Zombie Scents: A Real Horror Story

Zombie scents - a real horror story about perfume that is no longer the sameThe walking dead are among us. They sound the same, they sometimes even look the same, though in many cases you’ll spot something odd about their appearance. Unlike a flesh zombie, a perfume zombie appears polished and modern, stylish and clean, suspiciously so…suspiciously so.

Perfumes get reformulated for many reasons. Cost of materials may have become prohibitive (or just undesirable). The scent may be re-adjusted to better match modern tastes. One or more of the key components may have been banned or restricted. Sometimes justifiably so; sometimes using the “let’s crack this walnut with a hammer”-approach. IFRA, despite popular opinion to the contrary, has actually managed to save many perfume ingredients from getting removed from the perfumers’ palette completely. When the EU and individual governments are left to ban and restrict materials, you end up with what happened in Denmark (the government banned parabens in products for children – not because there was any new science on parabens being harmful, but because there was a data gap. So they banned parabens “just in case”, partly to stop mothers worrying. Of course people who stand to gain from anti-paraben scare-marketing will triumphantly quote that the Danish government has banned parabens without putting the statement in context).

The point is: as suspicious as IFRA may seem from the outside, it’s acting as a barrier between NGOs, pressure groups and overzealous governmental ingredient regulation. On the other hand, if a fragrance material is applied undiluted to shaved rat skin or fed to an animal until it dies, does that really reflect what happens to perfume in normal everyday use?

The peanut thing. This topic always turns to “But lots of people are allergic to peanuts and they’re not banned. Why can’t perfumes just have a warning label?”

It does seem to make sense. Alas, peanuts are food and perfume is considered a non-essential luxury product (non-essential! Yes, this story is a real chiller). As far as regulators and safety experts are concerned, it is easier to eliminate any potential risk from perfume than to remove peanut products from sale. There is also some misunderstanding about how allergies to perfume form and how many people get them. Only about 3% of the EU population is allergic to fragrances but some of the cases can be quite severe and result in permanent skin conditions or damage. According to Lisa Hipgrave from IFRA UK, perfume allergy develops over time, so you could use the same fragrance for years and suddenly become violently allergic to one of its ingredients.

Some perfume materials are more problematic than others: Lyral (a common lily material) is significantly more problematic than many other synthetic ingredients. A shame because I really like the way it smells. Some materials contain constituents which cause phototoxicity: bergamot oil naturally contains furanocoumarins which, if left in, would cause skin discolouration when exposed to sunlight. Furanocoumarins are now removed from bergamot oil in most cases as part of its processing for perfumery use.

I think the main problem with the fragrance allergen issue has been the perfume industry’s secretive nature. Trying to engage, educate and participate in the allergen discussion when we’re already so far down the road of restrictions and bans seems like the old “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.” I don’t personally think it should have to be necessary to restrict so many materials so severely. I do think we would be better off with warning labels and perhaps a return to the fashion of scenting scarves and handkerchiefs, or wearing little nosegays and scented lockets.

It is heartbreaking to encounter a Zombie Perfume. My beloved Diorella, secretly squirted from my grandmother’s dressing table, now a shadow of its former self due to so many restrictions on lily of the valley materials. Tabac Blond, so anemic; now a leather handbag with an electronic cigarette instead of a smouldering jazz club in the 30s.

And what of Mitsouko, such beauty of a mossy forest with naked nymphs frolicking, now a tight-lipped executive woman who sometimes dreams of the woods. Poison, the outrageous 80s power dresser, now wearing a purple bathrobe and sipping Ribena in front of the telly. Destroyed by restrictions on damascones.

Some of the Zombie Scents are still wearable. I have a modern Mitsouko and it still gives me pleasure. I’ve encountered some older perfumes which have survived very well and retained their original character. Some others (Byzance by Rochas being one of them) are just painfully sad to smell in their current form.

Would it be better to remove the walking dead from sale? Is it not a travesty that when you describe how gloriously vulgar or sexy or stunning some vintage perfume or another used to be, then encounter a blank stare from a person who has only ever smelled the current juice… would it not be kinder to leave our scent memories be instead of milking more money out of a zombie? The alternative is trying to campaign for the status of perfumes to be like works of art and rightly preserved in their original state (as much as the availability of materials permits).

Happy Halloween!

