The news in fragrance (and flavor) seems to be ‘natural’ and sustainable. This is something I have been thinking much about since, well, since I started making natural perfumes. More so since last year when I attended the World Perfumery Congress in Miami. Consider this the first of several posts on the subjects of naturalness, sustainability, and how fragrance materials are created.
Let’s start with the questions “What is natural?” in perfumery. The answers are varied, multi-layered, and up to the perfumer and customer to search for and answer for their own particular needs and desires.
An important note here: This post is intended solely to express my thoughts on natural with the best research I can find. It is not intended as legal or business advice nor am I preaching the theme of ‘natural.’ I welcome your comments and thoughts.
Firstly, where can I find a definition of natural, specifically as it relates to perfumes?
The United States has no definition of natural fragrance. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods, drugs, cosmetics, medical devices, biologics, radiation-producing devices, veterinary, and tobacco products. Under cosmetics it lists color additives, skin moisturizers and cleansers, and nail polish and perfume. From their FAQ, (https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Industry/ucm388736.htm#7):
“FDA has not defined the term “natural” and has not established a regulatory definition for this term in cosmetic labeling.”
It further states:
“Don’t use terms such as “natural” as part of an ingredient statement, because ingredients must be listed by their common or usual names, without additional description.”
The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) states:
There is no “official regulatory definition “for the term natural but IFRA considers fragrance ingredients to be natural “when these pre-exist in natural source materials from which they are isolated exclusively by physical means.” A google search on IFRA green fragrance terminology should get you to the pdf.
It is easy to get into the ‘weeds’ on this topic and I am going to try and keep it simple, at least for this post.
So, I call myself a natural perfumer. What does that mean?
Plants are natural and animals (and their products like honey, ambergris, or butter) are natural. Once you begin extracting from plants and animals, the boundaries become less clear. Then there is technology, both old and new.
I use materials made from living things with as little modification as possible. I do this because I find these materials amazingly beautiful, complex, and interesting. My perfumes are constructed with essential oils, absolutes, my own tinctures, and other extractions, and resins. No one has ever questioned the ‘naturalness’ of my perfumes but if they did, I have hundreds of bottles of natural ingredients, resins, tinctures in my studio that illustrate the point; I also have notes and invoices of materials purchased to back up my claim.
What natural ingredients do I include within my palette and definition? Here is a short list:
Tinctures, infusions, and enfleurage: Tinctures are extractions of aromatic materials using alcohol. I will tincture just about anything from spices to flowers. For an infusion I will use a fixed oil, usually jojoba or fractionated coconut oil. I don’t do infusions as much as tinctures, mainly because I do more alcohol than oil perfumes but also because I don’t find the results as satisfying. Many people, however, prefer and regularly use infusions. The process of enfleurage uses fats to absorb the fragrances exhaled by flowers (mostly, although experimentation may find other materials). See my blog on enfleurage here: Enfleurage: Lessons from Frangipani to Peony.
Essential oils: Essential oils are extracts from plant material using water or steam distillation or, in the case of some citrus oils, from what is called ‘cold-pressing’ or extraction of the peel oils by simple physical means. For more on distillation, see my published article. There are many, many essential oils, from agarwood to zdravetz and they form a very large part of my natural perfume ingredients. More and more I am seeing co-distillates on the market where similar ingredients are distilled together, taking advantage of a synergy that occurs during the distillation process that seems to be more dynamic than simply mixing two aromatics together. For example lavender and immortelle or woody ingredients like pine and fir.
Concrètes and Absolutes: Absolutes are a ‘go-to’ material for many perfumers but first you have the concrète. To produce the concrète, aromatics materials are extracted with a solvent, hexane for example, that separates out the fragrant molecules but also many of the waxes and fats present in the material. The concrète is almost always solid and very waxy. The fragrance of most concrètes is really beautiful and true to the botanical. But they are difficult to work with and not completely soluble in alcohol; not always in oil either. So the concrète is further extracted with alcohol to yield a liquid alcohol-soluble product, the absolute. Because they are solvent-extracted, some aromatherapists will not use absolutes and they may also be the stopping-point for perfumers desiring a completely natural product. From all I have read, virtually all the solvent is evaporated out and recovered so that a tiny percentage remains in either the concrète or absolute. I love both concrètes and absolutes and use them in nearly every perfume I make. Many of the beautiful florals used in perfumery are absolutes like jasmine, tuberose, and frangipani. Rose and orange blossom extracts can be found either as essential oils, rose otto and neroli, or as solvent extracts, rose absolute and orange blossom absolute.
CO2, SCO2, and other extractions: Carbon dioxide when made liquid is a solvent, it is benign, and returns to a gas when no longer needed for extraction. CO2 and super CO2 (SCO2) extractions are becoming more popular, especially with spices it seems. They are well worth the try and I have a number of both CO2 and SCO2 aromatics that I love. They seem to vary in solubility in both alcohol and oil. Carbon dioxide can be considered a natural solvent so that these extracts are often referred to as natural and may be organic.
In future blog posts, I will explore other ingredients and method on the spectrum of what may be called ‘natural.’ This is where it gets tricky and where a perfumer needs to educate themselves and define for their particular aesthetic what is natural.
What do you love about natural ingredients? How do you define this term?