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


2 thoughts on “Zombie Scents: A Real Horror Story

  1. You’re quite right, of course, that so many perfumes aren’t what they were. I can’t see perfume houses, that trade on the old glamorous associations, openly acknowledging how far removed some of their perfumes are from their glory days now.

    The money-making Zombie perfumes – and what an inspired name! – truly are Zombies and will stagger on and on, losing more of themselves as they go.

    • Thanks! Obviously there are other things that get in the way of enjoying a bit of scent nostalgia but the zombie nature of so many of them is the cruellest trick of all.

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