Is Natural Better? Comparing of Natural and Synthetic Fragrance Materials
By: Carlos Wilfredo Contreras Avilés, Daniel Greenberg, and Neonila Levitsky
Synthetic Fragrance Bias and the Natural Trend
People love their fragrances. No question and it’s because of this love for fragrance that has made these odorous mixtures such an important part of product development today.
Yet, this same love has also stretched animal and botanical sources to their limits, invited harsh criticism, and has increased the scientific, toxicological, and environmental scrutiny regarding materials. Consumers, governments, and NGO’s have drawn attention to the possible side effects of fragrances and their overall safe usage.
Some of the areas of concern include allergens, environmental pollutants, VOC’s, and carcinogens, all of which have resulted in issues of fear mongering, consumer confusion, scientific inaccuracies, and the overall efficacy of using fragrances in consumer products.
As a direct consequence of this consumer perceived “ambiguous status” regarding fragrances, it can be theorized that consumers have reverted to more easily understandable concepts of consumer safety rather than believing in complicated scientific justification.
Simplistically, this means that a large portion of consumers believe that “natural” or “organic” fragrances provide for safer use, healthier lifestyles, and a less impactful environmental footprint despite the fact that these terms have no universal definition.
As Simon Pitman, senior editor of Cosmetic Design points out, “synthetic-based ingredients … have a perceived [emphasis added] heightened risk of allergies and toxins” (Utroske). However, this is not always the case and “‘synthetic’ doesn’t always mean ‘bad’” (Doyle).
It’s because of this poor consumer understanding of synthetic materials that consumers have developed a synthetic fragrance bias and even though international regulations may assure consumer’s of the safety of synthetics, there remains a consumer preference that favors products labeled and advertised as natural, organic, non-GMO, or “green.”
Safety, Not Belief
Determining the safety of a chemical should not be based on consumer beliefs, but rather on a chemical’s toxicity, environmental impact, and other relevant factors.
It’s fundamental to understand that fragrances, synthetic or natural, may have hazards on both sides of the spectrum, but the reputation of synthetic materials should not be slandered simply because of their origins.
Furthermore, when it comes to fragrance development, limiting a perfumer to only “natural” raw materials can be creatively stifling and could even limit a product’s success in the marketplace.
It’s fragrances that utilize natural AND synthetic raw materials that are superior to entirely natural or entirely synthetic fragrances with regards to practical use and consumer “likeability.”
Performance Differences and the Supply Chain
There are a variety of differences when it comes to comparing synthetic fragrance raw materials with natural ones. Some have supply chain implications, some have technical hurdles to overcome, and others sometimes affect the people and places that produce the raw materials for the fragrance industry. Some issues are…
- Varying fragrance performance and behavior in different applications: Some natural citrus raw materials, for example, tend to flash off (burn off) quickly for candles where synthetic citrus alternatives provide better performance, longevity, and payoff. The application sometimes dictates what materials to use and synthetics are overwhelmingly preferred.
- Environmental impact: Sandalwood, a “woody” smelling fragrance ingredient, has been overharvested to the point of becoming an endangered species in India and is one of the main causes of deforestation in that country. Alternative sources had to be found and are now used.
- Sustainability: Due to the environmental impact of harvesting these materials companies need to invest a large amount of effort to create an effective sustainability program in order to meet the consumer demand for authentic, quality raw materials without causing harm to people, indigenous species, or the environment.
- Crop variability: Crop differences that result from differences in rainfall, soil content, crop diseases, insect presence, and other factors, also plays a key role in dictating price. No two crops from farm to farm, year to year, will be exactly the same which is a critical issue regarding raw material reproducibility and dependability.
This trinity of problems (habitat destruction, crop variability, and price fluctuation) as well as poor natural material performance has caused increased hardships when working with natural fragrance materials and this extra effort manifests itself in the form of increased costs which ultimately gets passed on to the consumer.
Most synthetic materials are not susceptible to these issues and therefore, provide better reproducibility, performance, and dependability at an affordable cost.
Toxicology, Pollution, and Your Health
From a general perspective, synthetic fragrance raw materials pose fewer risks than natural fragrance raw materials. Prime examples of this issue are the natural fragrance ingredients oakmoss and treemoss. Both of these materials are legally considered sensitizers and allergens.
The laws that affect these two materials also affect many of today’s and yesterday’s most be-loved perfumes like Chanel No. 5, Miss Dior, Guerlain’s Shalimar and Angel by Thierry Mugler (Stocks).
It’s for this same reason that IFRA (International Fragrance Association), the regulatory body that is tasked with running the fragrance industry’s self regulation, has limited this ingredient’s use in consumer products. This is why the synthetic equivalent, veramoss, is often used.