Images from: Vieux Papiers, Lord Price, Fragrantica, Yesterday’s Perfume

Nick and Pia Sniff London: Our Perfumery Day Out

My picks from our London sniffing dayNick Gilbert and I have got to know each other through Basenotes over the years and have had the chance to attend a few perfume events together (some I’ve arranged, some a little more formal). Anyway, after writing about how well and truly behind I was on perfume sniffing and lamenting about it to my nose-nerd friends, Nick and I ended up hatching a plan for a catch-up sniff day. He has been busy as a perfume professional at Les Senteurs and now at Penhaligon’s and I spent my last few years in a blissful state of flow at the Lush perfume lab and working on getting Gorilla Perfume started. Nick has certainly been in a better position to keep his nose informed of what’s going on but I’ve not been completely in the dark, instead relying on serendipity, recommendations and the occasional British Society of Perfumers’ event (another one of which is coming up in November).

So, last Saturday, we met up in central London and worked our way through Liberty’s, Penhaligon’s, Avery and Selfridges. We stopped for lunch after Liberty’s at Le Pain Quotidien and I had delicious (if overpriced) hazelnut flute with hummus and a green salad. Getting to chat and compare notes with a fellow perfume enthusiast is my favourite part of perfume nerdery. It’s so entertaining and you gain many new insights from comparing your experiences, listening to someone else’s impression of a scent and smelling it on someone else’s skin. More about that last part later.

There is no way I could list everything we smelled that day without this becoming a 3000 word essay, so I have picked my personal favourites:

Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle
I can’t remember the last time I smelled a perfume that gave me goosebumps. This is so good I burst out laughing out of sheer delight. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for removing any anxiety I had about the state of modern perfumery. Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle is complex, yet wearable, floral, yet not cloying and has distinct stages without seeming out of balance. One of the few I actually put on my skin: once it had been there for a few minutes, saffron appeared. This is worth seeking out on purpose.

Iris Prima by Penhaligon’s
When Nick took us to Penhaligon’s (mostly to inspect how the window displays were looking), I had the opportunity to try Iris Prima. Always suspicious of scents that get a lot of hype, this was a delightful surprise. On the blotter: a black and white film about a ballerina with a sad ending. A melancholy floral. My grandmother’s handbag with violet sweets and expensive perfume. I liked it but didn’t love it – not until they gave me a sample to take home and I wore it a couple of days later. I have a tendency to turn everything sweet (which is why Angel on my skin is like the death screams of a thousand pink barbies melting) so I tend to do something to suede-type scents (Daim Blond by Serge Lutens is one of my all-time favourites) and most chypres wear very well. I’m now so keen on Iris Prima that this has gone on my “must buy” list along with the Dries Van Noten.

Oeillet by Prada
The perfumer here has either used real oeillet (carnation) absolute or is very good at creating the impression of it. Forget most “carnation” scents you’ve smelled; the cheap shorthand for carnation is eugenol and if you’re not fan of the quite blunt hit that it can create, you might have been put off from carnation notes even when they’ve been done like this, like burying your face in golden flowers.

Jour d’Hermes
Extremely beautiful, transparent but not anemic; another straight on the must-buy list. For the record, the Jardins series hasn’t captured me (although I can see the style has merit) so I was surprised at how much I liked this.

Elie Saab Le Parfum
A mainstream gem; if you want to smell pretty but don’t want to tackle a difficult-to-wear niche scent, this is a feminine floral done well. I got completely confused by the different presentations of this. It’s the Le Parfum I like. I think.

Alien Liqueur de Parfum
Speaking of different presentations, Alien definitely suffers from flankeritis but after reading about Liquer de Parfum having rum notes, I had to sniff it. I’m glad I did. If I was running out of my (other two bottles of) Alien, I’d have bought this on the spot. It’s Alien with a bit of boozy-woody va-va-voom and a gorgeous bottle to boot. I didn’t feel it was sufficiently different from the original for me to purchase it (though I still might given that it’s a limited edition. On the other hand, I hate falling for limited editions because, well, they’re limited).

Bottega Veneta pour Homme
A stylish, understated masculine (smelled great on Nick but I was also keeping a nose out for a new scent for my husband). This has a soft backbone and would also smell nice on a woman, I bet.

Reiss Black Oudh
Forget the “black”, forget the “oudh” – this is a good, woody masculine fragrance head and shoulders above many mainstream launches, manages to tap into the oudh trend without going too far into camel poop territory and smells great on the skin. The price tag is reasonable and the bottle doesn’t look too bad either. Definitely one of the best things to come out recently – good AND accessible.

Noisetier candle by Diptyque
I love Diptyque candles and my favourite is Opoponax – but this new one might just become a new favourite. Imagine a sort of drier, woodier version of Nutella as a candle. That.