Exactly what is a natural perfume?
In these days of ‘natural’ being tagged on to all sorts of food, cosmetics and fashion products and brand marketing, it seems taken for granted that we know exactly what a natural perfume is when we see one. But, it’s precisely because the word ‘natural’ is so commonplace on such a wide range of consumables that it needs unpacking for each single product label it crops up on, including perfumes. The dictionary definition of natural only goes so far in helping us understand what natural is when applied to perfumery or other cosmetics:
/ˈnatʃ(ə)r(ə)l/ adjective 1. existing in or derived from nature; not made or caused by humankind.
While this might seem quite straightforward at a quick read, it isn’t clear at all to the cosmetics’ consumer. Labels can include the word natural almost without impunity as there is no legal definition (EU legislation) when it’s applied to cosmetics.
“Essentially, cosmetics can be certified natural if they contain a certain amount of natural ingredients.[…]. There is no formally adopted legal definition of a natural ingredient,” says the CBI, a branch of the Netherlands’ Enterprise Agency, which has a very well written, clear document outlining EU cosmetics’ compliance regulations. Various certification schemes exist to back-up naturals’ claims, but they are not legally binding.
The International Perfume Foundation, for example, has its own stringent guidelines and criteria for natural perfumes. They include a requirement for their certified, natural perfumers to use 100 per cent natural grain alcohol rather than the more usual denatured ethanol, which has additives like Bitrex to ensure it’s not drinkable.
As a natural perfumer, I can tell you that it’s extremely difficult to obtain pure ethanol in some markets without the denaturing as many jurisdictions require the purchaser to obtain a licence to use 100% pure. It’s related to customs and excise duties and therefore not always within the grasp of an artisan perfumer.
What is a natural perfume from a consumer point of view?
Where this leaves us is with cosmetics’ companies potentially using the word natural even if their products aren’t a hefty percentage natural. This might not be in line with the dictionary definition nor how consumers would generally understand ‘natural’.
However, there are updated EU recommendations governing the justification of claims. It is likely that should a brand claim a large percentage of natural ingredients but be less than scrupulous in backing up their claim, or even make false claims about having natural products, it will fall foul of some EU legislation in time. It would after all be misleading consumers.
The EU has updated it guidance on claims such as ‘free-from’ and hypo-allergenic and is moving in the direction of tightening up its 2013 cosmetics’ regulation. At the moment, the nearest we have to a legal definition of natural comes from the EU’s REACH (chemical register and supervisory agency):
REACH defines natural as a naturally-occurring substance as such, unprocessed or processed only by:
- manual, mechanical or gravitational means;
- dissolution in water;
- extraction with water;
- steam distillation or heating solely to remove water;
- or which is extracted from air by any means.
A synthetic ingredient is a substance that does not occur in nature. An ingredient, such as a botanical extract, can be a mixture of substances that occur in nature and substances that do not occur in nature (extract from the CBI, Netherlands).
Shades of natural perfume
I use natural ingredients in the Olentium perfumes and generally aim for around a 50:50 blend of naturals with aromachemicals. However, while I know my raw materials comply with the first part of the dictionary definition, in that they exist in and are derived from nature, some are clearly manipulated by man (all of the REACH extraction methods aside) and therefore not in the exact same form they occur in nature. Can I say they aren’t ’caused by humankind’?
Let’s give an example of a grey area; an ingredient that could slip through the net of natural and be synthetic if I weren’t careful in my sourcing.
One material that I love using is nerol natural isolate. Nerol is a monoterpene which was originally isolated from neroli, hence its name. It has a sweet, slightly woody citrus-floral-rose scent and is excellent at extending and adding rose elements to citrus top notes. Nerol also acts to round off harshness among various accords, blending for example citrus top notes into rose, geranium and other sweet floral hearts accords. It can be a naturally-derived isolate or synthetically created. Nerol clearly occurs in nature but not in isolate form I use in perfumery.
Similarly, linalool is another isolate that occurs in myriad materials including rose and lavender. It too can be naturally derived usually from pinenes (turpentine) or synthetically produced, usually from petro-chemicals, yet its INCI name (the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) would be the same: Linalool.