Another disadvantage that some natural fragrance raw materials can have is that they can also be environmental pollutants. Synthetics can be environmental pollutants as well but in this regard, natural fragrance raw materials have just as many hazards as their synthetic analogs.
A Perfumer’s Vision Without Color
It would be a gross error to discuss fragrance solely from the perspective of safety and environmental concerns because foundationally, fragrance development is an artistic endeavor. It’s worth noting that even though natural fragrance raw materials have their place in a perfumer’s palette, so too does synthetic fragrance raw materials.
The introduction of synthetics has given life to new classes of compounds such as aldehydes which in turn has given birth to exciting, new fragrances. One such fragrance is the iconic Chanel No. 5 which would not have existed if it weren’t for the invention of aldehydes.
The perfume that Coco Chanel herself described as “A woman’s perfume with the scent of a woman” would not have been possible without aldehydes (Mazzeo). The same can be said for Armani’s Aqua Di Gio.
Both fragrances coupled with their historic success in the marketplace demonstrates, once again, how synthetics have enabled talented perfumers to create iconic fragrances that have been top sellers for the past decade, if not longer.
Are Naturals Good for Anything?
With all of the reasons previously stated one might ask, ‘why does the fragrance industry even use natural fragrance raw materials if synthetic fragrance raw materials show such a clear advantage?’ The answer to this question lies in the complexity of natural fragrances themselves.
Natural fragrance raw materials are derived from natural sources such; fruits, leaves, twigs, vegetables, flowers, spices, and much more. Yet, the processes used to extract the oils necessary to create consumer fragrances yield complex mixtures with a number of different subcomponents and concentrations.
From a perfumer’s perspective, using natural fragrance raw materials can help to round out certain odor notes, provide different sensations, and allow the consumer to further explore the fragrance the longer they smell it.
Using natural materials undoubtedly improves consumer likeability which is a huge driver of sales for both mass and luxury products.
Yet, the singular advantage that natural fragrance raw materials provide more olfactive complexity, with the exceptions of some synthetic disadvantages and consumer preferences for naturals, is why naturals are still used today and have not disappeared from the industry or consumer use.
So…What Fragrance Materials Should We Use? Is There a Clear Winner?
Synthetic fragrance bias has been building for many years and it continues to gain momentum. This myth that ‘synthetics are bad’ is simply false.
Such a broad, general statement is rife with errors as has already been detailed, but naturals have just as many issues as synthetics and synthetics are not without their set of issues either, even though it seems that overall synthetics pose fewer risks.
Naturals have their own unique challenges such as crop variability, sustainability issues, and supply chain dilemmas, but they also serve important artistic purposes as well as a number of humanitarian and environmental ones. Therefore, the best fragrances found on the market today utilize the strengths of both synthetic and natural raw materials.
It allows for the best possible consumer experience without limiting the extremely talented perfumers that bring these fragrances to life. It is also important to understand that fragrances as a whole, when used properly, are safe for consumer use despite their possible health and/or environmental risks.
Any chemical, whether for use in food, personal care, automotive, or other industry, needs to be studied scientifically and objectively. Something is not dangerous simply because it is a chemical. Only when these chemicals have properly been studied can the average consumer feel safe.
The fragrance industry has done this via RIFM, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials and approves each fragrance material for use. Consumers should always try to educate themselves on the products they use and voice their opinions on these products when appropriate.
Consumers have a right to know what they are buying, but when it comes to understanding toxicology, environmental decay, and other factors that may be beyond the average consumer’s knowledge, they should consider the advice and interpretation of experts.
In summation, synthetic fragrance bias is a dangerous notion that could strip fragrance houses of valuable resources and prevent consumers from enjoying some of their most beloved fragrances.
The only way to prevent such a travesty is to educate consumers on the facts of both types of fragrance materials in hopes to dispel any preconceived notions about natural or synthetic materials.
To this end, the dialogue between fragrance houses, consumers, and other entities in the supply chain needs to continue so that consumers can make informed decisions instead of being mislead by fear-mongering NGO’s or other manipulative parties.
Doyle, Sady. “‘All-natural’ perfumes rarely are – but independent makers hope to change that.” The Guardian. 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Mazzeo, Tilar. “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume” 9 Nov. 2010. Web 01 Dec. 2015.
Stocks, Jenny. “The EU’s threatening to ban one of Chanel No 5’s key ingredients…So what’s really in the world’s favorite perfume?” DailyMail.com 7 Nov. 2012. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Utroske, Deanna. “Natural fragrance ingredients in high demand.”com. 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.