Something stinks in the perfume industry

Monday, December 05, 2011
Picture of an attractive woman which is only tangentially related to this post.
This is one of those modern situations that is a massive head-scratcher. It involves natural substances, chemical replacements and the insufferable, know-it-all nannies of the European Union bureaucracy, only it doesn't play as expected. As Wired reports in their article Engineering Replacements for Essential Perfume Ingredients:  
Get one whiff of oakmoss extract and you never forget it: a deep, raspy, dark smell that conjures up a primeval forest. For more than a century, this thick greenish-brown liquid — named for the bushy lichen it derives from, Evernia prunastri, which grows on oak trees — has served as a key ingredient in some of the world’s most popular and profitable fragrances. But two years ago, industry regulators began radically restricting the use of oakmoss, leaving perfume makers scrambling to replace this idiosyncratic aroma.

Some chemists have risen to the challenge by brewing up what are, in effect, oakmoss knockoffs. One of the best substitutes is made by Mane, a flavor and fragrance manufacturer in the south of France. The man who developed it, Cyrill Rolland, used his lengthy experience working with natural raw materials to imitate the way the scent of oakmoss seems to evolve as you sniff, first evoking wet timber with a slightly bitter undertone of seaweed and then changing to a dry, woody aroma. Rolland has even captured the garden-mulch color of the genuine article. To an untutored nose, Mane’s fake oakmoss smells like the real thing. But the company must convince a more discerning audience: other perfumers, who are the real customers for this product.

Why go to such lengths to replace this cornerstone of perfumery, a natural substance that is plentiful in the wild and available for just pennies an ounce?

Why? Well, I think we can all guess the answer to that -- the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), fearing governmental regulation, has preemptively run amok banning ingredients for environmental and health issues. In the case of oakmoss, in rare cases it causes a rash similar to poison ivy.

Aside from occasionally being gassed on an elevator by a young lady wearing too much perfume, I've never considered perfumes to be toxic. In fact, I would think a woman simply wouldn't wear the perfume that gave her a rash. Still, a regulator is a regulator:
Each formula is also linked to a database of safety and regulatory information on more than 3,000 materials. Regulation has made it nearly impossible to work efficiently without software to tell perfumers what they can and can’t use. Even with their astonishing memory for materials, perfumers cannot hold in their minds every detail of the permitted dosage for each: IFRA’s rules can vary depending on the type of product — an alcohol-based perfume versus a soap versus a candle — and also can change from one year to the next. When Becker started as a perfumer, only a few materials were banned and her firm employed just a single person to keep tabs on regulatory issues.

Now Becker formulates her palette under the watchful eyes of roughly 75 safety experts, a team led by Greg Adamson, vice president for global regulatory affairs and product safety. Adamson is a toxicologist by training, but he exerts a tremendous influence on the composition of scents: “If I say they can’t use an ingredient,” he says, “it can’t be used.” This is not just theoretically true; it’s coded into the software. If Becker dreams up a fragrance that violates IFRA rules, the robots won’t even mix it for her.

Again, we're talking about perfume. Women have doused themselves with it for hundreds of years with nary a tale of madness, disease and death as a result, but the safety nannies are a relentless lot -- forever chipping away for who knows what reason. Life is too short for their nonsense.

At any rate, it is an interesting article. Read the entire thing at Engineering Replacements for Essential Perfume Ingredients.