“If this law goes ahead I am finished, as my perfumes are all filled with these ingredients [to be restricted],” said Frédéric Malle, who owns high-end perfume company Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. The impact on luxury perfume brands as a whole would, he said, be “like an atomic explosion and we would not have the means to rebuild ourselves.”
The recent Reuters article, EU threat spotlights perfume makers’ secrets, continues to explore the topic of raw material regulations and reformulations. Not again, you might think, since there was much talk about it already, but the issue of further restrictions on the usage of raw materials is sending so many waves through the industry that it’s hard to avoid. To summarize, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), an advisory body for the European Commission, has proposed to ban several key perfumery materials such oakmoss and Lilial and to extend the existing list of 26 allergens to more than 100. The regulations haven’t yet been adopted, and the final decision will be made next year.
I talked about the issues with escalating regulations in Is Chanel No 5 Being Banned?, and my post generated so many questions and emails that I decided to compile my answers here. The main impact from regulations is on the industry, but as fragrance consumers, we also lose out as our favorite fragrances are reformulated beyond recognition or discontinued. Also, I question the wisdom of replacing materials with a long history of usage with newly developed ingredients, the side effects of which may not become clear until decades down the road. These are good reasons to stay informed about the current situation.
Why are the fragrance companies actually paying IFRA to regulate themselves?
Fragrance is not covered by copyright protection, and in order to protect trade secrets and know how, the industry has agreed to self-regulate. The alternative is to be regulated by an outside agency, which is a worrisome proposition in an industry where secrecy is the main concern.
Why worry about disclosing trade secrets, if modern technology can reveal the formula?
A gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer can only reveal a part of the formula. Rose oil contains hundreds of components, most of which occur at such trace amounts that they don’t register using modern analysis methods. It’s also easy enough to fool a machine, and many perfumers are geniuses when it comes to developing such tricks.
Why are only the naturals being banned?
This is not exactly true. Most ingredients on the list of banned or restricted substances are synthetics. For instance, Lilial, a green floral material that gives a dewy accord, is facing a complete ban. This aroma-molecule produced by Givaudan is a foundation note for many green floral fragrances. It’s present in many modern fragrances, and without it classics like Cacharel Anais Anais and Oscar de la Renta lose their sparkle.
At the same time, restrictions on ingredients like ylang-ylang, jasmine, eucalyptus, cedarwood or sweet orange oil catches the media’s attention and for good reason. You get more oil on your skin when you peel an orange than you do from any perfume. The use of jasmine and ylang-ylang for beauty and medicinal preparations is as old as civilization itself.
Do the fragrance companies benefit from the regulations?
The argument goes that the big supplier houses like International Flavors & Fragrances, Firmenich, Givaudan and Symrise benefit from the regulations, because they produce synthetics that can be used to replace naturals. This doesn’t make much sense, because the supplier companies are also the biggest producers of natural raw materials. Also, regulations result in reformulations on a massive scale. Given the pricing structure in the fragrance industry, the client pays solely for the finished fragrance oil. In other words, the work that the researchers put into developing replacement molecules or the hours of perfumers’ time spent reformulating are covered by the supplier itself.
If you think that it’s easy enough to factor in these costs into the price of oil, wrong again. The intense competition in the fragrance industry means that a brand will threaten to remove a supplier from its core list and give business to its direct competitor. Even a large supplier like Givaudan is just a small business compared to most of its clients (Givaudan’s yearly revenue is approximately €330 million, while LVMH’s is €23.65 billion), and it’s difficult to negotiate under these conditions.
Why don’t the companies work together to counter EU pressures?
The industry is small, but it’s extremely fragmented. Giant suppliers like IFF or Firmenich have very different goals from smaller houses like Fragrance Resources or Mane. LVMH’s luxury portfolio and its needs are very different from Coty’s “fast sell” model. Without a unified voice, any lobbying is bound to fail. Traditionally, the industry has never had to band together, so regulation might be a litmus test for its ability to overcome internal differences and come up with a workable plan.
Why are perfumers so silent on this matter?
Again, another hold over of the medieval guild like structure of the fragrance industry. Until recently, perfumers were not exposed at all, and their presence in mass media was non-existent. Even today, companies like Procter & Gamble are reluctant to disclose perfumers’ names in their press materials. Plus, given the industry’s inherent discretion, talking about its problems openly is simply not done. Perfumers also have no structure to represent them, no official job title, and not even clearly defined job description. (Fortunately, one notable development is a recent proposal by the French Society of Perfumers (Société Française des Parfumeurs) to create a forum and an official accreditation system). In the end, like any social action, there is a collective action problem.
Why not just label the allergens on the packaging, the way the food industry does when it comes to peanuts, dairy or gluten?
There are many reasons why the fragrance brands are reluctant to label, the main one being that it’s a long list–the EU proposal will quadruple the list of allergens which might scare off consumers. Moreover, most of the allergenic substances have chemical names that mean absolutely nothing to an average fragrance buyer. For labeling to be an effective tool, it has to be coupled with a wide spread educational effort. Now, a good question would be why the industry is still reluctant to educate its consumers.
Why can’t a perfume company move its operations out of the EU and avoid having to comply with the regulations altogether?
This question came up several times in the comments, so I decided to add it: The regulations would apply (if passed) to any company wanting to sell in the EU market. It doesn’t matter where the company is operating. It may make its perfumes in the US, China or anywhere else in the world, but if it wants to sell in the EU, the fragrances would have to comply with the EU laws.
These are only some of the more popular questions, and there are many others I haven’t covered–the definition of allergens, the scientific validity of the EU research on perfume substances, among many others. Please let me know if there is something else you would like me to discuss.
If you prefer to read the article in French, Denyse of Grain de Musc kindly offered to translate it: Réglementations sur les matières premières de parfumerie: la F.A.Q. de Bois de Jasmin, version française.