Why is the fragrance industry so secretive?

Smoke in a jar

(This is a follow-up post to the earlier article: “What is a perfumer and how to become one.”)

Why aren’t perfume ingredients listed in full?

Why do we have to rely on a generic list of everything that could possibly be in fragrance, issued by IFRA (which rather puts a dampener on the scaremongers who claim that fragrances are full of “secret chemicals”. Having said that, the list is probably not exhaustive – the rise of kitchen sink amateur perfumery, and of independent natural perfumery means that there are people tincturing, distilling and otherwise producing some of their own materials).
Why does the fragrance industry insist on apparently circumventing laws which affect other cosmetic products (fine fragrances are, after all, classed as cosmetics as far as regulators go)? Or food – let’s look at food. Why should fragrances earn special treatment when food companies must list all of their ingredients?

With gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), surely every competitor will know what is in the fragrance anyway?

Good questions. However, there are some answers which may shed light on the reasons. I don’t pretend to know all of them, nor do I wish to attempt to defend, or speak for the industry as such, but there are many reasons why fragrance remains a special case.

Two magicians

The cooking analogy seems so attractive. There seems to be no difference between cooking and perfumery. Except, of course there is. Some rather big differences, actually. Flavours in processed food can be hidden from us, much the same way as fragrances can be in cosmetics or household products. “Natural flavour” on the ingredients list could mean a complex formula, and there are good commercial reasons for keeping them secret. What would happen to the Coca Cola company if they had to list their flavour on the bottle? We all know that other cola brands exist, and while they’re all recognisably ‘cola’ (a mix of citrus and spice), none of them taste like Coca Cola*.

With food, if you start with cheap ingredients, you may be able to transform them to something edible (and some cheap ingredients like lentils are actually very good for you), but if you took a piece of cheap meat, you’d never transform it into a good steak. With cooking, one usually can tell what one is eating (unless you’re eating a very clever dish from Heston Blumenthal). With perfumery, the whole concept is based on a kind of olfactory illusion. Good perfumers are illusionists. They exploit the combinational nature of our olfactory perception, and create accords; mixtures of ingredients which together smell of their own smell, rather than of an obvious combination of the materials used. In other words, a perfume is greater than a sum of its parts. The cost of ingredients doesn’t necessarily determine the finesse of the finished fragrance.

Accords form the basis of conventional fragrance families (chypre, oriental, fougere and so on). When we perceive a fragrance, our brains create a cognitive construct of the smell based on many factors, including our genetic make-up, scent memories, cultural preferences and so on (about which I wrote extensively for ODOU, Issue 1). Everyone’s cognitive construct is slightly different, and will recall familiar smells, imagery, emotions and events unique to that person.

Ask yourself – would it be fair for us to insist that before we go to see an illusionist, or a stage macician, we should be given full disclosure of exactly the tools and techniques used to achieve their magic? Would it enhance their performance, or ruin it? Would it affect their earning potential?

Safety is a consideration, of course. Perfume safety is mostly looked after by an industry-controlled body, IFRA, which responds to the recommendations of an independent research body (RIFM), and tries to communicate with regulators to reach reasonable conclusions about fragrance safety. Unfortunately, this process hasn’t been perfect, and has left fragrances needlessly over-regulated. There are many conspiracy theories about IFRA, too, one of the most popular ones being a ‘destruction of naturals so that the main members can take over the market with synthetic alternatives’ which doesn’t ring true the moment one explores the topic further. Just check out the revenue each of the main IFRA members earns from the production and distribution of natural materials, and think whether it would make good business sense to kill that part of the industry. Never mind the astronomical cost to fragrance manufacturers, should everything have to be re-formulated (that’s right – the cost of reformulation has to be covered by the fragrance supply house, not the downstream users). I will write more about that another time. Nevertheless, this post is also partly an attempt to explain the need for an industry-controlled body; there should be reasonable expectations to keep certain things a trade secret, providing consumers are protected. While the interface between the industry and law-makers leaves a lot to be desired (talk about cracking a walnut with a hammer, anyone?), the current system could still be a basis for a healthier appreciation of real risk vs. just banning fragrance outright (which could happen if scaremongering organisations like the Environmental Working Group get their way – this is the type of lobbying* which leads to EU and international pressure to ban and over-regulate fragrances). We must promote scientific literacy, and proper evaluation of risk (context and dose matter). For example, we all know that radioactivity is bad, right? However, all living things are radioactive. Ruh-oh! Now what? Ban all the things!

