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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Why you shouldn’t turn your nose at synthetic perfumes

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi argues that no great perfume in the world is 100% natural, and why that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

vir sanghvi Updated: Nov 01, 2017 09:56 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Brad Pitt in an advertisement for Chanel No 5.
Brad Pitt in an advertisement for Chanel No 5.

Do you remember The Body Shop? It was one of the big high street brands at the end of the Twentieth Century. Its founder was a charismatic woman called Anita Roddick who was profiled extensively in the media. Her notion of natural beauty touched a chord with consumers and though she spoke mainly of ending cruelty to animals by not testing her products on any living creature, there was always a broader sub-text to her message.

It was put forward best by one of her executives on a TV show. “Our industry”, he said, “has fallen into the hands of chemists. We have forgotten how to use natural remedies.”

Body Shop claimed to create ‘cruelty free’ products. (Shutterstock)

Sounds good, right? So every time I wandered into a branch of the all-natural Body Shop, I imagined that the sales girls had just returned from Provence, where they had worn brightly coloured aprons made from natural hemp fibres and picked lavender from the bushes and put it in wicker baskets so that Miss Roddick could continue with Body Shop’s crusade to rid the industry of its chemists.

Then, I noticed that Body Shop’s best-selling fragrance was called White Musk. I thought that this was a bid odd so I looked closely at the packaging. The product was “cruelty-free” it said, which was a relief because I really hate it when perfumes get above themselves and are mean and cruel to us.

But this description did not solve a crucial problem. How could The Body Shop sell any kind of musk?

As you probably know, musk comes from a gland in the body of the musk deer. For as long as I can remember, the musk deer has been a protected species and the extraction of natural musk is banned. All the famous musks you may remember from Kiehl’s Musk Oil to Jovan’s Musk fragrances have always been made from synthetic musk. In fact, synthetic musks are among the cornerstones of the perfume industry. Chemical companies have created generation after generation of musk molecules and they turn up in countless fragrance.

So there were three options. The first was that the Body Shop had access to a supply of natural musk which was extracted, without cruelty from an endangered species. This seemed impossible.

The second was that there was no musk in The Body Shop’s White Musk. This is less unusual than it sounds. Great perfumers can sometimes create the smell of a flower (say Gardenia or the Lily of the Valley) without using the natural ingredient. But The Body Shop Musk did not smell like the creation of a genius who could conjure up fragrances from anything. It was a competent, workman-like musk.

That left and the third and most likely option: like every other musk on the market, The Body Shop musk contained synthetic molecules, created by one of those hated chemists they had badmouthed. These molecules replicated the smell of musk.

So why not just come out and say it? Why badmouth chemists?

Well, its not just The Body Shop. Nearly all fragrance companies try and pretend that every ingredient in their perfumes is natural. They know that consumers have been fed on the notion that natural is good and synthetic is bad so the companies play down the real components of their fragrances and write press releases in lying gobbledy-gook. (“A fresh hint of mandarin gives way to delicate smells of tangerine and basil before settling down to the peace of rose and cedar….”)

The truth is that the fragrance industry is founded on synthetic ingredients. This has nearly always been the case. Shalimar was created by Guerlain in 1921 using vanillin. Chanel No. 5 gets its character from synthetic aldehydes. And so on.

There is probably no great perfume in the world today that is 100% natural. All perfumers use synthetic molecules and this is not a bad thing. In fact, most great perfumes are a mixture of natural and synthetic ingredients. To stick with No. 5., you can’t make the perfume without jasmine and rose from Grasse in the south of France. These are so crucial to the fragrance that Chanel has contracted farmers in Grasse to supply these flowers in eternity. But even while using these first rate, natural and expensive ingredients, you could not make Chanel No. 5 without synthetic aldehydes.

The iconic Chanel No 5. (Shutterstock)

So why do perfume companies lie?

Well, they suspect that people will think that synthetics are cheap. This is not true. Prices for synthetics vary almost as much as the prices for natural products. Many synthetic molecules are so valued that their owners have patented them and sell them at high prices. There are cheap musks. But there are also musk-like molecules such as Cashmeran, owned by International Flavours and Fragrance (IFF), which only the owner can supply.

Nearly a decade ago, Luca Turin, the perfume writer gave the example of citral, a synthetic molecule with a lemony smell that cost $ 12 per kilo. On the other hand, muscone (a synthetic musk) can cost $ 500 per kilo. (In the years since Turin wrote this, the price of Muscone has probably gone up.)

So there will be cheap fragrances made from cheap synthetics and good ones made from expensive synthetics.

Some people also believe that synthetics are hyper-allergenic. In fact, the opposite is true. Natural substances are far more likely to trigger allergies in humans than synthetic perfume molecules.

It’s not hard to check for synthetic molecules. Just check the list of ingredients on the package. The press release for Cool Water, the classic men’s fragrance, will talk of geranium and crab-apple. The real constituents, as listed by the manufacturer, include Alpha Isomethyl Ionone, Hydroxycitronellal, Linalool and many other chemicals.

Some fragrances would not be possible without synthetic molecules. Drakkar Noir depends on dihydromyrcenol, a synthetic molecule, from a family that was originally created for the detergent industry but which is now much used in men’s perfumery.

Then there is the story of Calone. This molecule was created in the 1960s and lay unused for decades till it was used in the fragrance, New West. This made perfumers aware of its power. In a few years, Calone turned up as the main draw in Eau d’ Issey by Issey Miyake. Of course they didn’t want to say that the great Japanese designer had put his name to a fragrance based on a synthetic molecule created in 1960. So the publicity material said that Miyake had asked for a fragrance that smelled of water and so Eau d’ Issey was born. (The male version and all the tiresome updates and ‘summer fragrances” of Issey are the same idea: Calone in new packaging.)

So, don’t believe all the nonsense about how the best fragrances are only the natural ones. It doesn’t matter. All that a fragrance must do is smell great. As long as you like it, don’t worry about how they made it and what molecules they put into it.

In the end, a perfumer can only try. It is your nose that has the final say.