Death by jasmine: why organic perfumery is under threat

Is real jasmine really worse for you than the synthetic version? It might sound crazy but that's exactly what the International Fragrance Association believe – and it’s making life tough for organic and natural perfumers. Ruth Styles reports

Perfume has been around for millennia, as have ingredients such as jasmine, bergamot and oakmoss. But despite centuries of uncontroversial use, jasmine and a number of other key natural perfume ingredients have fallen foul of modern health and safety legislation. The reason? In a tiny number of cases, they can cause an allergic reaction. But while few are affected by including oakmoss and jasmine in perfumes, the numbers affected by leaving them out are much larger, with small niche independent brands – organic and natural brands among them – worst hit. Why? Because the restricted list is made up almost entirely of naturals.

So how did this situation come about? In 2009, the International Fragrance Association [IFRA] – the perfume world’s governing body - made an amendment to its code of practice that restricted the use of jasmine and labelled it a potential allergen. Similar restrictions have been applied to other natural materials including bitter orange, bergamot and grapefruit. All of this begs the question: how did a substance formerly considered safe and used as such for thousands of years suddenly become a potential health risk? Part of the reason is that for IFRA, who did not respond to requests for comment from the Ecologist, the safety of an ingredient no longer hinges on whether or not it’s natural. Plants, like chemicals, can cause allergic reactions, making it difficult for regulators to determine what could be potentially dangerous to consumers. Just to make life even tougher, where synthetic perfume ingredients tend to be made up of a single molecule that can be tested exhaustively, naturals contain thousands. That creates a headache as safety bodies have no way of knowing which – if any – of those molecules has harmful potential without testing every single one. Not only would that be impossibly time consuming, it would also be ludicrously expensive. Either way, the result for perfume houses is the same: reformulate or discontinue fragrances that don’t meet restrictions.

Not surprisingly, the new rules have proved controversial with some in the industry regarding them as suffocating while others embrace them as a challenge. According Tim Gage, president of the British Society of Perfumers, safety is paramount but, as he points out, the new rules have left the perfume industry with even more restrictions to deal with than food producers. ‘Firstly if a material poses a hazard then we need to be careful with it and limit its use,’ he comments. ‘We want to make safe fragrances. But at the same time we’re restricted on some of the materials we use such as, for example, orange oil. If we use a very small amount of that then it must be listed on the labels of the products it’s going into as a possible allergen. Now if you go into a supermarket and buy an orange, when you peel it you get covered in the same oil that we’re being stopped from using. But there’s no warning on that orange saying it contains these same materials. And does the consumer think once they get covered in that oil “oh that might contain allergens I better wash my hands after I’ve eaten it?” So we’re being really much more restricted than other industries which can be a bit difficult to deal with at times.’

While few in the perfume industry would say that safety is unimportant, the new rules are having a catastrophic effect on existing perfumes; many of which have been around for decades. If you’ve been wondering why your Chanel No.5 no longer smells the same, the answer is IFRA. According to perfume scientist and critic Luca Turin, although Chanel has done a good job of recreating No.5 with less jasmine, IFRA are ‘still traitors’. But while Chanel has managed to keep No.5 alive, others haven’t been so lucky. Traditional perfume brand, Creed, has been forced to retire a number of fragrances – including one with a formula more than 100 years old – while natural and organic brands have found themselves with increasingly little room to manoeuvre. Many brands are turning increasingly to synthetics, although as Gage points out, synthetic alternatives have problems of their own. For organic brands, that’s not an option. ‘In the last few years a few niche and artisan houses have sprung up, including quite a few independent natural perfumers,’ says natural skincare and fragrance expert, Karen Gilbert. ‘As independents, they aren’t controlled by their accounts department and are free to use more costly materials if they wish. It’s this part of the perfume world that will be regulated out of existence if IFRA carries on like this. In the interests of quality and diversity, no, I don't think [the rule changes] are good for the perfumery industry.’

For green perfume aficionados, the new legislation presents a problem. While few will be too bothered by the fate of Dior's Poison, what is worrying is the effect the rules will have on quality naturals brands such as Honoré des Prés, who are among the independent labels directly affected by the new rules. ‘Being organic and natural in perfumery, for me, is to choose to be safe and authentic,’ comments Honoré des Prés founder, Christian David. ‘The new luxury in perfume is to have the capacity to create success with real flowers and ingredients. I’m not sure that people are dreaming about perfumes that have a flower presented in a marketing speech that you never find in the perfume. I want Honoré des Prés to be a truthful perfumery.’ ‘I believe in education, transparency and balance,’ adds Gilbert. ‘As consumers we should ask questions, educate ourselves and use a large dose of common sense when it comes to products. There are many scaremongering websites with poorly researched information that consumers take as the truth. I don't mean to be flippant but we are exposed to far more danger in everyday life than we would get from a squirt of perfume containing too much jasmine oil.’

Additional research by Bethany Hubbard

This article was updated on the 20th April 2012 to reflect Karen Gilbert's role as an independent consultant rather than an employee of Neal's Yard Remedies. We apologise for any confusion.


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