Ban all the things

Perfumes can create extraordinary associations for us. Scents can instantly remind us of things. That, combined with the suggestibility of the human mind (and its preference for narrative structure to information) means that perfume marketing has always been full of stories and fantasy. We love stories, and they help sell products. When the scent of a consumer product matches expectations, its users perceive the product to be more effective. This has been studied – give people two identical shampoo formulas, and the one with a successful fragrance will be perceived as having left the hair cleaner and shinier than the other.

A hypnotist

Listing ingredients for a perfume is about as informative as listing every paint used to paint a picture.

Actually, even less. By the time colours have been blended, they will look different to the prime colours they originally were. Mona Lisa contains blue, green, yellow, red, black and white. Can you tell, based on that, what it looks like and whether you’ll like it?
Lily of the valley

Good perfumers also know that rose oil doesn’t smell of roses in bloom, it smells of rose oil, and to construct a rose-in-bloom, one must construct a rose accord (which can be enhanced by the use of natural rose oil, of course). To construct a lily-of-the-valley, one must use many synthetic materials because the flowers don’t yield an essential oil. Using a little bit of bergamot or ylang-ylang in a lily-of-the-valley accord can enhance it. If one were to list ylang-ylang on the ingredient list of the finished product, one could put off a consumer who loathes the smell of ylang-ylang itself. In a well-built lily-of-the-valley accord, the ylang-ylang would not stand out, and would instead form part of the rich, floral aspect of the lily-of-the-valley scent.

A good perfumer can make cheap materials smell expensive, and a bad perfumer can make expensive materials smell cheap. (There is a breaking point with the former; if you have an extremely low budget, or are developing a fragrance for a hostile base product, say bleach, you’re a bit stuffed).

Cooking is a basic survival skill, and simple forms of cooking should be taught to all. Perfuming things is more of a frivolity, and not essential to survival (though I have many friends who would disagree), so the skills to make fragrances for consumer products have not been essential general knowledge. On the other hand, in Victorian times, cooks were regularly concocting fragranced creams and other products in the kitchen, and barbers might also have been perfumers, and amateur perfumery is once again on the rise. I don’t think the industry has considered this aspect of fragrance safety enough, and it might be better to find ways to reliably inform the general public without giving too many trade secrets away, than risk a kind of perfumery black market, which is already establishing itself.

Ingredient lists

Familiarity and the feeling of safety are essential when marketing products.

Listing the names of natural materials that the accords in the fragrance are meant to represent is much more effective than listing the ingredients used to create the effect.
Consumers are far more likely to have positive feelings towards a product which lists “lily of the valley” as an ingredient, than a product which lists “hydroxycitronellal, citronellol, alpha-terpineol, phenylethyl alcohol, indole, lilial, florosa…”. Another issue is practicality. I made a very simple lily-of-the-valley accord last week, and the ingredients ran to over a dozen (about 15, if I remember correctly). If I were to use that fragrance base at, let’s say, 1% in a fragrance compound consisting of 10 ingredients, I’d end up with a list of 25 ingredients before I even added the finished fragrance to a product. The product itself might have 20 ingredients, so you’d end up with a list of 45 ingredients on a label. Not only would they be highly unlikely to fit on a label, the long list would needlessly scare consumers who have been taught that a) “simple is best”, b) “chemicals are bad” and c) “unless you can pronounce the ingredient, it’s bad for you”. (a) everything is made up of chemicals, b) not necessarily, c) try some of these).

