Synthetic molecules, begone!
Perfumes are probably the one category of cosmetics that has changed the least throughout time. While skincare products continue to tout revolutionary new ingredients and technology, the fragrance sector of the industry is much more quiet about technological innovations. Make-up companies have been more transparent about their ingredients but many perfumes come in the same formulation that they always have, and the average fragrance comes with 70% synthetic ingredients (molecules synthesized by chemists) according to an article in Elle. Synthetic molecules have been used in perfumes for over 150 years, along with a cocktail of other potentially harmful ingredients such as phthalates, which can disrupt hormones. Ingredients are also derived from petroleum and because of certain laws, fragrance companies do not have to disclose the exact ingredients that make up fragrances and synthetic molecules.
Some best-selling perfumes are constructed entirely out of synthetics or known best for their synthetic ingredients, such as Dior’s Eau Sauvage’s synthetic methyl dihydrojasmonate, which is designed to smell clean and pure, like water, or Chanel No. 5 which made out of molecules called aldehydes created in a French lab in 1903, according to the New York Times. But a few brands are setting out to change that. With a focus on clean beauty in skincare and more awareness about ingredients than ever before, independent brands are releasing scents that break the mould. They’re not only transparent about the ingredients used—they’re also vocal about the changes that could benefit the consumer and the environment.
Ormaie Paris is a brand new perfume line that just launched at Barneys New York last month. The bottles serve as chic objects of desire (hand-polished, carved wood toppings included) and the formulation uses 100 percent natural ingredients. Founded by Baptiste Bouygues (who has a background in luxury fashion) and his mother Marie-Lise Jonak (who spent years working in the fragrance industry), the two went through hundreds of iterations to get single notes right, since the traditional pathway to creating a fragrance is deeply connected to using synthetic molecules rather than natural ones.
“There is a lot of differences in the making of a natural perfume,” explains Bouygues. “Each step actually takes more time. Cultivating the raw material, making the essential oil, creating the fragrances, even the maceration of the perfume itself... Everything takes more time. That is what makes it so poetic, though.” The duo were inspired to create a line of entirely natural perfumes simply because it’s the opposite of what most of the industry has been doing for years now. “There are some great perfumes made with synthetics,” says Bouygues. “But, we felt that coming back to natural ingredients was a way to cultivate a great know-how, to work with unbelievable ingredients and great people in order to make very special fragrances.”
Another brand is the recently founded Canadian line of perfumes, 7 Virtues, which came to the U.S. this year at Sephora and is made exclusively of sustainably sourced essential oils. The massive beauty retailer had just curated its Clean Beauty boutique, giving qualifying brands a clean stamp of approval if they are free from ingredients that are known to be toxic but still widely used in the beauty industry: sulfates, SLS, SLES, parabens, formaldehyde, mineral oils and more. 7 Virtues was one of a small handful of fragrance brands under the Clean Beauty section. In addition to using essential oils, the brand uses organic sugar cane alcohol and natural fixatives such as vanilla and vetiver to adhere to skin organically.
“We originally launched in 2010 back before it was cool to make natural beauty products,” says the founder Barbara Stegemann. “We simply did it because it was the right thing to do. Your skin is your largest organ, you have to take care of it. It is also personal for me, I had asthma as a child and I am extremely sensitive when it comes to anything I put on my skin, so I wanted to create something that my daughter and I could both love and wear.”
7 Virtues also comes with an added component that gives back: “When my best friend and mentor was wounded serving in the forces in Afghanistan, I wanted to take on his mission of peace,” says Stegemann. “So I began sourcing legal orange blossom and rose oils to support farmers rebuilding there so they would not have to grow the illegal poppy crop. Then countries began to come to us: Haiti, Rwanda, India and Madagascar. Knowing our purchases provide jobs and dignity to women and their families around the world matters to us. We are going to Puerto Rico on a Trade Mission in January and will be sourcing oils there as well.”
The Nue Co is another company pushing the limits of what modern perfume should be. Inspired by the idea of wellness bleeding into various beauty categories, the natural supplements brand created Functional Fragrance, a pleasant, unisex scent and anti-stress supplement all in one. “We define Functional Fragrance as a clean and non-toxic fragrance,” says founder Jules Miller. “Our definition of that means includes being paraben-free, hexane-free, phthalate-free, cruelty-free and vegan. It combines incredible quality essential oils, all derived using steam or CO2 extraction, and man-made elements using green chemistry. Green chemistry is the process of producing a product or ingredients with the minimum use or creation of hazardous substances."
"Functional Fragrance is an anti-stress supplement. There’s a long-standing, anecdotally and clinically recorded link between our olfactory system and our cognitive state. Put simply, scent can impact our emotional state,” adds Miller. The brand worked with Frank Voelkl, the nose behind iconic scents including Le Labo’s Santal 33, to develop the fragrance.
Beyond that, innovative fragrances are also veering away from the high amounts of alcohol normally used in formulations. Hermetica, a new luxury line of scents, is 100 percent alcohol-free and uses unique patented technology to develop its alcohol-free molecular fragrances. Ellis Brooklyn focuses on natural ingredients and just launched the Myth Hydraperfume, an alcohol-free fragrance formula featuring 100 percent pure fragrance oil droplets suspended in a moisturising, hyaluronic-acid-water-based gel. Applying the product feels more akin to applying a skincare topical than a fragrance. “The Hydraparfum formula was really inspired by feedback from our customers and also my own experience reviewing products as the beauty columnist for the New York Times,” says Bee Shapiro, founder of the brand. “Some of our customers are sensitive to alcohol and that was where we started. But then if you're taking the alcohol out of an Eau de Parfum, what is going to be your base? As much as I love oils, an oil base tends to get messy and can stain clothes. Also, one problem with alcohol was that because the smell of alcohol is so strong, it disturbs the delicate top notes. You have to wave and wave your arm in the air just for the alcohol to evaporate that you actually miss the very top notes of a fragrance.”
“Fragrances that use less denatured alcohol and only natural ingredients can possibly be more beneficial to our health, skin, and the environment when properly formulated,” says licensed cosmetic chemist Brittany Watkins. “Denatured alcohol and certain ingredients used in fragrances emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere which negatively impact our environment.”
“Using natural ingredients is great, however, there are natural fragrance ingredients that are also known allergens; such as geraniol and eugenol. Geraniol is a naturally occurring ingredient and can be found in rose essential oil and citronella. Eugenol is also naturally occurring and can be found in a variety of essential oils like clove,” she adds. “A properly formulated fragrance using less denatured alcohol and no known allergens is key in reducing contact allergies and a step towards improving our environment.”
As more fragrances move towards the inclusion of the clean beauty movement, using natural ingredients and encompassing wellness theories, it’s important for companies to continue to be transparent about ingredients. It’s also important to remember the environment, sustainability and how packaging plays into all of that. Ormaie’s bottles, for example, are made by a sustainable glassmaker and the decorative toppers are crafted of renewable forest beech trees, while the labels come from the print shop Imprimerie du Marais in Paris. For the future of fragrances to truly be innovative, brands need to include a detailed revamp of classic ingredients as well as thoughtful dedication to sustainable packaging and a look at how a product affects the skin, planet and soul.