A tricky distinction: synthetics and natural ingredients in perfume

One of the most controversial subjects in all of chemistry is natural versus synthetic elements. Why is this matter so complex? It comes down to understanding the difference between synthetics and naturals: “Synthetics” are man-made molecules or nature-cloned ones.

“We live in a synthetic world, yet many of us strive to use all-natural materials and products… an almost impossible feat. How can we understand and benefit from this contradiction? My personal understanding and viewpoint is as follows: Each chemical substance, irrespective of its origin being natural, organic, man-made, synthetic, etc., must firstly be evaluated on its own to be safe for use. This is in fact the procedure for all compounds used in perfumery that are evaluated by the RIFM (Research Institute of Fragrance Materials) to obtain the status of GRASS (Generally Regarded As Safe).” – Max Millies, Perfumer, Earthgro Fragrances

Why is this matter so complex? It comes down to understanding the difference between synthetics and naturals: “Synthetics” are man-made molecules or nature-cloned ones.

Some unusual perfumes have ingredients that, at first glance, do not sound natural or organic. However, going back to the base argument, that everything consists of carbon-based compounds, if you look closer at these mystery ingredients, you will find they all have a natural chemical base – yes, even the ones containing “metallic” or “plastic” notes.

“The definition of “natural”, as found in nature, and “synthetic”, as not found in nature, was invented in the laboratory. A second class of synthetics are those that are “cloned from nature” and known as “nature identical compounds”. They are therefore also regarded as “natural” and allowed in the EU (European Union) to form part of natural flavouring.” (Max Millies, Perfumer, Earthgro Fragrances)

The perfume world is full of interesting and unusual names and naming conventions because both the combinations of notes (ingredients) in perfumes, and the final compositions, are works of art, and the perfumer is allowed a lot of leeway or poetic license to name or describe their creations. It is indeed, very difficult to describe in words what is felt by the heart.

Just like in a painting, the final “creation” of the product, occurs in the mind of the user, and how they experience the product, depends on how they contextualize and interpret what they smell.

Therefore, perfume notes may be described as containing all manner of synthetic or unnatural things, but in fact they are just unusual organics (“organic” here referring to organic chemistry which is the chemistry of every compound containing carbon in its structure). The informal term “organic” as used in social terms refers to a compound which occurs in nature AND is harvested from nature PLUS certain criteria being applied to it such as not being sprayed by conventional pesticides, or fertilised by conventional fertilisers. Therefore, “organic” ingredients are not simply “natural”, “original” or even “pure” as we understand the term in its social context.

“Organic ingredients in perfumery are not practical at all. Natural ingredients are beautiful and rich but in the modern world we need the synthetics which bring about a sharpness, a defined character, and creates notes which are unquestionably modern such as marine notes. These types of notes are indispensable and modern perfumery would not be possible without it.” –  Max Millies, Perfumer, Earthgro Fragrances

Header photo by Alexa Mazzarello, #169668, Licence: CC0 magdeleine.co

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