We’re buying natural perfumes more than ever. I won’t bore you with statistics as the last industry report soundbites are easy to Google, but suffice to say that natural perfumery is now playing catch-up with natural skincare big time. Natural perfumery was, to my mind, pioneered by Californian-based, long-time natural perfumer Mandy Aftel, whose books I can thank for having peaked my own interest into the genre. Alexandra Balahoutis, perfumer and founder of botanical brand Strange Invisible Perfumes, is another leading light and pioneer to a point of absolute perfection in creating natural perfumes.
While natural perfumery isn’t quite mainstreaming yet, it is finding its place in a millennial-driven world. As more consumers are buying natural skincare products, they are looking also at completing the personal care daily ritual by either avoiding anything with fragrance or seeking out products with all-natural perfume. “[…] growing health awareness among consumers, pursuit of healthy buying and growing consumer consciousness about the impact of using synthetic products on the human body and the environment [is resulting in] consumer inclination towards natural ingredients over synthetic ingredients and creating growth opportunity for natural fragrances,” says AB News Wire in its March 2018 report on the natural perfume market.
This has not gone unnoticed by the big flavour and fragrance giants such as IFF and Givaudin which are increasingly buying up or buying into this rising tide of natural ingredients players and niche, natural and indie perfumery brands. Symrise, another giant in the fragrance market, recently took around a 20% stake in the Austin-based brand Phlur, which is all about transparency and ‘clean ingredients’. Apparently, in 2017, Phlur quintupled revenues and acquired over 35,000 customers, according to a report in industry reviewer Beauty Independent.
What does this growth of natural perfumes mean for you, the fragrance buyer?
Firstly, plenty of choice, of course. But with that choice come shades of natural as not all natural perfumes are made equal. Second, buying natural perfumes takes some getting used to as they look, feel and perform differently from those created with synthetics or even a blend of natural and synthetic raw materials. If you have more experience of regular high-street department store or duty-free perfumery counters than seeking out indie perfumes in more bespoke perfumeries, this post is designed to guide you on what to look out for, recognise and understand about buying natural perfumes.
In essence, I am drilling down the components that make a perfume natural and also into consumer expectations when buying and wearing naturals. Naturals are very different beings from synthetics; in fact, it’s their human face, complexity and unpredictability that attracts me to the, and which I hope will enthrall you and entice you into buying natural perfumes.
What to Look For When Buying Natural Perfumes
1. Natural Fragrance Oils
Perfume marketing waxes lyrical about the individual notes – real or illusory – that make up a fragrance and grab our attention when buying perfume. After all, alcohol is just the boring carrier for those incredible fragrance molecules; though in the next point, we have a lot to say about the alcohol. The actual fragrance oils make up anywhere from around 2 per cent to 30 per cent of a fragrance, depending on whether it is a splash-on cologne (lower percentage) to a high-end eau de parfum (8-15%) or even a perfume extract (up to 30%). Most eau de toilette contain 4-8% or so fragrances oils.
You might think that given the potentially low percentage of actual fragrance oils, it won’t matter if not all are natural. After all, each will be used in minute amounts. However, while the alcohol carrier evaporates, the aroma molecules remain on our skin, peeling of at various speeds from citrussy top notes first, to heavier base notes last. The length of time on our skin varies according to the oils, true, but if we repeatedly spray on fragrance day after day albeit in low doses, we need to factor in our body’s long-term exposure to these powerful chemicals. Depending on the method of extraction, so-called natural fragrance oils may contain elements of solvent residues, heavy metal catalysers and so on that may not fit with your understanding of ‘natural’.
You will need to do your research into what type of ‘natural’ your chosen fragrance house adheres to. Does it interpret natural as including natural isolates, which are single molecules derived from nature but not present in nature in isolation. Does the fragrance house work with naturals but deviate to use synthetic recreations that mimic formerly animal-derived scents such as civet, ambegris, castoreum or musk? These oils hold a special role and place in perfumery for their scent and fixative properties (ability to make a scent last) but obviously today, for ethical and conservation reasons, we would be outraged if they were used in their truly natural state. Would you accept fragrance oils produced by CO2, which yields quality oils produced at lower temperatures than with distillation? Or are you keener on using those extracted purely by distillation and cold pressing?
As you can see, there are many shades of natural and you will need to make your peace with which you feel tallies with your wishes.
Let’s be clear: just because a fragrance oil is natural, doesn’t make it less harmful. Which is why in the EU, natural perfumers are heavily restricted by the amount of certain natural oils, such as rose and jasmine, we can use as they contain ingredients that are potential allergens or carcinogens. Both the EU and IFRA (International Fragrance Association) issue restrictions for various oils and perfumery ingredients that commercial fragrance formulae must comply with in order to get past safety testing and to market. Bespoke creators have more leeway to use higher amounts if client and perfumer agree.
