he time-honored, romantic notion of perfumery usually conjures a field of roses or other freshly harvested botanicals. In an age when, with so much of our daily life digitized, many hearts long to reconnect with nature, natural perfumery harks back to traditional craftsmanship, a handmade practice dating back to ancient times. This tradition is in high demand, with the global natural fragrances market estimated to reach $20.8B by 2024.
It’s not just the practice of harvesting and extracting naturals (through steam distillation, solvent extraction, CO2 extraction, enfleurage) that make the process feel more magical than a sterile, lab-mixed synthetic. “Mainstream perfumes are composed of mostly synthetics at this point; well over 90%,” says perfumer Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Mandy Aftel (Aftelier Perfumes) and Douglas Little (Heretic Parfum), who work with 100% naturally derived materials, not only praise them for their multifaceted odor profiles but also their aromatherapeutic properties. “There is pleasure in knowing that the scents are derived from particular plants and places—that they came from the earth. I genuinely believe that perfume buyers are interested in the beauty, authenticity, quality, and complexity of natural essences and are becoming more educated about what they put on their body,” Aftel explains.
On the flip side, the efforts required for natural raw materials, such as field space, water, and human power, are higher than their synthetic counterparts. “There just is not enough arable land to grow certain things. Do you use that arable land to grow natural forests? Do you use it to grow food? You have competing interests,” says Kari Arienti, founder of AromaKnowledge. “Or you can do what our industry did, which is to study the chemistry of sandalwood oil and recreate it synthetically.”
It takes 10,000 rose flowers to produce one pound of essential oil. Natural disasters and fluctuations in harvest yield mean these raw materials are more prone to supply-chain shortages and potentially different odor profiles. The market has seen a recent influx of “clean” fragrances, but the term itself is unregulated, although it often denotes natural ingredients. These can have quality control issues. India Times claims that 98% of the country’s perfumes and essential oils are adulterated. In a counteract effort, producers are curbing their environmental impact. Firmenich recently signed a partnership with Coop SCA3P to ensure a sustainable farming model for its lavandin supplies.
Another argument on the naturals vs synthetics front is allergen potential: some consumers argue that naturals are “less toxic” than synthetics. In a recent study, 34.7% of the US population reported migraines and respiratory issues after being exposed to fragranced products, although this category wasn’t limited to fragrances, and it wasn’t specified whether these were naturals, synthetics, or a mix of both. “There is a tendency to believe that natural is safer than synthetic but it’s simply not true,” states perfumer Karen Gilbert. “Natural materials are highly concentrated and packed full of allergens.” In the example of rose, the essential oil has over 275 constituents, whereas the synthetic variant is a single molecule, meaning the likelihood of an allergic reaction is less. Synthetics also need to undergo safety testing before launching to market. Look at IFRA’s list of banned or regulated raw materials and you will come across naturals and synthetics alike.
Natural fragrances have a shorter shelf life than their conventional counterparts, wear more subtly on the skin, and are often more costly due to the higher price of the ingredients. Most independent perfumers will nonetheless use a mix of naturals and synthetics to get the best of both worlds in their creations. In the future, transparent supply chains and ethical sourcing will play a large part in ensuring consumer trust.
A recent fusion of manmade technology with earthgrown ingredients are amplified naturals. Firmenich’s 100% natural Dreamwood is a white biotechnology-engineered captive using sandalwood oil. IFF’s Patchouli Heart N. 3 employs both hydro and fractional distillation of the plant for a more refined aroma profile. Coty partnered with LanzaTech to create carbon-captured ethanol (the alcohol used in spray fragrances) in its products. L’Atelier Français Des Matières, launched by former global head of natural specialties & ethical sourcing at Givaudan Rémi Pulvérail, focuses on expert smallholder agriculture and small-batch distillation, crafting a more bespoke approach to raw material cultivation and processing. For example, their solvent extraction uses green chemicals, aided by ultrasound, reducing extraction time and required temperature for the process.
Simply put, the concept of “clean” fragrance is largely marketing, although fragrance producers and houses should be more transparent about the source and quality of their ingredients. Follow your nose, but also read the fine print (and a scientific study or two).