For more than 4,000 years, people have relied on plants to produce an array of fragrances used in perfumes. Archaeologists have found the remains of distillation units in the Indus valley dating as far back as four millennia. They have discovered evidence that the Persian civilization had mastered sophisticated techniques to extract essential oils from flowers. The history of the perfume industry and its connections with fragrances derived from the natural world is therefore very ancient, and very rich.
The development of organic chemistry in the 19th century introduced massive changes in the fast growing perfume industry by providing more options. “A turning point was the synthesis of vanillin from coniferin in 1874, which just over ten years later was used by Aimé Guerlain as the ‘base note’ of his new commercial perfume,” explains Rosaria Ciriminna, one of the authors of a study on the history of green fragrances.
Moving back to nature
As the years went on, more and more perfumes sold commercially were made from cheap synthetic compounds whilst the net worth of the industry started growing exponentially. Data suggests that in 2017, revenues from the perfume industry exceeded 17 billion dollars globally.
However, the industry has recently started to shift towards “green” fragrances. Recent studies suggest that some of the synthetic compounds used in many perfumes were linked to allergic reactions in some individuals, or had endocrine-disrupting properties (they could disrupt the body’s hormonal system). A 2002 study for instance showed that a number of synthetic fragrances are likely to trigger asthma attacks and migraines. They are also blamed for having a negative environmental impact, with synthetic musk compounds shown to contaminate waterways and aquatic wildlife.
Concerns over sanitary and environmental risks have led people to go back to perfumes made using more naturally derived compounds. The industry is slowly picking up on this trend, introducing more natural ingredients to the composition of perfumes and becoming more transparent. EU regulations actually require manufacturers to indicate on the label if one or more of the 26 potential fragrance allergens are present in the perfume.
Using new technologies
But does ‘natural’ really mean better for the environment? While sanitary risks seem to be under control with perfumes made up of more natural compounds, the environmental risks are not necessarily addressed. “Natural fragrances” don’t always equate with “sustainable fragrances”.
In his book, The Chemistry of Fragrances, author and editor Charles Sell explains that the production of many natural essential oils has a higher environmental cost than the production of synthetic chemicals. It is often associated with a greater consumption of fossil fuel and production of CO2. Furthermore, relying on plants to get fragrances can be problematic if said plants are known to be endangered species.
In coming years, the challenge for manufacturers will thus also be to adopt, and perhaps develop, new extracting technologies that are cleaner, and less damaging to the environment. Two of such “cleaner” techniques are already known as “supercritical fluid extraction” which consists in using CO2 under high pressure to extract essential oils and “microwave-assisted extraction”, an automated green extraction technique. These technologies are not new, but have not been exploited to their full potential yet.
Work will also have to be done to come up with innovative and sustainable ways to grow plants used in the perfume industry. “Efforts also need to lead to propagation of better strains, optimal planting techniques to conserve water and
minimise soil erosion, and optimal contour cultivation strategies to dispense with the need for insecticide,” Rosaria Ciriminna and her co-authors points out.
For manufacturers, this will also mean making an effort to source sustainably-grown plant species. In Australia or in Sri Lanka for example, new sustainable plantations have been set up to obtain pure sandalwood essential oil. In order to position themselves as ethical, companies will have to work hard on the ground with providers and invest to improve the standards in plantations and to go towards more sustainable modes of production.