The many facets of natural perfumery: some useful definitions

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My perfume is 100% natural. Yes, but what does that mean? What exactly does it contain? Well, it depends!

That’s because the notion of natural perfume has many different facets, which goes some way to explaining the olfactory versatility on display when we compare different brands. The fact is that perfume houses can choose from several standards and certifications to apply to their creations. 

Here are the main choices, from the most restrictive to the most flexible. 

Cosmos Organic 
Applied at the European level to cosmetics and fragrances, this certification is granted by Ecocert and allows perfumers to use essential oils, CO2 extracts, natural isolates and only the absolutes obtained using naturally-sourced ethanol (such as vanilla and tonka bean absolutes).
It also accepts ingredients obtained from the bioconversion of natural raw materials as long as they are not GMOs and do not contain any residual solvent (such as certain lactones made from fermenting the fatty acids in vegetable oil, for example).
Ingredients sourced from animals must not cause the animal’s death (this is the case for beeswax but not castoreum).
20% or less of the final product’s ingredients must be certified organic as well as 95% of the plant-based ingredients. 
This represents around 20% of the perfumer’s palette.

Cosmos Natural
Added to the list of raw materials authorised by Cosmos Organic are all absolutes, concretes and resinoids obtained with petrochemical solvent, such as hexane, as well as ingredients obtained from the bioconversion, including those whose bioconversion involves synthetic solvents, but without the minimum percentage of organic ingredients.

ISO 9235
The standard that corresponds to the IFRA definition of a 100% natural perfume.
Added to the list of raw materials authorised by Cosmos Natural are all animal products and all ingredients obtained from bioconversion, without any restriction. 
This represents around 40% of the perfumer’s palette.

ISO 16128
Applied to both cosmetics and fragrances, this standard does not exclude any raw materials. It allows companies to claim a percentage of natural or naturally-sourced ingredients. The ingredients can be obtained by synthetic means, even when they do not exist in nature, as long as they contain over 50% of renewable carbon (like ambroxan, synthetized using clary sage). 

These definitions show that the notion of naturalness brands lay claim to, without being detailed, is far more complex (and sometimes more flexible) than it might appear.

Here is a diagram showing the different formulation possibilities, from conventional perfume (where all ingredients alre allowed, according to IFRA rules) to a formula containing nothing but essential oils.
The type of authorised ingredients and percentage of the perfumer’s palette represented are indicated for each option.

Authorized ingredients according to the category of natural perfumes vs. a conventional perfume. © Nez

And in order to be able to understand what each type of ingredient corresponds to, we remind you here the definitions:

Absolute
Refined product, without waxy substances, obtained by an alcohol wash of the concrete (itself obtained from a volatile solvant extraction of a natural raw material).

Animal materials
The main animal ingredients currently used, but relatively rarely, are beeswax absolute (which does not cause the insect to die) and castoreum (which involves killing the beavers). Ambergris and civet are used in very rare perfumes and do not require the sperm whale or civet to be killed. The use of natural musk, which caused the chevrotain to die, is strictly forbidden in perfumery. And hyraceum, the petrified urine of a rodent and an ingredient that is scarcely ever used, does not involve the animal dying.

Bioconversion
This process consists of making use of the properties of microorganisms (enzymes, bacteria, etc.) to transform a natural raw material into one or more aroma compounds.

CO₂ extract
Product obtained through CO₂ extraction: carbon dioxide at high pressure and high temperature reaches a state known as supercritical, when it acts like a solvent to extract the plant’s odorant compounds. Once it expands, the CO₂ returns to a gaseous state, leaving an extract with no residue.

Concrete
A waxy product, solid or semi-solid, obtained via volatile solvent extraction of the aromatic matter of a natural raw material. After being washed with alcohol, the concrete produces an absolute. 