So, if you are choosing an all-natural fragrance (oil component) over a semi or totally synthetic one, you need to a) check that it is being sold legally and has passed safety testing; and b) need to understand that it won’t automatically mean you aren’t allergic to it in some shape or form, even with IFRA compliance in place. If in doubt about point (a), ask the fragrance brand for information, though be aware that at present, few will divulge their exact fragrance component for fear of giving their secrets to competitors. Some brands though do spell out exactly what’s in the tin, on their websites, as their need for transparency is a win-win in their marketing and gives them an edge among their target consumers.
Hard on the heels of fragrance oils, comes the alcohol base used as a carrier for your natural fragrance. Just like the fragrance oils, alcohol is not all it may seem. Fragrance houses generally use trade-specific, denatured (making it unfit to drink) alcohol that is 95-96% proof. Ideally, a natural perfumer should be using 99,5% cosmetic grade, pure grain ethyl alcohol.
However, in many countries it is very difficult to obtain alcohol at that percentage as it is restricted, taxed heavily and allowed for purchase with a licence only. The red tape can make it near impossible for an independent or new natural perfume brand to get hold of. This means that your natural perfume may be made up of perfumers’ alcohol which is also adulterated, to ensure it’s not drunk and for tax purposes, with additives such as isopropyl myristate and monopropylene glycol, both of which would not be ‘allowed’ in natural perfumery.
There are many variants of denatured ethanol; some less worrying from a toxicology point of view. Again, the only way to know what your perfume contains is to ask the fragrance house. The INCI – International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients’ code – is the only clear way to know for sure what is in the alcohol part of a fragrance and once again, only a handful of perfumery brands will tell you. The most scrupulous natural brands should have no issue giving you the information.
What you are happy to use and consider ‘natural’ is, again, a matter for you to decide and to weigh up; remember, small, indie natural perfumers don’t have the industry clout to always get the ingredients they desire. They need to work to a more pure natural goal and start creating with what they can legally obtain and financially afford.
Armed with the information above, you will be better placed to work out when buying natural perfume if it is worth the price you’re paying. Knowing the ingredients it contains will help you understand the pricing. Generally, natural perfumery ingredients cost more than synthetics; though this isn’t always the case. Some synthetics take a lot of stages to produce, and are the fruit of years of lab research. That costs.
As does the perennial search for quality naturals. For example, a cyclone this year hit Madagascar which is a main grower of quality vanilla. Hence, the price of fragrances using vanilla will soar as that ingredient becomes limited. Before you pay for what you think are naturals, check the brand out to see if they are genuinely using a high percentage of naturals to warrant the price. Similarly, if you find natural perfume offered at a very low price, do your homework. A few cheap essential oils dropped into an alcohol base does not make a truly creative, niche, natural perfume.
Bear in mind too that a great deal of a perfume’s price on the shelf will be related to packaging and branding. Some niche natural perfumeries sell direct to consumer online, so manage to harness costs to some extent on the marketing and branding by relying on social media. However, on the flip side of the coin, small natural perfumeries don’t have the economies of scale of mass-made predominantly synthetic brands so may still find cash goes disproportionately to packaging and production as well as delivery.
The cost of a fragrance is determined also by creativity. What are you prepared to pay for a natural scent with a good brand back story? Price is in the eye of the wearer.
4. Natural Perfume Colour
Sparkling light pink and translucent turquoise are common enough fragrance colours in synthetic-based scents thanks to additives. These marketing hues are what sell a scent. They do look pretty bottled!
They are though mostly impossible for the natural perfumer to obtain. Look at the most prevalent hues of natural perfumes and you’ll find ambery, darker resinous colours often dominate.
Light, bright and mildly yellow, whitish or green are possible with lighter citrus-based, herbaceous, green scents. Naturals by their very nature are more likely to have residues that need filtering off, or fixative notes made from resins and balsams that leave their dark golden traces behind. From my research of natural perfumes, the darker colours are more prevalent.
5. Variations or Vintage
The natural perfumer is dealing per force with the vagaries of nature. As I mentioned above, a harvest might fail because of freak weather which then sees supplies limited and prices hiked. From year to year, the natural perfumer can’t guarantee the exact same scent profile of any individual aroma ingredient they source. Even if buying from the same supplier in the same country, the climatic conditions will have influence over the end aroma of that ingredient.
The most incredible noses in the naturals’ industry, like Aftel, acknowledge that the variation in supplies season to season is both a challenge and a blessing for natural perfumery. This aspect is what makes naturals so appealing, if frustrating. While one might know that Bulgarian Rose Damask has a different odor profile from Moroccan, the scent will vary once again, like grape vintages, from year to year. When buying natural perfumes, and returning to a favourite fragrance for a repurchase, be aware that it might not be 100 per cent the same odor.
6. Limited Editions
Think of each batch of a natural perfume as a limited edition, and you’ll see it for the serendipitous, rare creature it is. A lot of natural perfumers are small-scale, even solo entrepreneurs who work along artisinal lines. Following on from the point above, you will see that the artisan niche natural perfumer may have to wait for the next season’s supplies or take a pause to track down a new source of a specific, key ingredient.
They will therefore inevitably have downtime and periods when a certain scent may be out of stock. This is how some perfumers like to work. It gives them time to learn ever more about their craft rather than work under the strict commercial pressure of churning out scents. Relish the wait, learn to love limited editions, and you will have totally different approach to perfume appreciation and evaluation.
