When you next pick up a bottle of fragrance, give a second’s thought to the environmental impact of the Gucci, Thierry Mugler, or Dior you’re buying. Perfumes are believed to imitate nature—so what are the effects of perfume manufacturing on our natural world?
Perfumes are made of scent molecules—single molecules or collections of molecules, synthesized by chemists in labs or synthesized by nature in trees, grasses, and flowers. The lovely natural rose and orange blossom essences in your bottle of Jo Malone are collections of hundreds of molecules, only some of which actually come from the flowers. Like virtually all perfumes on the market, Jo also contains cis-3-hexanol, galaxolide, and dihydromyrcenol—molecules made in perfume labs.
Synthetic molecules are by no means bad; they are the heart of modern perfumery. The key to Chanel No. 5, for example, is a molecule called aldehyde, first synthesized in the 1880s. Shalimar, created in 1925, is powered by the synthetic 3-methoxy-4-hydroxy-benzaldehyde.
Of course perfumes, like any other chemicals (think water, vitamin C, aspirin), have an ecological impact, and the fragrance industry must spend millions each year minimizing it. Synthetic or natural, it doesn’t matter—rose essence ends up in the air, water, and soil, just like methyl dihydrojasmonate. When JLo sells eight million bottles of Glo a year, she needs to worry about what they do to the environment because, besides perhaps feeling a moral obligation to the planet, she also has to comply with government standards. Likewise, Dior needs to ensure every molecule in Eau Sauvage is eco-compatible.
One of the most popular perfume ingredients ever, found in some 90 percent of all fragrances, is linalool. It’s a molecule found in nature, so whenever you have lavender, bergamot, or coriander in How to build a better rose your perfume, you’ve got linalool. It can also be created by chemical synthesis as pure linalool (the first synthetic linalool was created in the 1920s). This is called a “nature identical” since molecularly, synthetic and natural linalool are—surprise—absolutely the same.
Timbuktu, one of an exquisite collection of scents from the French house L’Artisan Parfumeur, uses linalool. This is a mesmerizing perfume; wearing Timbuktu is like waking late at night from a dream in a dark, ancient desert hotel made of wood that has been blackened with the smoke of incense and the smell of robed visitors, coming and going over the centuries. It is the smell of a character from Kipling. There’s linalool in Carolina Herrera’s new 212 Sexy, which evokes silk and the promising, powdery smell that hits you when you open new, expensive cosmetics.
And like every other ingredient, linalool’s eco-effects were stringently evaluated. How? There are four steps.
The majority of perfume ingredients are made by the perfume chemists at the Big Eight—eight international conglomerates: IFF (the United States), Quest (United Kingdom) Firmenich and Givaudan (both Switzerland), Symrise (Germany), Takasago (Japan), Mane and Robertet (both France). They make everything from aubepine, a raw material used in perfume, priced at about $1.75 per pound, to Basil Absolute, priced at more than $460 per pound. And a few fancypants boutiques, such as the French houses LMR (Laboratoire Monique Rémy) and Biolandes, make fabulous products like Iris Naturelle, priced at nearly $4300 per pound. But these outfits do much more than make raw materials and scent molecules. The carefully hidden secret of the perfume world is that Yves Saint Laurent, Estée Lauder, and Versace don’t make their perfumes. The Big Eight’s perfumers do. An army of chemists create the ingredients, and a separate army of perfumers employed by these same companies make the perfumes.
Say Miuccia Prada decides she wants a perfume. She never actually lays a finger on a geranium extract. She (or more likely her marketing department) writes up a “perfume brief,” a concept of the fragrance she has in mind. The brief usually goes something like, “I want the smell of bitter apples frozen in a Chinese snow” or “I want the scent of a young girl swimming in a dark Mediterranean sea—and it should sell a million bottles the first year.” Prada’s marketing team takes the brief to Symrise and asks the company’s legendary perfumer Maurice Roucel to create the perfume. Roucel puts the molecules that the Symrise chemists have made or gotten from other suppliers into the perfume he crafts for Prada, and the Prada house then names and markets the finished product. That’s how the business works.