Essence or essential oil 
Odorant compounds obtained by distillation or cold expression of natural raw materials.
Different methods can be used for distillation: steam distillation where water, heated in a chamber, produces steam which is forced through the organic matter, taking its aroma compounds with it; and hydrodistillation, which involves immersing the materials in boiling water, when the steam generated by this heated mixture draws out the odorous compounds. 

Isolate
Odorant compound which can be obtained from fractional distillation of an essential oil, which separates it from the other components. For example, citronellol can be isolated in eucalyptus essential oil, which contains it.

Resinoid
Product obtained by using volatile solvent extraction on the dry part of plant-based raw materials or certain balsams, resins and gums. 

Our thanks to Serge De Oliveira (Robertet), Irène Farmachidi and Médrick Germain (Technicoflor), Pauline Raffaitin (Ecocert) and Delphine Thierry (Inspiration libre) for their explanations and invaluable help.

Illustration by Marion Duval for Nez.

More about raw ingredients for perfumery on ScenTree.co.

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You launched the Voyages imaginaires brand together in 2020. Why did you choose to go 100% natural?

Camille Goutal: Isabelle and I have wanted to create a brand for a long time, to have a field of expression that is ours, a true reflection of us. Because, despite everything, Goutal remains my mother's world. And we realised that what unites us and what we are good at working with are natural ingredients: at Goutal, we use them in large quantities because cost has never been a barrier. I'm not saying that to pitch natural and synthetic against each other: there are fabulous synthetics, sometimes very expensive, and we’re happy to use them for other clients. But for this project, we set ourselves the challenge of using only natural products. It was a perfumer's challenge rather than a marketing position. A guarantee that we wouldn’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for years! A sort of game. And it just so happened that between the time we decided to go 100% natural and the time the brand was launched, everyone started to go natural – a well-timed coincidence.

Isabelle Doyen: Today’s natural perfumery opens the door to lots of possibilities. New extraction techniques, new nuances, incredible things like carrot CO2 extract which give us seriously interesting facets. At the same time, we have more molecules isolated from naturals. Before, it was limited to citral, geraniol, linalool and so on, but now the palette has expanded, mainly thanks to biotechnologies. Thanks to these molecules, we can go further than simply juxtaposing natural extracts. However, it’s still very complicated. When you decide not to use things like Hedione, white musks and methyl ionones, you quickly realise how effective certain ingredients are!

Which ones do you miss the most? 

C.G.: Iso E Super and Ambroxan. I developed a passion for Ambroxan at quite a late stage. I didn't use it for years, and one day I fell in love with it.

I.D.: Maybe it will happen to us with woody ambers! [laughs] What's interesting is that when we miss a molecule, we realise what it brings us. The absence of Hedione in an eau fraîche can really be felt. And I personally miss Evernyl: I don't have much else that provides that sophistication, that powdery texture, that persistence and transparency.

How many ingredients do you have in your palette? 

I.D.: If we add the genuinely interesting natural molecules to the essences and absolutes, I’d say 150. Perhaps twenty or so have appeared over the last few years.

Aside from your palette, what else changes when you formulate a 100% natural perfume?

C.G.: When we formulate a "classic" fragrance, we generally have to meet a cost imperative, but the palette allows us to do pretty much what we want. With 100% natural, we can't do everything. The formulation options really shrink. Today, for example, it’s impossible to make a lily of the valley or a lilac. Creating a marine feel is an uphill battle. And woody notes are very difficult. But perhaps in a year's time new naturals will have changed the game!

I.D.: The combination of natural and synthetic that we have in traditional perfumery is what allows us to be a little abstract in our approach. With 100% natural fragrances, you have to rack your brains to give shape to an idea that is even slightly abstract.

C.G.: And to give your ideas concrete form! In 100% natural perfumery, you can have a very precise idea of what you'd like and then say to yourself "Damn! How will I do it?"

What are the biggest challenges you face?

C.G.: Tenacity! It's really hard when you stop using everything that traditionally allows you to produce it. But we're pleased because, through various twists and turns, we've managed to create fragrances that linger.

