Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How Natural is Natural?

Well, the number of cosmetics out there touting the "natural" label is growing by the day....it's the new "thing"...which should make me happy, but.....
BUT (and that's a big but), most of them simply aren't.

There's an ever growing number of pretty sounding concoctions out there in bright shiny bottles with reasuring labels like "organic" and "vegan" plastered all over them, which have as much resemblance to the truly natural bottles of  flower extracts and herbs in my workshop as, well,  the bottle of commercial toilet cleaner my mother stuck in my cupboard many years ago in the hope I'd eventually use it.

I've spent over 20 years researching and developing natural perfumes. I've studied herbs and aromatherapy oils,and pored over ancient texts full of fascinating ingredients...and spoken to thousands of people at my stalls and on my website about natural perfumery and what it means.
And for years, the conventional perfume industry has belittled what we natural perfumers do, claiming it is archaic, and only modern aromachemicals give you a truely beautiful perfume.
Then all of a sudden, they've discovered that we're on to something! And all over the place, you suddenly see so called "natural" perfumes with bright pretty flower pictures!
A collegue pointed me towards a company I'm not going to name the other day....delightful packaging, pretty sounding scents...and "Beauty Habit", where they are sold, writes the following:

"L### & T## believes that natural formulas should function and not fail. These formulas have been vigorously tested for performance and stability.Each product is loaded with the very best natural and organic ingredients, while delivering a luxurious, skin-nurturing experience." And in the listing for their handcreams, list the scent as "botanical perfume blend".

But hang on a minute, the bottles contain completely clear fluid for starters (And natural perfumes just don't come in clear...)....let's have a look at the ingredients of one of them, ": "Vanilla Orchid, White Musk, Jasmine, Ebony Woods, Natural Alcohol"

OK, for starters, that's not an ingredient list, it's a fanciful list of the notes in the fragrance.
There is no such thing as vanilla orchid, white musk or ebony wood. And wtf is natural alcohol supposed to be? As opposed to un-natural alcohol?
These perfumes aren't natural. Not even nearly natural. Yet the advertising sells them as such, loud and clear. 

And it frustrates the hell out of me. Because people believe what they see written. And it seems, you can write whatever you want and get away with it. Loud and clear.


Did you know that you can call anything vegan if it doesn't have animal ingredients in it? plastic gumboots are vegan by that definition!
And "Natural" can mean just about anything. I did a bit of research into natural flavours some time back, and discovered that a natural flavour can be made entirely of individual chemicals, as long as said chemicals were originally extracted from a natural source!
And mind you, that source doesn't have to have anything to do with the the fruit of vegetable it's imitating!

The Truth Seeker writes:  Natural and artificial flavors are now manufactured at the same chemical plants, places that few people would associate with Mother Nature.

To me that seems like cheating. All chemicals are originally extracted from natural sources. It is the degree of processing that takes them from natural to artificial.
Raspberries are natural. raspberry juice is natural. Raspberry ketone is a scent chemical that can be extracted from raspberry juice, or also made by chemical process from other chemicals. It is a white crystaline substance, that can be dissolved in alcohol and used in very diluted form in fruity scents to give the impression of raspberry....
Is it natural? I'm not sure. I have two kinds of raspberry scented ingredients in my workshop:
One, an alcoholic extract of raspberry, which is dark brownie red and slightly sticky, and needs to be filtered before I add it to scents. And the above said raspberry ketone, a strange little bottle of white powdery crystals....the crystals themselves have no scent until disolved further in alcohol.

There are a growing number of companies that are useing natural isolates like raspberry ketone in their perfumes too. I'm not sure how I feel about this. Like many botanical perfumers, I crave some notes that simply aren't available on the market....there are no natural violet extracts, and some fruit notes like "dewberry" simply don't exist in natural form. 
And it is a very tempting idea to follow along the "Natural Flavour" lines and start recreating these scent notes useing individual chemicals extracted from natural sources. But I feel uneasy about it.
The biggest question for me is where do we stop? When does a perfume go from being a real natural product crafted from exquisite absolutes and essential oils, to being, in reality, merely an artificially created scent concoction made purely from ingredients cooked up in a science lab like all of the others out there....

I'm not sure what the answer is. I'm experimenting with isolates, and keeping an open mind...but it does leave me feeling uneasy.
I feel somewhat guilty, as if I were experiementing with illegal drugs.....

I do know one thing for sure: If I do end up useing natural isolates in any of my perfumes, I will be honest and open about this.


  1. Very forthright, and a compelling argument.

  2. Whoa... I had a conversation around this very subject over breakfast yesterday morning and I'd used raspberry as an example too. I didn't know then about raspberry then, about the different extraction processes. I was only guessing then but I did imagine correctly the existence of the raspberry ketone.

    It's a hard one when you point out the differences but at a certain level I find myself not liking the ketone product over the alcoholic extract probably because no raspberries were involved in the making of the ketone.

    There's also the feeling I have that the ketone might be missing nuances probably inherent in the alcoholic extract but this is my own speculation only, a gut feeling and unproven by me.

