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Just be natural

There’s a project afoot to create “banned” perfumes from all-natural ingredients banned by IFRA, the international group of perfume. Gaia at The Non-Blonde describes it best, and has described it already, so there, I don’t have to.

I am developing kind of a fraught relationship with natural perfumes (or “naturals”). I eat organic food, I use nontoxic cleaning products, I’m kind of a poster girl for hippie greenness in my own urban sophisticate kind of way. (OK, perhaps in my own suburban bourgeois kind of way.) You’d think I’d be all over natural perfumes. But I’m kind of not.

Instead of complaining about naturals, let me explain what they’re not. They’re not easy, they’re not simple, and they don’t last. I can see why synthetic ingredients have gained such a hold on the perfume industry. The scent molecules in synthetics are necessarily simpler than those in naturals; they’re isolating one or two scent producing molecules, whereas there might be fifty or more in a natural perfume ingredient. The perfumes you get from synthetic ingredients don’t have to be simple – Chanel No. 5 is not – but perfumers can work with these simpler ingredients to give you simple, but delightful, scent experiences. (I’m thinking of the famous minimalism of Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin sur le Nil, a simple – but gorgeous – scent evoking lotus root, citrus, and the water of the Nile, which famously uses very few, and mostly synthetic, ingredients.) Synthetic ingredients also last like the dickens – which is why that synthetic musk that’s in your laundry detergent stays and stays and continues to let you believe that shirt is “clean” long after it’s become… well, less than sterile.

I think simpler scents are also easier to like. Most people spritz on a perfume and think “I like this.” They don’t wait for the top notes to fade or the drydown to emerge. They aren’t looking to pick out the jasmine peeking in from behind the rose. They aren’t looking for anything different to happen at all – when a perfume changes on them, they are more likely to be displeased than pleased.

This is probably where perfumistas divide from the crowd. Perfumistas go nuts over naturals for two reasons that I can see (from my lofty position of overgeneralizing about tons of people I don’t know): they are COMPLEX, both at first sniff and over time; and they are AUTHENTIC, in the sense that when you sniff a natural, you are sniffing something closer to what perfume might have smelled like 100 years ago, or even 1000.

Now a mention of IFRA. The term “IFRA” makes perfumistas curl their lip, but most of us conveniently forget that IFRA has no policing authority whatsoever. IFRA decides that certain ingredients are allergenic, IFRA decides that warning labels on perfume are no good, so IFRA “bans” ingredients from perfume – but the commercial perfumers go along with it. I can well imagine they are allergic to liability, and since making perfume is usually a cash cow business (well, the hits at least are cash cows), they don’t want to risk their investment. Either their new perfume is a big win and they don’t want to waste the goose’s golden eggs, or their new perfume is a flop and they have to recoup what they spent on advertising campaigns with big celebrities and production values (you can’t feed all those airbrushers on peanuts). So the glorious, complex, historically interesting ingredients are “banned”, perfumes are reformulated (often to use cheaper synthetics) and perfumistas get seriously cranky. After all, how much time and money can you really spend bidding up vintage bottles of chypres on eBay just to get your oakmoss hit?

Enter the Banned Perfumes project. These indie perfumers are making perfumes from banned ingredients – as many as they can get into the composition.

I think this is a fabulous idea, and I want to smell as many of them as possible. (I’m kind of hoping, the new indie oriented arm of the fabulous retail outlet Luckyscents, does a “sampler pack” of banned perfumes at some point, but I suspect that the best that can be done is that these small runs will be collected and gloated over, and I’ll either have to buy samples (from the wonderful producers who are selling them) or watch them go by.)

Because here’s the thing: I don’t really care for a lot of naturals. I own Buddha’s organic Fig perfume (FIG!), and once you own one fig as far as I’m concerned you don’t need any more (forget it, Womanity, I’m not falling for you). I order samples from some of the best natural perfumers in the business, but I never fall in love with them. They’re interesting, they’re intellectually stimulating, but they ain’t pushing my buttons.

Two exceptions that I can think of: Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s compositions keep me coming back for more and more samples. Her work is the best example I can think of, of the variability of experiencing perfume. It’s the exact opposite of the commercial experience. She has NO perfumes that are exactly the same beginning to end. She has NO perfumes that are easy to like, and easy to forget. I haven’t fallen in love with one yet, but I want more more more. A foodie perfume from Dawn, for instance, is a revelation, or a lighter flower like violet. What seems like a pleasant commercial scent will seem flat and sterile to you after you smell one of her compositions, where hay and dirt and seeds all mix with the violet and you’re not even sure any more what you’re smelling but you know you’ve never smelled it before. Her website is a nightmare to search and use (why can I buy Cafe Noir but using the search function for either coffee or cafe shows no results???) but use Google Search as much as you can and just explore; her work is worth it, and she sells samples as well as a variety of sizes and formats.

The other is Sweet Anthem, the perfumer that did the zero-carbon-footprint perfume EOS relatively recently. I bought some of her samples because I was curious about the zero-carbon-emissions process, and because she seemed serious about her work. This perfumer, Meredith, is self-taught and developing fast. Like many indie perfumers the website is a business disaster, and her habit of naming everything with people names (mostly girl names) is disastrous for me, since I can’t remember names of people when I meet them and I can’t really remember names of perfumes unless they’re more descriptive either. But “Mary” is a winner for me – I keep coming back to it, again a wonderful composition of nature – and her Russian sampler collection (inspired by her honeymoon) also contained many varied delights. I like almost everything Sweet Anthem does, it’s easiest to buy from them on the Etsy shop, and when you do don’t hold your breath, as her shipping times can be in weeks or months. But they’re not expensive and they’re delightful and well worth the wait.

As I write this out I see a trend. I tend to prefer sophisticated, elegant blends, and those are almost always compositions of both synthetic and natural ingredients. (Solely synthetic perfumes, like Bond No. 9’s, usually fail to grip me just as solely natural ones do.) But for perfumes that are complex, interesting, and still reflections of nature, I do like the occasional natural. Outside on a sunny day surrounded by trees, hay, and wildflowers? That’s a natural in a bottle.

I also dislike the idea of restricted ingredients for the sake of limiting liability. I believe people should be free to do stupid things to themselves if it doesn’t hurt society at large (or their neighbors), and I don’t think consumers are too stupid to read labels, or that people would stop buying perfumes if they could read the labels. (Which, yes, would read like a laundry list of chemicals, but the ingredients ARE laundry lists of chemicals, and a lack of labelling doesn’t change that.) So I’m all behind the Banned Perfumes project. Here’s to many more banned perfumes.

*Oakmoss – perhaps the most bemoaned banned ingredient, the one that gave many classic perfumes their dry, rich final notes.

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