Perfumes may smell like raspberries or jasmine but, paradoxically, fragrances are the last frontier of natural beauty products. Unlike skin care, hair care, and cosmetics — which chemists can formulate entirely with botanically derived ingredients, rather than synthetics — the perfume industry has been fueled by the exact opposite: synthetic mimicry of natural ingredients. When you smell lavender or rose in a perfume, maybe 90 percent of the time what you're actually smelling is a linalool or geranyl acetate compound, lab-made replicas of the flowers in bloom.
It's been that way since the late 1800s, when synthetic aromatic molecules were introduced. For the first time, precious scents were available at prices that the rising middle class could afford. "The artificial products were stronger, more lasting, and cheaper," says Mandy Aftel, a perfumer and author of Fragrant: The Secret Life of Scent (Riverhead Books). "With the move from natural to synthetics, the great perfumes were born — Chanel No. 5, Shalimar."
But chemical replicas of the real thing aren't exactly trendy right now, so the big fragrance houses— Firmenich, Givaudan, International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) — are hard at work innovating ways to create more natural perfumes. It's not that natural notes are better than synthetic ones, per se, but they are another tool in the perfumer's kit, and one that appeals to the consumer's appetite for more natural products.
But "it's tricky to formulate perfumes with natural ingredients. They don't last as long on the skin, and if you're paying for a fragrance you want it to last," says Aerin Lauder, founder of Aerin, who is proud of the real and enduring notes she uses, like lilac in her Lilac Path.
One high-tech solution: Perfumers are using artificial intelligence to measure how intensely you will smell a scent over time. They can then increase the concentration of an ingredient or pair it with something complementary that makes its effect more powerful. Rose may be set off by other notes, natural or synthetic, that don't compete with the classic floral, but make it smell more heady. And new distillation techniques can make natural fragrances as complex as anything a perfumer could dream up in a lab.
For Yves Saint Laurent Libre Intense, lavender essential oil is fractionated with carbon dioxide until it smells like the freshest, brightest lavender you could pick in Provence (real lavender is often eschewed because its herbal and woody hints give perfumes a cologne-y quality). And Calvin Klein's CK Everyone is the brand's first fragrance to contain 77 percent "naturally derived" ingredients (ones that contain raw materials that have been tweaked in a lab).
But what about the sustainability question? You can't over-harvest geranyl acetate, but you can over-harvest its muse, the rose. "The challenge is having enough of the natural material to produce perfumes," says organic chemist (and founder of the fragrance blog Colognoisseur) Mark Behnke. "One of the most famous sandalwoods, mysore, was sold in India. It got harvested into oblivion."
But innovative materials are offering a more sustainable way forward. Bioengineers are designing yeast strains that can be fermented into a handful of notes, including peach, mango, apricot, coconut, and rose. And botanical waste is being repurposed to create essential oils, such as using apple pulp that would otherwise be disposed of at food processing plants, says Stephen Nilsen, senior perfumer at Givaudan.
At IFF, discarded turmeric leaves are distilled into oil with hints of pepper and citrus (the ingredient was developed this spring, so you can expect to see it in fragrances next year), and oakwood extract is taken from wood harvested for wine and liquor barrels. While creating CK Everyone, perfumer Alberto Morillas balanced notes for their smell and eco-footprint, earning the fragrance a Silver Material Health Cradle to Cradle environmental certification.
For a sustainable fragrance event last year, "our perfumers created 100 percent natural perfumes that were also 100 percent traceable and organic. The future of fragrance is in environmental and social respect," says Judith Gross, vice president of creation and design, branding and marketing fragrances at IFF.
The real innovations on the horizon are the ones that will make more botanicals available in ways that have a smaller impact on the environment. It will take time — not every flower will be available at once — "but even a small diamond on a ring makes a difference," says Behnke.
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