Nature or Nurture? Natural and Synthetics under our Microscope

One of the most frequent questions we get here at LKNU involves how natural and synthetic ingredients influence fragrance perception and your experience with it. And naturally, no pun intended, we strive to be as specific and helpful as possible. So prepare to learn everything you always wanted to know about natural and synthetics in our concise guide below. 

First of all, it is important to note that perfumery, contrary to what you might have imagined, is not all that similar to cooking. The providence and freshness of ingredients in cooking makes for half the eating pleasure; the rest is up to the imaginative powers and technical expertise of the cook. In perfumery, however, natural raw materials alone do not necessarily reflect a superior blend. In fact, an array of lab-constructed ingredients forms the backbone for many of your favourite fragrances. 

We need to do a small historical detour to better understand this. Towards the draw of the 19th century  the building blocks of modern perfumery were laid thanks to the rise of industrialisation and the advances in organic chemistry. Let’s not forget that several natural scents resisted yielding for long, like rose of which the extraction was only made possible in the Middle Ages thanks to a revolutionary process we now call “distillation”. It continues to be the technique which gives us many natural isolates and essential oils from various plants. Extraction with volatile solvents, in which a purer and more intense extract is subtracted from the thick pomades enrobing flower petals using a chemical solution, became possible in the 19th century. Additionally Luigi Chiozza was the first chemist to synthesize the natural aroma of cinnamon in 1856 and since then chemists have been inventing and investigating new pathways like crazy.

But, more than that, synthetic ingredients could now be created from scratch, with no existing equivalent in nature. Coumarin (an almond-hay scent derived from the crystals found in tonka beans, discovered by Sir William Henry Perkins in 1868), vanillin, and the even sweeter ethyl vanillin we now use in baking, artificial musk, aldehydes, ionones and heliotropin are all products of the industrialisation of the 19th century. These molecules were quickly made current by the great perfumers at the end of the century, such as Aimée Guerlain with his iconoclastic Jicky (1889) and its vanillin scent; a truly avant garde fragrance because of the aesthetic and conceptual shift it signalled for the industry. 

The innovation of marine and aquatic, patented molecules, such as Calone, Algenone, Helional and Florazone, among others, made possible the evocation of seascape and the cool clear air ambience of a white waterfall. If you grew up during the 1990s, these were the domineering scents on the grown ups, men as well as women, around you. If you have smelled Cool Water and Escape by Calvin Klein you know them well. 

Animalic ingredients, that is extractions derived from animals, valued for their fixative powers in a perfume formula, but also for the subtle eroticism they brought through their primal scents, were deemed cruel in the 1970s and became banned by the WWF. The Nepalese deer musk has to thank the committees, as hunters and poachers had to kill the animal to extract its small musk pods situated in its genital region. The civet cat, a wild rodent living in Africa, needn’t get killed to exert its precious anal gland secretion, but the stressing needed to make the little critter produce the smelly essence was cruel all the same. The industry had already found good substitutes anyway, with nitromusks at the start of the 20th century, or polycyclic musks later on, and newer and safer musks are continuously evolving, so that the substitution nowadays comes effortlessly. Chanel’s No.5 contains a good portion of the synthesized civetone now, instead of naturally derived civet. Natural derivatives also exist: ambrette seed/musk mallow provides a superior grade of musk molecule that is used in the choicest fragrances.

The substitution of certain ingredients with more accessible ones also democratized perfume, making it a luxury that is accessible to more people and not only aristocrats, like in the times of Napoleon and the French empress Eugénie Montijo. Crucially it also ensures a better lifespan and quality control of fragrances. Natural raw materials are fluctuating in quality standards much like vine crops influence a bottle of wine, so one year’s crop of ylang ylang flowers might not be equalled in next year’s, creating a difficult to fill gap in the hands of the perfumer. 

Additionally, certain natural ingredients were known to produce skin sensitisation, for instance natural bergamot (which triggers photosensitivity and might produce sun spots), now surgically cleansed of its sensitising propensities in the lab, and/or entirely substituted with synthetic equivalents. Or oakmoss, a natural parasitical “lace”  growing on oak trees which can become a skin sensitiser for some individuals with repeated use. Evernyl and some other aroma-chemicals came to the rescue when it was severely rationed in the formula by the regulatory body of perfumers for the European Union in 2005. Some rogue brands however continue to use the previously tried-and-tested standards of such materials to great artistic effect; case in point Rogue Perfumery, by former chef Manuel Cross. One could claim he knows a thing or two about the superiority of great ingredients!

These innovations did not leave natural raw materials in the shadow, nevertheless, as they continue to infuse blends with their mystical, almost alchemical vigour and multi-coloured nuance. A critic once likened the use of synthetics to providing the bones, the skeleton of the composition, and naturals giving flesh to a perfume. Indeed, several consumers are partial to exactly the mercurial facets of natural isolates and extracts, which make a fragrance slightly different from skin to skin. Flower and plant extracts of natural origin not only create a multi-coloured landscape, so to speak, when smelling the fragrance, but interact more with skin’s acidity, what we determine as our skin’s pH, to skew the final result as sweeter or more sour and fresh on certain individuals. All naturals brands, created with only 100% naturally derived ingredients, such as Floratropia offer this unique yet long-lasting experience of working with your skin’s chemistry, instead of engulfing you with a foghorn of continuous emissions that won’t budge whatsoever. 

In conclusion synthetic materials sublimate natural ones to create harmonious fragrances, which can be both safe and sublimely pleasurable to the consumer. Thanks to the creative process, perfumers have now thousands of different materials to create their fragrances ensuring there is always something more for you to discover. The rest is up to you.

©2023 Arlette - LKNU Parfumerie.