7. Sillage / Impact
Each natural ingredient is a powerhouse of complex scents in its own right. Naturals need to be used more sparingly in a perfume and given space to move rather than crowded in with a whole list of others in a single accord. This is why some perfumers like to use mainly naturals but off-set or lighten up a scent by using some aroma chemicals to give more space to the formula. Others will limit themselves knowing that too many naturals, whether heart or base, can make a scent too heavy or cloying.
Without getting into the chemistry, what you may find is that some naturals can be heady, heavy sillage affairs as they have been composed with an overdose of some headier bases (or floral heart) notes. This is not necessarily a case of the perfumer not being sensitive enough as it might be what their perfume brief or muse required of them. Do get used to reading up on the story of a perfume, the notes used and train yourself to understand the scent profile you’ll be getting. And fill yourself in on the perfume vocab used to describe natural perfumes so you can judge a bottle before you buy.
As usual, don’t blind buy, or instantly buy. Rather, I suggest buying sample or travel size phials if available and also test the fragrance over several days to discover how it evolves. Remember, that the best natural perfumers will relish the challenge of all-naturals and make stunning, surprising, yet easily wearable scents that don’t have to leave a sillage trailing in doses as you pass by.
8. Lasting Power
Linked to sillage is lasting power – or the fixative qualities of scent. A scent may have a strong impact but not last, and conversely, a mild impact at first only to remain discernible days later on clothes or a smelling strip. While linked, the two aspects of fragrance are not the same. When it comes to naturals, one key criticism over the years has been that they lack longevity. Certainly, it is very difficult but not impossible with all-naturals to create light, citrussy, ozonic or marine scents that have durability.
The second main critical refrain is that natural perfumers, to overcome this issue, opt for strong base notes with a heavy hand, using resins, ouds, balsams, ambergris, tobacco, leather or heavier spices notes to fix the fragrance and make it endure.
The take out from these points is that natural perfumers do have to know their ingredients so well they can create scents in naturals that push the boundaries. I believe we have to adjust our mindset and realise that we shouldn’t compare apples with pears. Don’t go to buy natural perfumes with preconceptions born of wearing semi or totally synthetic aroma-chemical fragrances. And don’t expect naturals to replicate synthetics; that’s not their job.
9. Perfumer’s Palette
Again, this point follows closely that above. I would argue that there is no need to debate naturals vs synthetics nor why the perfumer chooses one over the other. The two genres of perfumery take different skills, with no one route being more righteous than another. However, be aware that some argue that natural perfumery is limited in what it can achieve. If you dismiss thousands of years of natural perfumery from its use in ancient rituals to its clear revival today and make comparisons only with the scents created over the past 130 years of synthetics’ use in perfumery, you might be right to assume that. Synthetics have opened up a realm of fantasy in perfumery that does not need natural botanicals to achieve its aim. This is fine with me.
The best explanation of the richness and depth of naturals which allays my doubts that I operate within a limited palette by using them comes from Alexandra Balahoutis of Strange Invisible Perfumes in an interview in CaFleurbon. She says: “Some say that I “limit” myself to a natural palette, but I don’t feel limited at all. I source hundreds of exceptional ingredients from all over the world…Clearly, synthetic aromas come with limits of their own. I choose instead to draw from an extensive palette of deeply nuanced natural essences, and I feel no lack of possibility.”
What does define natural perfumery creation is a different palette of odor profile options. In all-natural perfumery, there is no lily of the valley, musk (ambrette seed oil, the nearest botanical to musk is prohibited by IFRA), peony nor hyacinth and a good many more aromas, mainly florals, that synthetic perfumes can use. These botanicals just don’t yield up their scent profiles by any natural extraction method.
Peony is a trending flower in both photography and scent right now, but no peony essential oil nor other extract exists for the natural perfumer. Can we create peony? Yes, by stealth and with imagination by nuanced weaving of other naturals that include rose, geraniol, citronellol and several other natural isolates.
As I noted before, creating ozonic, marine style scents is near impossible with all naturals. We natural perfumers know this, and therefore should not promise these fragrances. If you know that too, you won’t be disappointed by naturals, but rather come to appreciate that true natural perfumers stick to their beliefs and don’t compromise for the sake of adding a marine, ozonic scent to their ranges.
The take-out then is not to view naturals as limiting, nor simply a few essentials oils roughly dropped into an alcohol base. The best natural perfumers at the top of their craft will be stretched and challenged, but none would consider their options limited.
10. The Founder
Before you buy a particular natural brand, and perhaps even before you’ve drilled down the 9 tips above, meet the founder or chief perfumer creating the fragrances – start with their about page online. They will give you probably most of the answers to the questions raised here. The mission, the definition of ‘natural’ as interpreted by that brand, their choices, the provenance of ingredients and their passion and back story will hold so many clues to the naturalness or otherwise of their fragrances.
As a great many niche, natural brands are born on kitchen tables with self-taught founder-perfumers arriving at their calling via an incredible assortment of previous careers, you will discover their scents by discovering the person behind them.