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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Article on the merits of synthetic vs natural ingredients

Article: Synthetic or Natural?
Here you can read a slightly longer version of an article published in the December 2011 edition of the Shropshire Magazine exploring the changing use of natural and synthetic materials in perfume and their relative merits, which you can also read in plain pdf.

There are a lot of evangelists about both amongst perfumers and users of fragrances: evangelists for particular brands or styles are common amongst wearers; evangelists for the integrity of the perfumer as a creative artist amongst professionals; evangelists for the use of natural materials amongst both. It’s that latter question that I want to take a look at here.

I use and love using natural materials – they have much to commend them, not the least the history and romance associated with them: we know that humans have been extracting natural materials to use to scent themselves and their environment for at least 4000 years, probably much longer. If you want the scent of roses, the best solution is still real rose absolute or rose otto (or both), despite the fact that there are some really excellent synthetic rose accords about (as well as some dire ones). To me one of the best reasons to use naturals is because they are so very much more complex - and that means the resulting scent is capable of holding your interest for much longer. A good analogy might be the sound of a single trumpet playing - it can be great for a while, but isn't likely to make the ‘favourites list’ on your mp3 player on a regular basis. On the other hand a full orchestra (or rock band or whatever, depending on your taste & mood) playing a piece you like, you will probably listen to time after time and still enjoy.

So what do I mean by more complex? Well most synthetics are single molecules – you can’t get much simpler than that (though in fairness some of those molecules are themselves quite large and complex). Nevertheless most natural fragrance ingredients are in a different league altogether. One of the more complex is rose otto, for example, which contains at least 700 aromatic components. Even the very best quality synthetic rose key accord is unlikely to contain more than about half of those, and the sort of cheap rose substitute that goes into bulk products will have perhaps 5% of them at best, probably less.
When you consider that a typical fine fragrance might contain something of the order of 25-50 individual materials, you can imagine just how much more complex an aroma can be developed when most of those are naturals, compared to a collection of synthetic ingredients.

The Pell Wall work room

I am, however, not one of those evangelists: I am a great believer in using the right tool for the job: if you want a scent that will last for up to a week and leap off your skin and be noticed from a distance, you need to add synthetics to it – very few natural materials will do either. Similarly if you want a fragrance that smells like Lily of the Valley you need synthetics because for technical reasons you can't extract the scent from the flower – essentially the problem is that the flower makes tiny bits of the scent molecule and releases them to form into the fragrance in the air above the flower – so no matter how many flowers you crush or dissolve in solvent you can’t capture the scent. There are other reasons why synthetics are worth using. For one thing they are often cheaper - vastly cheaper in some cases such as replacements for jasmine, rose, narcissus and other expensive absolutes. This isn’t always true though – vast sums are spent in developing new aroma chemicals and some of them are very costly indeed.

They also broaden the palette of aromas available to the perfumer considerably – synthetics don’t have to be a pale imitation of natural materials, or even an imitation of anything. Some aroma-chemicals can evoke the freshness of a mountain breeze or sea-shore or act on other scents in a blend to brighten and extend them. You have more options if you count them in.

Often synthetic materials can be easier to work with too: if you have ever tried to get a batch of sticky, black natural vanilla absolute into solution in ethanol ready to incorporate into a blend, you’ll know just how difficult that can be compared with the simplicity of dissolving crystals of vanillin.

Chris, some ingredients and some Pell Wall products

Furthermore synthetic ingredients, contrary to popular belief are less, rather than more, likely to cause an allergic reaction in the ultimate user of a fragrance. If you think about that complexity I was talking about earlier you will easily see one reason for that – there are simply more components there for you to potentially react to. In addition to that, new materials have to pass strict safety tests before they can be marketed – natural ingredients are also assessed for safety of course and many are restricted in usage as a result – some would say too restricted.

Synthetic materials have almost entirely replaced the use of animal materials in perfumery – at least mainstream perfumery – and as many of the traditional animal materials were either obtained in ways involving ethically dubious methods or came from endangered species that is probably no bad thing.

There are lots of good reasons to use synthetics – but I would hate to see them completely replace natural materials – this has already happened at the bottom end of the fragrance market, but many high-end fragrances still feature a range of natural ingredients. It was once the policy of the great Guerlain fragrance house that a fragrance should be roughly 80% natural and 20% synthetic – they have no such rule now, but to me that still seems like a good balance. Originality is certainly not limited to the preserve of the aroma-chemical manufacturers either – there are great numbers of natural materials beyond those traditionally incorporated into perfume – I’ve recently been experimenting with chilli seeds and smoke – technology has also given us the CO2 extraction method, where carbon dioxide is pressurised until it becomes liquid at room temperature: this liquid is then used as a solvent to extract the aromatic principles from plant materials previously resistant to having their full aroma captured. 

This and other things have greatly increased the options open to perfumers using natural ingredients. I have great respect for the natural perfumers, who have chosen to forgoe all synthetic ingredients in their perfumes – there is no doubt that building a great fragrance that way is more difficult – but it isn’t the route I have chosen. Neither is the mostly synthetic; almost everlasting but virtually unchanging fragrance for me. There is, as someone once said, a third way . . . To me quality is about choosing the very best materials for the scent you want, wherever they come from, then blending them together with creativity and marketing them with style (but not necessarily with celebrities).

© Chris Bartlett August 2011

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