Thursday 14 July 2016


Every couple of weeks you see the same topic raise its weary head again. I say "weary" because you always get the same points presented by both sides and neither will budge in their dogmatic opinion. They each try to win an argument that is fundamentally based on the misconception that natural is always good and synthetic is always bad. I've lost count of the number of times that I've heard "everything smells synthetic these days". So, for the final time, naturals and synthetics each have their own place and when used in combination can create truly mind-blowing fragrances. Still don't believe me?

The idea that history is littered with 100% non-synthetic perfumes is the first mistake. Some of the greatest fragrances of the Nineteenth Century contained synthetics, they actually made the perfumes possible. In 1882 Houbigant released Fougère Royal using the ingredient coumarin, which had been created in 1868, and this was truly the first "genie out of the bottle". It provided a consistency of strength that was difficult to achieve with real tonka bean, where the odour is naturally found. However, the discovery of vanillin in 1876 is the one synthetic that nobody can escape from. Jicky, Shalimar, Joy, Angel, Spicebomb … you’re enjoying it in all of these and many more.

So, what actually is a synthetic? Put simply it's a laboratory created ingredient, which means synthetically produced, that can either mirror nature or represent a completely new aroma. With an ever increasing demand for new fragrances it's chemical perfumery that can provide originality. The word "chemical" does not just mean abrasive cleaning products and poison, we are all made up of chemicals. Synthetics also fill the space left by ethical changes. Animal products, which provide the foundation for many fragrances, can be recreated in the laboratory. Where would we be without synthetic musk?

We all need to remember that the scent of a real "thing" is made up of many different aromas. The smell of a rose is not just one molecule but hundreds, and in classical perfumery it was the skill of combining these additional scents which made your perfume balance. With chemical perfumery we can extract a single molecule and reproduce it, but using such piercingly specific aromas requires just as much skill as those early creators. Also bear in mind those "silent" flowers, like muguet or lilac, that can't have their scent extracted. Without chemical perfumery we would be deprived of Diorissimo and Frederic Malle's En Passant.

Another big confusion are the words "raw material". They suggest an unadulterated essence from the very heart of nature. As Sarah McCartney pointed out over coffee and cake, with the exception of citrus oils any aromatic compound that is extracted by means other than expression (squeezing) is subjected to "unnatural" forces. Steaming, boiling, solvents, they all disturb in some way the "raw material". However, even those citrus oils extracted by expression have to be processed to remove the chemical furanocoumarin which can occasionally cause a "phototoxic reaction", think of it like a "chemically created" sunburn. Penny Williams, of Orchadia Solutions, also added that "plants make odours as part of their metabolism. As soon as they are picked their metabolism changes and so their odours also change. The mere act of picking them causes a change." So you see, nothing is truly "raw".

Ultimately synthetics and naturals all combine to create our favourite fragrances, but the final word must surely go to Ernest Beaux, a classical perfumer who embraced a new age. "We'll have to rely on the chemists to find new chemicals if we are to make new and original accords."


  1. Phototoxicity is caused by materials in natural citrus fruit essential oils. I'm not sure that calling it "chemical sunburn" is helping. That's why Bergasol suntan lotion worked.

    1. It's such a tricky subject to write about without making it sound too technical, so I've softened it now to "chemically created". Also there is SO much more that can be discussed, but I'll leave part two to someone else.

      ps, I'm loving KILLER ROSE