I.D.: And that have a certain sophistication. Because we could very well be satisfied with sticking pure vetiver on our skin. Except that the law wouldn’t allow it! Here's another challenge: in 100% natural perfumery, you can't overdose. It's impossible to use 50% rose oil, for example, because of the restrictions on methyl eugenol. And also because it would cost a fortune. In general, natural products are expensive: a natural coumarin is thirty times more expensive than a synthetic one.

C.G.: In addition to staying power and price, there’s also the challenge of the sillage. We've managed to make perfumes that last, but in terms of sillage, you’re never going to get close to La vie est belle! In any case, when you choose 100% natural, it's not what you're looking for. Our sillages are more intimate. 

What do your customers look for?

C.G.: The poetry and fantasy that our name suggests.

I.D.: We don't put "100% natural" everywhere. For us, it’s the little extra our perfumes offer, a luxury, but not the main sales argument. 

Before Voyages imaginaires, had you ever thought of doing 100% natural?

C.G.: Yes, but more as a crazy perfumer's whim. Like, "What if I just scented myself with rose"! That said, the palette of naturals has evolved a lot in recent years, which is perhaps why it has become a serious possibility. 

I.D.: I tried it out a few years ago for Marie-France Cohen [one of Annick Goutal's sisters, creator of the Bonpoint brand]. She wanted an eau fraiche and she wanted it to be totally natural – it's a bit of a Goutalian obsession! I said: "It won't amount to much". My formula was 70% natural, with Hedione and methyl ionones, and sure enough when I removed them it became a bit bland. Marie-France thought so too. So we left them in.

What do you think of 100% natural brands that won’t use absolutes or molecules isolated from natural ingredients? 

C.G.: If you want to be totally purist about 100% natural, you make something that’s like an 18th-century perfume. That's not what we're looking for. We want our ingredients to be extracted from a natural source, regardless of the method. And of course, we’re also interested in knowing that our vetiver does not deplete the soil where it grows. And in knowing where it comes from. It’s more important for us to know that our products are well sourced than to know whether or not there is a micro-trace of solvent in an absolute! Otherwise, we wouldn’t go out in the street anymore because of breathing in exhaust fumes. There’s another trend that really annoys us; the brands that say "I use a lot of naturals but also a few synthetics": in other words, exactly what modern perfumery has always done! And you look at the list of ingredients, it's full of synthetics, but seeing as the natural alcohol the concentrate is diluted in gets taken into account, you end up with a large proportion of naturals in the finished product. It's such a con! Meanwhile, there are brands that go to a lot of trouble to make a real 100% natural product. And then there are the ones who arrive with their well-oiled marketing machine and who tell you that their formula is "safe". Here again, I feel like saying: "as they all are"! All brands are subject to IFRA [International Fragrance Association] and ECD [European Cosmetics Directive] regulations. 

I.D.: Or those who say "plant-based alcohol." No, really? In the industry, everyone knows that alcohols are always plant-based. But it’s not necessarily something the customer knows. 

How do you explain the fact that there is so much misinformation about natural perfumery?

C.G.: It's as if all of a sudden brands that use a lot of synthetics are afraid of being demonised. This incites some people to come out with any old rubbish, whereas natural and synthetic are not in opposition, but complementary. Synthesis has a huge advantage: it allows you to create lovely formulas at a lower cost. Not everything is black and white! I don't understand why some brands want to be labelled natural at all costs, even when it leads them to lie to their customers. It drives us crazy: when you’re honest and explain things properly, everything goes smoothly. That said, we complain, but we see that things are moving in the right direction overall. For consumers and for the planet. 

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How did you come to natural perfumery? 

