Should we oppose science & nature, and does synthetic mean danger? Can we fully rely on naturals?
A little bit of history…
Since the end of the nineteenth century and the development of organic chemistry, fragrances can be composed of natural materials but also through synthesis.
The synthetic molecule is a particle from the petrochemical origin that has been artificially manufactured through chemical processes, and whose purpose is to replicate the smell of a natural molecule or to create new odors. The arrival of these synthetic materials has allowed for an incredibly expansive and diverse development in perfumery and its creative capabilities.
So, does synthetic mean toxic?
The toxicity of a substance is dependent on its chemical structure, not its origin. There is often a perception of hazard and risk when you hear the name “chemical”…The consideration occurs – «surely anything that is not natural is likely to be more harmful?» However, this can be a distorted point of view. A synthetic ingredient allows you to completely control its origin, stability, and safe use on the skin, with reduced impact on the environment.
Many synthetic ingredients are chemically identical to the structures and compositions that can be found in nature, meaning they have the same properties as naturally occurring molecules. A good example is vanillin, a synthetic material that is naturally occurring in vanilla, whether the material is of synthetic or natural origin, the molecule will remain the same.
In terms of toxicity, we must refer to the structure of a molecule and its concentration, not its origin.
Essential oils – Are they totally safe?
Due to their natural and vegetal origin, essential oils are often considered to be very safe. However, essential oils are hydrophobic substances with complex compositions. Derived from plants, they contain volatile organic compounds such as alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, phenols, esters, ethers and terpenes, all of which can be present in various arrangements and proportions. Among these substances, some contain allergens, CMRs, or photosensitizers, and in certain cases a combination of all.
Essential oils are complex substances and their potential toxicity to human health and the environment is not to be taken lightly. As such, they are also subject to the REACH regulation and some are restricted by IFRA, for example – the essential oil of Ylang, Verbena, Tagete…
Synthetic ingredients have significant advantages over naturals!
- They provide olfactive notes that cannot be extracted naturally
Some flowers, such as lily-of-the-valley, lily, carnation, or lilac for example, are too fragile and do not support extraction. We can also mention the case of cyclamen aldehyde, obtained by synthesis for the first time in 1919 to reproduce the cyclamen odor, that cannot be extracted naturally.
Therefore, the use of synthetic raw materials allows for the recreation of scents that we could not produce using natural raw materials.
- They make it possible to replace animal notes
Many olfactive notes come from animals. These notes which are generally quite strong, often give character to fragrances. Some ingredients that were widely used in the past, such as Ambergris, are now prohibited by law. Nevertheless, these notes are appreciated and are essential in the perfumer’s creative palette.
The synthesis of such ingredients make it possible to reproduce these aminalic notes, while avoiding the use of animals or animal derived ingredients to allow perfumers to express their creativity and maximize their capabilities.
Moreover, companies offering vegan products often turn to synthetics as a workable alternative to animal ingredients/derivatives, using only synthetic musk instead of natural musk from animal origin.
- The synthesis of chemical ingredients allows for the creation of evermore efficient and innovative molecules
New synthetic molecules are created regularly allowing perfumers to renew themselves with new scents. These include calone, a molecule with a marine smell. It was created in the 1990s and initiated the new trend in oceanic perfumes, including Escape by Calvin Klein (1991), and L’Eau D’Issey by Issey Miyake (1992).
- They help to preserve our natural resources
Certain materials such as Immortelle and Sandalwood have a low extraction yield, and this can lead to their disappearance. Others are energy intensive and/or release a significant amount of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Jacques Cavallier-Belletrud, perfumer for Louis Vuitton, recalls that “an overconsumption of natural products would go against the principles of respect and protection of the environment, resources being fragile and limited“.
Nature and synthesis – soulmates?
Some ingredients offer the greatest benefit in their natural form, others in their synthetic form. Perhaps we need to let go of binary paradigms and defend the benefits that each approach has to offer, as well as the magic that the two can create together.
The complexity of the notes expressed by natural raw materials does not always have a direct equivalent in synthesis. As Rosine Courage, perfumer for Sozio, said: «Coumarin would never completely replace those warm, caramelized, chocolaty notes of the tonka bean». However, the use of synthetic ingredients remains essential to the richness of the perfumer’s palette and their creativity.
«Perfumery is a language, a means of expression. Formulating without certain ingredients, natural or synthetic, is to deprive oneself of a vocabulary and impoverish it» explains the perfumer Francis Kurkdjian, of the house of the same name.
It seems that today, beyond naturalness, consumers are looking for meaning and transparency… That is why we can see some initiatives like the Clean trend, or the expansion of the Fragrance Conservatory, the comprehensive digital resource for high-quality information about fragrance created by Fragrance creators : FragranceConservatory.com.
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