Is it just an illusion?
Almost every day we hear from perfume-lovers looking for a scent that includes notes of freesia, lily-of-the-valley, honeydew silk or yak's milk. And while these requests are reasonable and completely understandable, it is clear that scent-seekers have had the (yak's) wool pulled over our eyes for too long.
Descriptors for perfume are gorgeous and evocative, and certainly add to the lure of a fragrance. It's imperative that a fragrance has an alluring description, not just a stunning scent; after all, if your friendly David Jones perfume lady showered you with the latest and greatest bottle of Chanel No. 172, and explained its character was a combination of "cis-3-hexanal, dimethylheptanol and amyl formate in a base of denatured isopropyl alcohol" would you still be interested?
The problem with perfume descriptions is they lead to a false belief about what is actually in your perfume bottle. The average beauty buyer has no idea that what they are being sold is a concept of fruits, flowers and twigs, with no actual content of fruits, flowers or twigs. In fact, visit any department store fragrance counter and you are actually experiencing fragrances that are at least 99% synthetic. Yes, even the high-end prestige scents use almost no, if any, natural ingredients.
SOME FACTS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PERFUME NOTES
1. 'Notes' does not equal ingredients.
Key notes: Jasmine, Orange Blossom, Patchouli
While each of these can actually be a natural ingredient (and would be in a 100% natural perfume), the commercial reality is that 99 times out of 100, each of these notes is created using a multiple synthetic chemicals. Notes simply refers to what you are likely to smell in this scent, or what the creative concept it, not what is it actually made of. Perfumers will use a combination of several (typically around 9-12) synthetic single molecules to produce an accord - a combination of ingredients that mimic the scent of one natural (or conceptualised) scent. In nature, one individual ingredient can be made up of dozens and up to hundreds of natural chemicals.
To add to the confusion, many of the 'notes' listed in your favourite fragrance don't even exist in nature. Examples? Sunflowers - have you ever smelled one? Pretty to look at, with no real scent. The ocean? Actually smells like salty air with a hint of rotting seaweed, not blue steely liquid. Cashmere - no fragrance to speak of (feels nice to touch, though). And peach flower - smells pale and slightly pretty when you get close enough but it's not actually possibly to extract its fragrance.
And here's the frustrating part for a natural perfumer - many of the fragrance notes and descriptions that include things that do exist in nature are not actually extractable, and therefore can't be used in perfumes. But that's the part that difficult to educate on; how is the average person on the street supposed to know what is and isn't possible? You are really relying on the transparency (or lack thereof) of the perfume brand you choose. And maybe to some of us it doesn't matter so much. After all, perfume is about art and self expression more than anything, so a little bit of poetic licence is not only acceptable, but probably desired.
2. The ingredient list is hard to find.
It's a sad and long-standing rule in perfumery that what happens in perfumery stays in perfumery. There has been a little-discussed "rule" that the perfumer/brand has the right to include any ingredient he or she chooses, and moreover has the right not to list any or all of those ingredients. Amazingly, government regulations worldwide do not require perfume ingredients to be listed if they are deemed "trade secret"; that is, if doing so would give away the secret formulation and therefore threaten the very livelihood of the brand. The only exception to this rule is the declaration of allergens: if the formula contains any of the current list of declarable allergens (currently a list of 26 potential allergens), they must be listed on the ingredient label. However, the ingredient itself doesn't need to be listed, just the potential allergen it contains.
Note that the allergen declaration rule is not mandatory in Australia, and cosmetics labelling laws are among the slackest in the entire world. Then again, the EU rules are getting completely ridiculous (ban on pure rose oil you say?), so take your pick.
3. Natural perfume ingredients are expensive. And unpredictable.There are good reasons why perfumers might choose synthetics over naturals. Aside from an artistic preference for singular, less complex molecules, a perfumer (or the company they work for) will generally prefer synthetics because they are:
- Cheaper: Take a look at our article on ambrette seed. (Hint: compare $240 per kg with $20,000 per kg for the natural version). A synthetic fragrance can be produced for around $3-$6 per 50ml bottle (using high quality ingredients), compared with $20-$50 per 50ml bottle for an entirely natural formula.
- More predictable: Synthetic molecules are quite linear, and don't change much over the dry-down, compared with natural ingredients which can contain up to 400 different natural chemicals in the one extract. In addition, synthetics are more predictable in the way they play together because of their simplicity and linear qualities. Naturals, on the other hand, can have difficult personalities and sometimes have to be reined in or withdrawn like your little-too-tipsy friend at that party.
- Nature doesn't interfere: Ah, this one is fun. Nature has its ways of making perfumery stunningly beautiful, and then swiftly removing everything you hold dear. There are several ingredients which are becoming increasingly difficulty to source and ever more expensive, such as vanilla (price increase of 1800% over 18 months), Mysore sandalwood, ambrette seed and many others. Natural perfumery is not a craft for the faint of heart or those preferring predictability! On the other hand, if you use synthetics, you will almost never be short on ingredients because these are at the whimsy of man.
(Image via Serious Eats)
4. It's all about the marketing.
You're not silly. And perfume companies know that. That's why they spend millions of dollars every year just to get your attention and make you believe in whatever they are selling; scent of waterfall (nope, doesn't exist), dewberry (remember that? Nope, not real either), nectar (from what exactly?), apple blossoms (sadly not a real fragrance either). It all sounds very dismal. But it shouldn't be. Consider this your moment for the blindfold to be removed. After all, isn't it better the devil you know? At least now when you make a decision about which scent to buy you will know that what you are investing in is not a nature-distilled essence from the gods, but a man-made, lab-synthesised artistic creation.
And if you want to go one better, then choose brands that are transparent about what is actually in their perfumes. Look for a FULL ingredient panel (hint: they almost don't exist), brands that clearly state they are 100% natural, 100% botanical or synthetic-free. That way when you read the fragrance description and it says honey, wild roses and magnolia you know what you are getting is actually honey, wild roses and magnolia (or natural ingredients combined to create the scent of those beauties. But more on that later).
One Seed perfumes and colognes are 100% natural with at least 80% organic content. What you see is what you get, that's our guarantee.