This level of detail is rarely useful to the perfume consumer who would come across linalool, if at all, listed as a potential allergen on perfume labels. But the example highlights the research any natural perfumer needs to do to ensure their source materials are in fact bio based and not synthetic.
It also opens up the discussion about what is permissible in natural perfumes. As we’ve seen, it’s up to the private sector and independent foundations like The Perfume Foundation to create their own standards. What a natural perfume is or is not, is therefore not set in stone and open to interpretation. However, I know that most natural perfumers would consider the following materials only as truly compatible with natural perfumery.
Typical Natural Perfumery Ingredients
Let’s set something straight first: natural doesn’t mean organic, nor does it mean an ingredient isn’t of animal origin. By choosing a natural perfume, you aren’t automatically buying one compatible with a vegan lifestyle or organic certification. As we saw earlier, natural certification is granted by bodies who have defined their own standards and criteria. These include entities such as Cosmos, Natrue and the Natural Products Association which, while laying down varying standards and compliance regulations, generally require a product to be:
- Produced with botanical or mineral orgin ingredients;
- Contain no parabens, sulfates or other dubious synthetic ingredients (no GMO for instance);
- Not tested on animals (according generally to EU regulation on this); and
- Produced with methods that retain the original natural ingredients’ chemical integrity.
With this in mind, the following ingredients tend to be in the natural perfumer’s palette:
Essential oils – volatile botanical oils extracted through steam distillation or cold pressing.
Tinctures – alcohol infused with botanical materials (or animal materials such as ambergris).
Macerates – botanical seed oils infused with macerated botanical materials.
Concretes – solvent extraction using hydrocarbons (usually hexane) resulting in a viscous, stable aromatic extract (free of the original solvent). The original extraction method would have been by enfleurage – the cold pressing of botanical aromatic material on waxes and fats. This is still done but on a small (expensive) scale for high quality and usually only for botanicals such as some jasmine and rose.
Absolutes – solvent-extracted botanical materials (the concretes) are subjected to a second extraction using alcohol. ie the rinsing of the concrete. The alcohol is evaporated to leave a highly aromatic viscous concentrate which is the most fragrant and expensive natural botanical material.
Natural isolates – single odor molecules (ie. nerol, guaicol) extracted from the original botanical material either by distillation or using carbon dioxide extraction which results in a higher quality extraction as the method is carried out at lower temperatures than with steam distillation.
Resinoids – these are gums, oleo-resins, resins and balsams extracted with hydrocarbons (rather like concrete extraction) resulting in viscous aromatic liquids that are non volatile and often used as fixatives or base notes.
As the list shows, the natural perfumer has a lot of natural and naturally-derived aromatic materials to choose from, all of which are considered compatible with natural perfumery as outlined by The International Perfume Foundation.
Is Natural Perfume Better than Synthetic?
At the end of the day though, natural is a preference. I choose to use naturals out of love and respect for the natural materials. But I also know that a judicious use of synthetics can enhance a perfume in so many creative ways and to extend its performance. I feel grounded knowing I am using natural materials and knowledge of those materials that have been handed down through the centuries from those early alchemist to perfumers who had only nature-extracted materials as creative muse.
There is another side to using naturals that I take heed of; that is, whether they are sustainable or not. I wrote extensively on the issue of sustainable natural perfume and do believe that the use of some naturals can do more harm than good if not sourced ethically.
The issue of whether one is better than the other is to my mind not based on the fragrance outcome nor any messianic belief for or against using naturals or synthetics. The issues that will determine ‘better’ are sustainability, fair trade, ethics and environmental impact. Those are today’s issues and ones that the perfumer, whether natural advocate or working with a mix of naturals and synthetics has to grapple with in creating the best perfumes they can.
Finally, don’t think that a perfume not certified as ‘natural’ is less natural. Any certification has its costs and for some small artisan start-up perfumers, certification is something to achieve down the road. We love striving to do more and do better!
Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash.