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Natural, organic, plant-based? What makes for a clean perfume?

The perfumery industry, which is coming up against its customers’ ecological epiphany, has to start making changes – not to say start a revolution. Because the ingredients of a standard perfume are not at all clean, much like the packaging overkill that comes with it. New-generation perfumery is up and running. But are these (new) perfumes truly clean, with impact that really is minimal? It’s debatable.

Why clean perfume?

The perfume industry is based on seduction and luxury, both of which have historically been its marketing levers. Whether niche formulations, truly high end ones or those found in mass retail, perfume is only about one thing: seduction.

Hence the excessive packaging, bottles and advertising campaigns, which are as glamourous as they come, but far from eco-friendly. How do you get fantasy into something ecologically sound?  This is the thorny question that producers have been asking themselves for years. Because it’s clear that demand is changing. It’s also clear that the majority of customers don’t think of perfume as a product that’s polluting or uses a lot of resources (since they don’t know what goes on behind the scenes of the production process). However, some are mindful of their purchases and seek out products (including perfumes) that have little impact on the planet. The big names in the sector know this, but are finding it hard to bring a potentially-impossible change to emblematic perfumes with well-oiled production processes. This is why the perfume revolution is led mainly by new perfume houses with fresh ideas, to produce clean fragrances, from flower sourcing to formulations to bottles.

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What’s the definition of clean perfume?

As with any product, the notion of clean is about much more than a wish to be environmentally responsible.

The aim is to reduce the perfume’s impact on the environment. It is also to make sure that the ethical side of its production is sound, that it is respectful of biodiversity (bearing in mind that the raw materials are in the main derived from natural resources) and that the bottles and packaging are built to last. In addition, high quality and a perfume’s staying power on the skin come at a price.

Producers must make trade-offs and choices: an organic or natural formulation? Refillable or recyclable bottles? A perfume that’s partly synthetic – derived from petrochemicals – might be less harmful to the planet since it doesn’t require natural raw materials, so there’s no need to grow flowers or trees.

It’s very hard to say for sure, as the production methods differ so widely. Large-scale production versus rare perfumes derived from exclusive harvests reserved for the big names in the luxury segment…


Are standard synthetic perfumes ecologically unsound?


A standard synthetic perfume is made from alcohol treated with phthalate (which is suspected of being an endocrine disruptor), partly or completely synthetic perfume concentrate, UV filters, preservatives and colourants.

A luxury-brand standard perfume is made up of around 20% natural raw materials, the remainder being ingredients derived from petrochemicals. These synthetic materials make it possible, among other things, to artificially reproduce natural scents at very low cost. These are fragrance notes developed in a laboratory, which have enabled the advent of modern perfumery. They have done so by bringing perfumers an unprecedented array of notes, and easier formulation, without the limitations of timing constraints related to harvesting or quality variation in natural raw materials.

These synthetic molecules made it possible to create fragrance notes that are impossible to make using natural ingredients, like sea air, artificial tulip scent and the inimitable aldehydes that lie at the heart of Chanel no. 5. In this way perfume entered mass production, which sometimes leads to overexploitation of resources that are cultivated very far from the country of sale (in our case France) and from those who produce them, and also of animal substances. Because behind perfume formulation you’ll find flower and wood extracts, and even animal substances that have to be produced before they can be exploited. In this regard, synthetic notes have for example saved the Tibetan musk deer from being exploited for the musk from its abdominal glands.

Synthetic perfume: controversial ingredients

Beyond the ecological aspect and the environmental impact of their production, the problem with standard perfumes has to do with their controversial ingredients, which are suspected of being endocrine disruptors. These include phthalates, not least diethyl phthalate (DEP) – which are used to bond the fragrance and give it staying power on the skin – and synthetic types of musk, which are also not biodegradable. By ending up in waterways and then the sea, they could interfere with the reproductive systems of fish. As for colourants, which make a variety of perfume hues possible, and UV filters that stabilise formulations (which need to be protected from light), they are very much under fire.

It’s also the case of BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which are additives used as antioxidants to stabilise perfumes and extend their shelf life. These are not only suspected of being endocrine disruptors, but also allergenic. BHA is classed as a “possible carcinogen” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Yet to safeguard the confidentiality of industrial and commercial information on perfume ingredients (except the few allergens that must be listed), the ingredients (INCI) list is deliberately vague. This prevents the consumer from finding out what exactly is in a perfume, and therefore what they are putting on their skin.

The issue of alcohol in perfume

Whether in organic, natural or standard perfume, alcohol is an essential medium for diluting perfume concentrate, bonding the notes and allowing them to develop on the skin. In addition, it’s an excellent preservative that stops the fragrance from going stale. Depending on the dilution of the initial concentrate, in a perfume in liquid form (some coming in solid or oil form), alcohol can account for 75%-98% of the finished product.

And the alcohol used in standard perfumery is ethanol (also called ethyl alcohol) treated with chemicals. This ethanol, which is derived from the fermentation or distillation of sugars, fruit or cereals, is the same kind of alcohol that is in alcoholic drinks. One problem: regardless of the country, there are taxes on spirits. Only alcohol intended for industrial use, in cleaning products, biofuels and beauty products, is tax exempt.

So to make sure that this tax-exempt ethanol doesn’t ultimately get used to make drinks, the beauty product industry must “treat” it to make it unfit for human consumption. This process entails the addition of treatment products to change the way it tastes and make it distinctive: chemical substances like glycol ethers, methanol or diethyl phthalate (DEP), which have harmful effects on human health.

To avoid the use of these substances, a perfumer can treat alcohol with essential oils, which is more natural but more expensive! Likewise, not treating the alcohol forces the perfumer to pay the tax, which comes to around €17 per litre. This increase in cost is difficult to absorb if the end product is 90% alcohol. Perfume houses that choose not to treat the alcohol go with organic plant-based alcohol, or invoke an EU ruling that prohibits toxic treatments in favour of ecologically-sound ones that are common to all the member states.

Is organic perfume the perfect solution?

©Cosmos Organic

An organic perfume is a perfume whose formulation is 100% natural and contains no synthetic ingredients. Products are certified organic by certifications like Cosmos Organic, which vouches for formulations being free from endocrine disruptors, colourants, preservatives such as parabens, mineral oils, phthalates, bonding agents and raw materials of animal origin. Organic perfumes are mainly made up of isolates, plant essences, flower oils or essential oils. These are extracted using techniques which are said to be gentle and go easy on the material. They include distillation or cold-press processes, as used for citrus fruit, steam for lavender and even extraction using supercritical CO2, a solvent-free process using pressurised carbonic gas, for vanilla.

Plant matter, flower extracts like iris, benzoin essence and other essential oils like patchouli and cedar are also used as bonding agents in organic perfumes. Their alcohol media are derived from organic plant matter – most often wheat – and treated with essential oils which are also organic.

But organic formulation also has its drawbacks:

  • Organic perfume has fewer fragrance notes than synthetic perfumery – 500 notes versus 5,000 – so compositions are limited and staying power on the skin is also reduced.
  • In addition, these raw materials are more expensive and present in the formulation in greater numbers. This explains why the perfume concentrate, which lies at the heart of the formulation, costs up to 30 times as much as that for a synthetic perfume! Ultimately the price of the perfume is high, even if it’s still competitive, since organic perfumes generally come without advertising costs. Moreover, while organic perfumes don’t put controversial substances on to the skin, there is still a risk of allergies due to the essential oils.
  • Lastly, be aware that even with organic certification, some ingredients can be natural without being organic. As regards a perfume made up of 80-90% alcohol, if that alcohol is organic, this is enough for it to reach the thresholds set by the certification bodies. It can therefore be labelled ORGANIC whereas the only organic ingredient in the formulation is the alcohol.

Is natural perfume more or less clean than organic perfume?

Natural perfume is considered a halfway house which does not have a precise schedule of specification to meet, but instead has motivation from brands to offer a virtuous product.

Natural perfumes are generally very close to being organic perfumes. Free from colourants, preservatives and problematic UV filters, they claim to use natural ingredients (sometimes 100% natural), and organic wheat alcohol, for the most part.

These brands are generally also geared around local suppliers, and opt for artisan producers based in the country of sale (in our case France) to support the supply chain and know-how of the growers, harvesters and processors. Natural perfumes can also claim to have “skincare” benefits, not least if they are in the form of perfume oil. These perfume oils do without alcohol, which dries out the skin, and instead use plant-based organic first-press oil which is nourishing and softening.

So a perfume can be natural and non-organic yet produced via a more environmentally-responsible and eco-friendly process than an organic one which, for example, uses raw materials shipped in from far-flung places. For these perfumes without synthetic notes everything hinges on the sourcing, which must be local, ethically sound and sustainable, and strike a balance between ethics and distance.

Because natural perfumery ingredients come from far away and must travel to reach us, after a long agriculture and extraction chain: vetiver from Haiti, vanilla from Madagascar, patchouli from Indonesia, etc…Lastly, in the case of natural perfumes, the issue of alcohol is an interesting one. According to the label, a perfume containing 90% plant-based alcohol is 90% natural, even with a potentially synthetic concentrate containing those bonding agents and phthalates etc.. Anyone wanting a watertight guarantee of innocuity should go with organic perfume.

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Clean perfumes: eco-friendly packaging

Beyond the problem of formulations, bearing in mind that perfume is the most overpackaged product on the beauty product market, you’re bound to look at the packaging, and also the bottle, which is still too seldom refillable or recyclable. Although the big perfume houses are making a start in this regard.

Natural and organic perfume brands put a lot of energy into developing recyclable packaging, refillable bottles (or clear glass bottles for easier recycling) and packaging that’s generally minimalist. It comes without leaflets, is made from unbleached recycled cardboard or paper, is printed with plant-based ink and if possible is artisanal, with reduced carbon impact.

Some opt for bottles that are endlessly re-usable with a refill system, others offer bottle collection and other still choose to put their perfume oils in glass bottles with pipettes, sold in cotton pouches instead of a rigid box. The packaging shuns plastic, and the bottle stop is of the wooden variety, from native forestsor from sustainably-managed forests, for example.

At the end of the day, what is a truly clean perfume?

A clean perfume must tick all of the above boxes and be part of an overall wish to have minimal impact on the environment.

While organic and 100% natural perfumes are unrivalled when it comes to innocuity and biodegradability, their production is not necessarily more eco-friendly than that of a synthetic perfume, not least in terms of sourcing. Because it takes harvested natural resources to produce their ingredients. But on the other hand, synthetic perfumes also use up resources. So the cleanest option involves favouring locally-produced, natural ingredients and brands offering traceable ingredients.

So-called natural products being offered at low prices suggests that their production is bound to be based on a system that rides rough shod over nature, people or both. Brands that offer a very natural formulation with a few synthetic ingredients to give the perfume staying power can be a good compromise, if the remainder of the commitments made are honoured.

At the end of the day, is it better to use synthetic vanilla scent or have natural vanilla shipped in from Madagascar? This question is difficult to answer. A life cycle study would have to be run on each product.

However, the system of short production runs, made in the country of sale (in our case France), with refills that use sustainable supply chains to source ingredients as locally as possible, and committed to associations that support the planet, or biodiversity, is the sign of virtuous perfumery. And if in your view, innocuity is the fundamental point of clean beauty, you will definitely have to go with 100% natural or organic formulations.

Clean perfume does exist, and natural and organic perfume houses offer a real alternative to standard perfumes. The fact remains that if standard perfume houses cannot change the formulations of their perfumes, they could at least change their production methods and packaging to make the perfume industry more environmentally responsible. The good news is that the perfume market is undergoing a sea change driven by consumers who are shunning traditional perfumes and getting acquainted with natural and organic fragrances, which these days are ever closer to the mark.

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