Where does the environment come in? Let’s say Symrise, the company doing some of the most interesting work with fragrances these days, wants to produce and sell linalool as a perfume ingredient. A certain amount of this linalool is going to get washed from the bodies of the lovely young women who mist themselves with Gucci every morning, making its way down the drains of Manhattan’s showers and into the Hudson River. So Symrise needs to conduct tests to determine how much linalool is going to build up in the environment. First, the Symrise chemists look at U.S., European, and Japanese government regulations on required safety data. In the United States, you have to supply certain information according to what are called “thresholds of production,” which simply means that the more you make of the stuff (are you making one ton a year or 1,000 tons?) the stricter the regulations get. Symrise also has to test what the linalool is going to do to the ecology of the Hudson. The calculation is hazard + exposure = risk. The hazard is the toxicity to plants and animals; the exposure is calculated based on the amount of chemical you put into the next Chanel product. Symrise, like most manufacturers, tests its chosen chemical on fish, shrimp, or algae; tracks the levels of linalool in sediment; and measures its biodegradation. If linalool passes these tests, it can proceed to step two.
When Symrise produces linalool and puts it on the market, the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) evaluates it. RIFM is the industry’s international safety and ecology arm, responsible for looking at the 2,600 materials currently on the market. The RIFM is financially supported by its members—basically everyone in the supplier- and-user chain, from Estée Lauder to Procter & Gamble (in its detergents, soaps, and shampoos, Procter & Gamble uses many times more fragrance than even JLo could hope to sell).
This is where linalool gets much tougher testing, since the RIFM goes well beyond Symrise in both rigor and breadth. RIFM’s more extensive environmental testing results are submitted to independent experts for review. For example, RIFM does environmental studies, or
what’s called a Ready (the technical term for “fast”) Bio-Degradation Test. Studies have found that linalool biodegrades pretty quickly; it doesn’t hang around in the environment for too long before breaking down into something less harmful.
Copies of the evaluations are then given to all members and published in peer-reviewed journals, and here a limitation could be imposed on linalool’s use. “Based on this material’s potential to cause skin sensitization,” its expert panel might say, “it should be limited to 0.1 percent of the final product.” Then this recommendation is codified as an industry standard by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). Toxicity standards for the target species of interest— Homo sapiensin this case—usually cap out before environmental standards do. Toxicity testing is the stricter of the two and is generally the first to signal problems with a substance.
If Parfums Thierry Mugler wants a new fragrance, it goes to Symrise and describes the scent it wants. A Symrise perfumer uses linalool, combined with other ingredients to create a scent, it is called a compound. The compound goes through yet another evaluation, this time with all the ingredients together, since they may react with one another in unforseen ways. (Top, middle, and bottom notes come from different ingredients with different molecular weights. Benzyl salicylates are molecularly heavier; linalool is lighter; and limonene, from citrus oil, is superlight and so evaporates quickly, jumping beautifully off the skin.) Symrise cross-checks the materials with the restrictions of the IFRA and others worldwide for compliance, then sells the compound to Mugler with the safety package completed.
Mugler, or more precisely its parent company, Clarins, has the legal responsibility to do a final evaluation, either in its own lab or by sending the perfume to someone else’s. Clarins takes the fragrance compound it has purchased from Symrise and makes products from it. It adds to the compound an alcohol (to make it liquid), a lubricant (to make it flow), a wax (to add stability), polyethylene glycol, a UV stabilizer, etc. From these, Clarins creates perfumes, sunscreens, body lotions, shower gels, shampoos, and deodorants, all with the signature Thierry Mugler scent.
Ultimately, Thierry Mugler’s brilliant new masculine B-Men arrives at the perfume counter in Saks Fifth Avenue. Created by the perfumer Jacques Huclier, B-Men smells like a field of spices in a forest of saplings growing under a fresh, clean, blue Indian sky—and thankfully, it won’t spoil any of them.