I grew up in Toronto where I studied Fine Arts. Then I moved to London with the idea of being an artist. I made a living working in a fragrance shop and found out I loved it. In 2003, I opened my own niche perfumes store but back then there was no name for it - the word “niche” meant nothing. My intention was to sell “perfumers’ perfumes”. Brands lead by creators. There were lots of old, small brands but there wasn’t this idea that the perfumer was just as important as the brand. Things have changed since; I was just a little bit ahead of my time… When I closed the shop a couple of years later, I tried to find a job in a perfume company, selling or marketing, but no one wanted to hire me. So, I thought, “I will start my own perfume company”. Except I didn’t know how to make it, and I had no money for school. So, I had to learn by myself. 

How did you do that?

I went where I could get raw materials: in a health food shop that sold essential oils. That’s how I started learning the smell of rose, lavender and so on. I didn’t realize how bizarre it was, but when you have no one to teach you, you go where you can! At the time, there was only very little information available online. So, I did what I could.

So, it is out of necessity that you took the natural road from the very beginning… 

I must also say that, as much as I loved perfumes, lots of them gave me headaches. And I had noticed that I didn’t have this problem with perfumes made of natural ingredients, even when they were very strong. It is still the case today: in the laboratory from where I am talking to you, I broke two bottles of Hyde this morning. The smell is very powerful, but my head isn’t spinning. So, I was trying to understand this phenomenon. I am not a scientist, so I can’t be too sure, but I think that when a perfume contains one or several molecules that don’t exist in nature, my brain doesn’t know how to process them - hence the headaches. That’s my theory (laughs)! So, it’s not about whether the ingredient is natural or synthetic: there are lots of molecules obtained by synthesis that can also be found in nature, and I can personally stand those very well.  

How long did you take to teach yourself?

About ten years, until I was confident enough to start my own brand. I bought a Mandy Aftel’s book, it was a quite basic but a fantastic beginning. I had my essential oils, I memorized their smells, I combined them, compared them to the perfumes on the market that contained them… It was rather boring, actually! I think I could have learned much faster in a fragrance company. But at the same time, I would have thought it was impossible to make natural perfume. Because that’s what people in the industry have always told me. 

It turns out they were wrong: natural perfumery is booming! 

Indeed, things are slowly shifting, but there is still a lot of resistance in the industry against promoting natural perfumes. When I look at this sector, I feel like it is very separate from the rest, in a tiny box. 

Why do you think that is? 

Natural perfumes brands often promote themselves as being natural above everything else. They put down other companies, saying that essential oils are better for the environment, and that therefore, you should buy their perfumes. They don’t really try to sell the artistic dimension of their perfume, but only the fact that it is natural. And on the other side, mainstream or niche brands reply that natural perfume can’t smell good. I don’t want to be in this fight. If people want to buy my perfumes because they are natural, that’s fine, but they should buy them because they like their smell. Anyhow, we should never say that naturals are better for the environment. It’s not so cut and dry.

What do you mean?

Everybody knows that we should all be making much bigger steps for the environment. But natural is not the solution: essential oils are made through complex extraction processes, they are highly concentrated, and if you poured a whole bucket into a pond, well I don’t think the fish would be very happy! And then there is the carbon footprint of natural: it takes so many flowers to yield a few drops of essential oils, or a few grams of absolute! And all these flowers require water, care, lots of work and money… and that’s before they are shipped all over the world. So, the carbon footprint of a natural perfume is pretty high. We can tell lots of beautiful stories about natural ingredients, but that’s just one side of the coin. 

It seems that “natural” perfumes carry along many approximations, if not counter truths. 

Yes, and there are people who mean well but who are not doing good to anyone because their knowledge is too basic. In the United States, a natural products store told me they didn’t want to sell my perfumes because they contain linalool: it is a potential allergen - that’s why I have a legal obligation to list it on my packaging – but it is naturally present in bergamot, lavender and lots of other flowers! And among other things, this store sold lavender perfumes… That’s just to say that approximate knowledge can be harmful. But lots of natural perfume brands are emerging and that’s a good thing. Because no matter what one can think about their products or marketing strategy, the more variety there is, the more people will take interest in the subject, and the more things will fall naturally into place, but that will take another 5 to 10 years. 

In the meantime, what can we do?

I think we need more regulation. We need governments or the European Union to say, “that is what natural is”. Especially in the US, where the current regulation is less strict than it is in Europe. Here, whether you are natural or not, your products must go through the same safety tests. And in my case, to back up my claim, I have to have an EU certificate to prove that all my ingredients are natural. It is very easy in the case of essential oils and absolutes, but sometimes fishy for isolates (isolates are molecules or groups of molecules obtained by “fractioning” an essential oil: it is a distillation process aiming at separating the oil into different parts or “fractions”). Most of those I use are obtained from natural raw materials, according to processes the EU considers “natural”. But in the United States, much more isolates or molecules are considered “natural”, for example some alpha irones (which can be extracted from iris, where they are naturally present, but can also be obtained by organic synthesis). 

Some ingredients fall into a “grey zone”: it is the case of some of the molecules you mentioned, which can be obtained through synthetic chemistry, but can also be distilled from natural products. Some brands boast about not using them at all. What do you think?

When brands explain they don’t use molecules extracted from a natural raw material, it’s their choice, but for me it’s stupid. The reason why these molecules require so much more certification is that they are primarily intended the food industry. But for me, they are natural. If we take the example of a linalool isolated from a lavender essential oil, it is obtained the same way that a lavender flower is distilled. It’s just that science today allows us to better monitor heat and pressure so we can extract only one of the molecules contained in the oil. So, when people say, “we don’t use these molecules”, I want to say, “how are they different from an essential oil?”. Having said that, we can question the environmental dimension of these molecules. If you distil a rose to obtain just one molecule – when rose contains hundreds of them – the yield is extremely low, and the final product is very expensive. Why persist on using it when one can have the same molecule, obtained through synthesis, for way less money?

You, for one, persist on using them. So yes, why?

There are synthetic equivalents to some of the ingredients I use, but indeed I choose to use only naturals. I wish I had a good answer, but my reasons are very subjective and personal. There is something wonderful about working with these ingredients, so precious, so expensive… When I manipulate them, I am aware that someone made them with their hands. It gives them a certain energy. Something intangible that I cannot really describe, nor prove that it exists, but that, for me, gives my perfumes something very particular. And I like to think that this is how people who like them feel, too. 

In the end, it seems like it’s the “artisan” dimension of your raw materials that matters… As if it echoed your own approach of perfumery!

We are all so used to buying and using industrial products, be it perfumes or IKEA furniture. Yet, I think that people can tell when a product is handmade. And not in a negative way, because it would be flawed! See how an Art Deco piece of furniture, for example, can be made by hand and perfect. I think that this can have an equivalent in perfume. 

--

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“The use of natural musk […] is strictly forbidden in perfumery”.

I’m very interested in this topic. Is it possible to give more details about it, to specify which act or organism issued the interdiction? Because there are multiple perfume brands that curently use deer musk in their fragrances such as Areej le Doré, Bortnikoff, Ensar Oud, Meleg.

Thank you!

Dear Roxana,

After asian musk deer populations were decimated, the animal is now protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) In 1973, the Washington Convention text was adopted at a meeting of representatives from 80 countries, and it came into effect in 1975.
There have been experiences conducted to produce musk in captivity but they have been inconclusive.
However, musk Tonkin may be still illegally obtained by poaching, mainly in the Middle East, China or Russia.
I don’t know about these brands, it is likely to be still used in some cases, but very often, claimed “musk Tonkin” is actually a reconstitution based on other raw materials.
The best would be to ask directly these brands about it.

Jeanne

Thank you for your response!

I knew about the Convention so that is why I was intrigued.
The Convention forbids the internationally trade in deer musk only for six counties, and imposses restrictions for the rest of those that have populations of Moschus, which means they can export this musk under certain strict conditions.

Things are more clear now.
Thank you very much again!

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