We all love the idea of natural materials. The concept is just so safe and… wholesome. Natural jasmine absolute smells wonderful, and can do wonderful things to a fragrance. Natural oakmoss is tough to mimic. All-natural perfumery seems like a superior concept; safer, unaltered from how Nature intended (replace that with God if you’re religious). Marketers and product manufacturers have always appealed to our emotions. We instinctively gravitate towards the word “natural”. There are silent words between-the-lines. Natural = safe, in our minds.

Say, would you like some natural arsenic?

In safety terms, and in terms of appropriate use, “natural” is a meaningless concept. We shouldn’t confuse an emotional and aesthetic argument with one about safety.

There are, therefore, some parallels with the cosmetic industry here; many ingredients on cosmetic product labels sound very scary and synthetic, but are actually there just to perform a function, rather than to do anything for the consumer. Waxes, opacifiers, thickeners, emulsifiers, foaming agents and preservatives are needed to create cosmetic products, and the role of these materials is to make the product what it is. The list of active ingredients (let’s say, a humectant like hyaluronic acid), can actually be quite small. It can be difficult to reassure consumers that a preservative is a necessary evil, or that some scary chemical-sounding ingredient is actually a completely benign wax, used to thicken the product.

Rose

In an ideal world, everyone would be scientifically literate; we’d all be comfortable evaluating risk and context, and we’d skip and hop through fields, not only naming the plants we’re seeing along the way, but knowing that they’re all little chemical factories. In this ideal world, we would be more comfortable about labelling all products in a totally transparent way. It could be an interesting experiment to insist natural products are labelled similarly, as per the James Kennedy example. Rose oil is made up of hundreds of chemicals, though (over 300, I believe), so it could get logistically impossible.

In fact, the main argument over the several dozen new fragrance ‘allergens’ identified by the SCCS is about how manufactures will label their products with the total number of ingredients and ‘allergens’ which must be listed soon running into silly numbers. There has been some talk about listing everything on a peel-off label, or on websites, but there has not been a decision yet at the time of writing.

An alchemist

Back before gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) became commonplace in the fragrance industry, chemists and the fragrance material producers they worked with, were able to create chemicals and mixtures with deliberately obscure trade names, in an attempt to mask the true nature of the substances in question. That’s why ‘aldehyde C14’ is not really an aldehyde, for example (it’s really a lactone, gamma undecalactone, to be precise).

However, even with a GC-MS machine and a good database, a skillful operator is needed – the readouts can be matched to entries in a database, but it takes a knowledgeable person to identify what the likely answers are. A single peak can be matched to several potential molecules. In natural materials, certain chemicals go together (biological processes and chemical reactions create recognisable chemical “fingerprints”). So if you’re analysing a natural oil which contains anethole, you should also find estragole (methyl chavicol).

Perfume bottles

Fragrance mixtures can’t be patented or trademarked.

This is a problem for an industry which relies on selling fragrance mixtures to brands and product manufacturers. There are various methods with which to make copying fragrances tougher. Even a simple fragrance formula can contain one or two proprietary chemicals (that is, fragrance molecules developed by the company manufacturing the fragrance compound. New molecules can be patented and held “captive” for the duration of the patent, thereby giving the producer of said molecule a commercial advantage). I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask that a company whose income relies on creating and selling formulas to a third party (whilst said formulas cannot be patented or trademarked) should be allowed to keep aspects of the formula secret (allergens and IFRA-regulated constituents have to be revealed).

Bases are a common other trick – let’s say I wanted to make a floral fragrance and use some of the lily-of-the-valley accord I made earlier; I could add that, plus a two or three other bases to a skeleton formula. The finished fragrance compound could end up with a hundred ingredients or more, many of them present at justΒ  trace in the finished (diluted) product. There are many fragrance materials which impart a noticeable effect on the smell, even at trace amounts (aldehydes, animalic materials and lactones, for example), but when they are present at low quantities, the GC-MS trace will have numerous small peaks, which can be tricky to analyse correctly. The trace is not like a Tesco receipt; it takes skill and a good-quality database to interpret it correctly.

A technical perfumer, quality controller, evaluator or a chemist can perform the GC-MS analysis, and the job has to be finished by a creative perfumer, who may be able to create a more convincing reconstruction by smelling the scent. Deliberately inducing selective anosmia is a popular trick for copying fragrances.

The fragrance industry is somewhat peculiar, also, in how many of the competitors are each others’ customers. A perfumer in one company may wish to use a material created by another company. One company might specialise in natural materials, while another is strong on aroma chemicals. I’ve listened to sales conversations in which both participants are selling something to oneanother. One person is buying in a base, and at the same time, selling a natural absolute to the other.

Buying in materials directly from the source is a fantastic way for a supplier to ensure a competitive edge, but it’s wise to keep the sources to oneself or a competitor might snap up next season’s crop. Natural materials do run out all the time – and natural material suppliers offer opportunities to reserve a part of the season’s supply for important customers. Keeping various internal networks and relationships secret therefore doesn’t stretch to just the fragrance supplier-(brand)-consumer; it is absolutely vital to certain aspects of how the industry operates internally.

All of the above goes some way towards explaining why the industry relies on relationships and a degree of secrecy to stay viable. There are many situations in which it would be detrimental to the whole industry to ‘let the cat out of the bag’ to the degree that many campaigners seem to want.

This represents a difficult entry to the world of perfumery for people who attempt to study it on their own.

Rubber band ball

Self-studying perfumery is like trying to accurately describe the inside of a ball of rubber bands, whilst only being able to see the outside of it.

Or like looking for a needle in a haystack, complete with several fake needles and fake haystacks. Or like the Indian parable of blind men and an elephant. Not knowing what you don’t know can lead to mistakes, frustration, and to incorrect assumptions about the true nature of things.
The main benefit of getting mentored by a conventionally-trained perfumer, is the passing down of insider knowledge, and of known combinations and good accords. A perfumery tutor today carries the knowledge of decades of experimentation. You could spend a week trying to create the creamiest possible incarnation between vanillin and ethylvanillin, when an experienced perfumer, carrying in his or her head the received wisdom of all the generations before, could tell you in seconds what works. And once you know the basics, it’s easier to be creative. Amateur-would-be-indie perfumers are at a disadvantage because they have to re-invent everything, and much of the information in the public domain is outdated, misleading or plain wrong. Those who make it, and produce beautiful, commercially successful perfumers despite of this, are a celebration of human creativity and endeavour.

The biggest obstacle to amateur perfumery is time.

I think it’s fair for perfumery to retain some of its magic. I think it’s fine for the notes lists in perfumery marketing materials to be somewhat fictitious (but I don’t think it’s fine to lie to consumers that a product which contains synthetic materials is “all-natural” because that only goes towards creating a false divide between natural and synthetic chemicals).

What the industry needs, however, is far more accessible education for both consumers and people who wish to work in it (independently or not).

————————————————————————————————————————————-

Copyright Pia Long. You may not reproduce this article in any publication without explicit prior written permission. If you want to use this post for staff training, or for any internal educational purpose (at a school, university or any other organisation), please use it under these conditions: 1) it must remain complete, unaltered and include this notice, 2) you must include the complete URL to this page and my name, 3) you must not include it as part of any training for which you are charging a fee (without explicit prior written permission).

This was a follow-up post to the earlier article: “What is a perfumer and how to become one.”

————————————————————————————————————————————-

* The Coca Cola point was added by Walter Paget in a lively discussion about this article on the Perfumer & Flavorist LinkedIn page.

* Please take everything you see at the EWG with a pinch of salt. Its mission seems to be to scare consumers, not to inform them. Whilst some of the data they use is undoubtedly of interest, the way it’s represented is not designed to help anyone make correct judgements – it seems to be designed to scare consumers into buying “safe shopping” guides, and into making donations. The way many of their articles are written seems to suggest that safety is a binary condition; that things are either safe or not safe. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Water is safe until you drink too much of it in one sitting (at which point your salt balance goes out of whack, your brain swells and you die), or end up with a thimbleful in your lungs (at which point you could drown).

Advertisements