    I have a first cousin who is involved in the beauty trade. She writes she has qualifications of
    CIDESCO, ITEC and AABTH membership. I haven't looked into what they all mean but what I do know is she is encountering new lotions and potions all the time in her line of work. Her recent remark about a new treatment product being offered as "supposedly" containing Rhubarb, Raspberry and Wild Strawberry as being "extremely sweet" makes me think such companies are just throwing whatever they concoct at people and doing a great injustice by it.

    She didn't say if the word "natural" was on the packaging but...

    Food additives have numbers, the man made ones are shown on food labels in Australia. I think the label of her lotion should be more concise and describe the raspberry in the lotion as one or the other, alcoholic extract or raspberry ketone.

    Many people would care less about such stuff but not everyone. Will it ever happen? Will there ever be truth in labeling? I won't hold my breathe though I probably will wish I had of if I was offered a whiff of the new lotion. On the other hand I think I'd prefer to not smell it. I have a feeling I'd regret it. If someone in the trade tells me it's extremely sweet that's more than enough for me.

  3. Ambrosia,
    Too funny! You and I are two peas in a pod. I've been writing a blog entry for the last week on the very same topic. Not sure I'll publish it now as you've covered almost everything I was going to write better than I could. (There was a reason I've been writing it for a week without publishing :) Pacifica is another big company here in the states that really stretches the limits of their wording with "natural perfumes." They are not natural, yet sold at the largest organic food market chain--Whole Foods. More and more of these "faux natural" perfume companies are popping up, and it makes me so angry.
    Angry for the consumer who thinks they are buying an all natural perfume and are being misled by these companies who seem to be trying to cash in on the green movement, and angry for me as a perfumer and small business owner. While in no way do I think Pacifica is my competition and vice versa, I'm still compared to them, their prices, their super fruity guava scents . . . recently I was selling my perfume at a ritzy trunk show sale. A woman approached and we discussed natural perfume. I explained the botanical ingredients and the costs of using such beautiful natural oils. She said, "Well Pacifica is natural and I can get a big bottle of guava perfume for $30.00" I was a little taken aback and mentioned that Pacifica didn't really use natural ingredients. I told her that they used synthetics to create the guava aroma. She said, "No. That's impossible. They sell it at WHOLE FOODS." sigh.
    Now I get this might not be the type of customer who is going to love my perfumes or my mission. But still, it's a thorn in my side.

  4. Its a truly slippery slope at which we all stand on the edge and contemplate. My biggest concern with 'any' kind of isolate is the fact it is one piece extracted from a whole. The 'whole' has an intended balance to its structure but the piece on its own may be unreliable and unstable in the long term. I am using fairly abstract generalities I know but fellow perfumers will know what I am talking about I hope. I am frustrated by these issues too Ambrosia but I live in the hope that charlatans come and go and those of us who can keep our integrity will win out in the end. The truth will out-eventually *sigh*

  5. When faced with the challenges you mention, I have to ask myself why do I work with naturals? I love the challenge of their complexity, the romance of using an ingredient that evolved over millions of years of evolutions, the mystique of each ingredients personality and how their particular personality interacts with other personalities. I work with naturals because they excite me and stimulate my creative imagination. Each time I play with a natural ingredient it is like falling in love and the wonder of getting to know what lies hidden in the depths of the one you have fallen in love with. Others may not share my passion and may be beguiled by false promises of marketing campaigns, but as the green movement is still relatively new and most people still have little experience of natural scents, it is my believe that just as people are now appreciating natural food because the have developed a taste for it, just so they will in time be able to discern for themselves. Ultimately, I want someone to buy my perfumes not just because it is natural but because they really like the perfume as it is.


  6. Sort of related post added 7 Oct 2010 to Les Parfums d'Isabelle Blog...

    Forget Grasse! The future of perfumery is in India…


  7. I've just begun my journey in to this realm. With an injury that has ended my life as a professional danseur in New York, and having a long-standing obsessive love of fragrance, an increasing knowledge of aromatherapy and former training in designing floral arrangements; as well as training in esoteric/metaphysical healing traditions, alongside a basic biochemistry education I'm resurrecting: I am excitedly and cautiously wading in to this world of botanical perfumery, tempted by her Siren's song. Intrigued by the aesthetic and the psycho-emotional-spiritual healing accessible by the Devas' essences, I am finally about ready to order my first oils and experiment/sketch. I am without a compass or chart map aside from some great books that I have collected, a lot of research (for whatever it's worth) in to high-end distributors of oils and a continuous scoping of the concoctions brewed by a few reputed natural perfumers; but mostly I am going on (sensual) instinct and intuitions, trusting the healing beauty and intelligence of the herbal/botanical world, and hoping that I may dance some of Mother's magic form(ulation) to indulge, delight, appreciate, heal, fulfill my artist and searching spirit; and ultimately, impart the same to friends, family, and (one day?) clientele God-willling! It's a blessing to be taken in to your blog by mere chance, this sleepless night. It appears passionate but grounded, and I am very excited to explore what you are sharing! Thank you. Any words of inspiration, caution, pointers as I begin?