfumer at IFF in Paris, who brings the same curiosity and enthusiasm to the mainstream fragrances (for brands like Yves Rocher and Paco Rabanne, auteur fragrances (such as Comme des Garçons) and, more recently, natural fragrances she creates.

When did you first work on a natural perfume?

It was two years ago, for Corps volatils and Bastille Parfums. Briefs for natural perfumes still come mostly from small independent brands, although the bigger brands are now starting to show an interest. An evaluator I work with asked me if I’d be interested in these sorts of projects. I thought the approach was interesting because it forced me to take a step back from what I had been taught: I needed to learn all over again. Working on a 100% natural formula means looking for balance so that the result is appealing, pleasant for the consumer. It’s a real challenge.

Is it difficult to make a “beautiful” natural perfume?

Yes, because naturals are very powerful ingredients. You have to learn how to tame them. And also because, when you have consumers blind-smelling a rose essential oil next to a rose accord created with different molecules, they usually prefer the second option. Paradoxically, they find the reconstructed version more “natural”.

How does working on a 100% natural perfume differ from working on a traditional perfume?

First there’s the palette! All of a sudden, you go from a little over 1,000 raw materials available for traditional perfumes to… hardly anything. If we stick to essential oils and absolutes, there are about 100 ingredients. That said, we are lucky at IFF that LMR Naturals gives us access to extracts of natural raw materials that are purer and easier to use, even when overdosed. One example is our patchouli heart, which is a patchouli without the humid, earthy facets. It is obtained by molecular distillation or by fractioning the patchouli essential oil, which allows us to keep only the molecules we are interested in, such as patchoulol. Since there are no solvents involved in the process, and since the initial product isn’t transformed, the result is considered 100% pure and natural.

What about absolutes, which are obtained by a process involving solvents? Are they considered natural?

It depends on the brand. Some brands accept absolutes without restriction, others under the condition that the residual solvent – hexane, generally – stays under a certain amount of ppm [parts per million].

Do you think that banning hexane, even in minuscule amounts, is justified? 

The industry is looking for alternatives, but so far it remains the best solvent we have to extract fragile flowers. The one that offers the best yields and stays closest to the natural ingredient. And we can be thankful for it, because without the absolutes we’d be missing a lot. Imagine composing formulas without orange blossom, without jasmine, without narcissus!

It would certainly be pretty miserable… Besides your palette, what else changes when you formulate a natural perfume?

Composing a perfume is like making a 3D puzzle. Without synthetics, we lose colours, but also volumes. For instance, we can’t use Amber Xtreme to give power to the composition, or Hedione to give it a fresh, petal-like feeling and binds the elements together. This binding effect can be sorely missed because natural ingredients are very complex: some are made of hundreds of different odorant molecules. You have to find ways to create harmony between their different facets, and it’s a painstaking task. Without synthetics, you have to learn to formulate differently. But personally, that’s precisely what sparked my interest. 

What other differences do you come across in this kind of project?

We often work at lower concentrations than usual. It allows us to use more of these natural raw materials, which are often more expensive, and it has olfactory value too. It makes it easier to smell all the facets of the ingredients, it lets them unfold in 3D instead of overlaying each other. When you’re composing a natural perfume, there’s a risk that everything ends up “flat”. 

Are your specifications always the same from one “natural” project to another?

No. For some brands, the natural dimension only includes essential oils, for others it also comprises absolutes. As for molecules, some brands only want molecules extracted from natural ingredients while others accept “nat derived” ingredients.

What is “nat derived”?

It’s a term related to the ISO 16128 standard [which came into effect in 2017]. For a molecule to be considered “nat derived”, it must comply with two criteria: that its proportion of renewable carbon is above 50%, and that it is produced in accordance with the principles of green chemistry, which means using chemical reactions that exist in nature. But some brands, especially the biggest companies, go further and require a 100% renewable carbon rate to consider a molecule as “nat derived”. So it always depends on the client’s definition. 

If I’ve got it right, a synthetic molecule can be labelled “nat derived”? 

Yes. Let’s take the example of citronellol. If I want to use it, I’ve got three options in my palette. I have natural citronellol, obtained by distilling eucalyptus, a synthetic citronellol, and a nat-derived citronnelol, obtained from an essential oil through reduction followed by hydrodistillation.

From an olfactory point of view, are there differences between the three citronnellols?

Yes, there are variations because the starting point isn’t the same. And the prices are different too. As a perfumer, I need to be able to choose between the three, depending on the project I’m working on. For a traditional fragrance, I can use them all. When the formula has to be labelled nat derived, I can use the nat-derived and the natural version. And for a natural project… it depends on the client!

Exactly, because some brands following the natural perfume trend are not 100% natural: for example, Bastille Parfums chose to set the bar at 95% of natural ingredients.

Bastille Parfums meets another ISO standard, 9235. The brand decided that its final product had to contain 95% of natural ingredients. Since the concentrate [the combination of aromatic raw materials] is diluted to 15% in natural wheat alcohol, it must contain at least two thirds of natural ingredients for the final product to be 95% natural.

How do you cope with all these different definitions of what is natural?

We have a dedicated team that helps us understand the specificities of each brand and develops a palette of custom ingredients in line with their specifications. We can call on these tools when formulating. 

What about consumers? How can they navigate between all these different views of what is natural? 

There is a lack of education about naturals as well as synthetics, and it’s understandable because the subject is very hard to master, even for me with a degree in chemistry! I think that brands need to communicate better, take time to explain things, like Bastille does, for example. It’s very complex, and consumers can’t educate themselves. I think that, at a certain point, the big companies [that own perfume brands] will have to get involved. 

What sort of things do you think consumers need to have explained? 

First of all, that there is no hierarchy for us perfumers between natural and synthetic ingredients. That naturals are expensive, but that some synthetics are very expensive too. That some brands use high proportions of natural ingredients but don’t mention it, like Frédéric Malle, for example. That synthetics can be “green” because certain molecules are produced in a very responsible way. For example, Iso E Super is produced by upcycling waste from the paper industry. Synthetics can sometimes help reduce the impact of other industries! And finally, that 100% natural is not a bed of roses: naturals are where you find the biggest rates of allergens! I would add that we mustn’t forget where modern perfumery comes from. It is thanks to the advent of synthesis in the 19th century that perfumes really blossomed and that creating them became a much more interesting field. At first, synthesis involved extracting molecules from natural products. Then we started synthetizing molecules that didn’t exist in nature, which added even more shades to our palette. If we do away with all of that we lose two centuries of creation and, as far as I’m concerned, it would be a real shame.

The question of allergens is interesting: there is a widespread misconception that natural means safe.

Yes, I’ve seen briefs for 100% natural perfumes that had to be free of allergens too. And our answer was: “it’s not going to happen!” Unless we use only sandalwood and cedar, we can’t do it. Which goes to show that there is a misunderstanding of what naturals are: beautiful products for sure, but not necessarily safer than the others. That said, we should put things into perspective: there are so many tests, checks and norms in our industry that perfume, in general, is a very, very safe product! 

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