The chances of Elizabeth Taylor eau de Patchouli or Christian Dior eau de Frankincense hitting the market any time soon are slim. Celebrities, big marketing budgets and natural perfumes don't go together.
But many women looking for gentler alternatives to chemical-laden and often overpowering department-store perfumes are creating a niche market for natural scents.
At stores such as New Life Health Center, in Tucson, Ariz., customers learn about natural perfume with testers in essential oil displays. "They start to dabble in essential oils and learn how to mix them together," says assistant manager Mary Short.
Quite a few natural perfume makers also got their start that way. Many are aromatherapists who put together a few blends at clients' requests and discovered that the scents were marketable. As a result, the natural perfume business remains a cottage industry. So don't be surprised if a local aromatherapist shows up at your store selling natural perfume.
Petrochemicals and laboratory-manufactured stabilizers are frequently the main components of synthetic perfumes. Many manufacturers opt to use artificial ingredients because they are cheaper. Synthetic perfumes do contain essential oils, just not as much as natural perfumes, says Belinda Rush-Carville, president of Nevada City, Calif.-based V'TAE Parfum & Body Care Inc. One reason is that essential oils are expensive (see sidebar on page 30). "Out of the thousands of fragrance compounds, synthetics are cheaper. In a $50 bottle [of synthetic perfume], ingredients might be 15 cents worth of the cost," Rush-Carville says.
Synthetics are also easier to work with in several respects. For example, petrochemical ingredients are consistent no matter how many million liters of perfume are manufactured. Synthetics also offer the only way to recreate some scents that can't be naturally extracted, such as cantaloupe, watermelon and cucumber, says John Grettenberger Jr., general manager of LorAnn Oils Inc. in Lansing, Mich. LorAnn launched its Global Notes natural perfume line in midsummer.
Synthetics can also be formulated to last longer than essential oils. The scent of some lighter essential oils, such as citrus, can fade in a few hours, and even strong base scents, such as sandalwood, fade in five to six hours. There are hundreds of natural oils available, but there is an infinite number of synthetic scents. Although it's becoming lucrative for developing countries to extract oils from flowers such as white lotus, says Kathleen Flanagan, president of Westminster, Colo.-based Awakening Spirit Inc., "essential oils just don't have as many exotic scents" as synthetics.
Compared with what it takes to formulate a synthetic perfume, putting together a natural fragrance is easy. "You wouldn't believe the research and development that goes into the synthetics," Flanagan says.
Although synthetic perfume makers rely on scientists who combine dozens or even hundreds of ingredients—both natural and manufactured—to come up with a signature smell, natural perfume makers simply rely on their noses. Because they have fewer ingredients to combine, natural perfumers can work by trial and error. Also, because essential oils have known properties, it's easier to extrapolate what they would smell like when combined. The same is not true with synthetics, which can be volatile or downright smelly when mixed.
Natural perfumes have few ingredients compared to synthetic perfumes. Natural perfumes typically contain essential oils, carrier oils such as jojoba, coconut, almond, safflower or sesame, and alcohol or water. Occasionally, a few herbs or vitamins are mixed in.
In natural perfumes, essential oils provide the scent. Rush-Carville says top notes come from the most volatile oils, including citrus. The middle notes, or the heart of the perfume, are generally floral scents. The base, or what lingers the longest and holds the scent together, are typically wood, balsam or resin oils. Examples include sandalwood, vanilla, musk and patchouli. Unlike synthetics, natural oils tend to smell the same in the bottle as they do on the skin because body chemistry doesn't change a natural scent, Grettenberger says.
Natural perfumes often contain up to 25 percent essential oils. "If you use oils like jasmine, frankincense, ylang ylang, sometimes you just barely break even in pricing," Flanagan says. "A lot of perfume companies, if they're going to use an exotic oil, they're going to only use a few drops."
Other oils serve as carriers, diluting the essential oils. These oils are then further diluted with alcohol or water. Grain alcohol is the preferred choice because it's natural and serves as a preservative. Rush-Carville says alcohol adds a sharpness to the perfume and as it evaporates, it spreads the scent. Water-based perfumes are less volatile and have a softer aroma, she says. However, because water and essential oils don't mix, a perfume that's more than 5 percent water can be cloudy, she says. Vitamin E can also be a preservative ingredient, Grettenberger says.
What's In A Bottle?
At V'TAE, perfumers make 5 kg of scent at a time. They begin by assembling a palette of essential oils, weighed by gram. Next they mix the oils and age them for three months to six months. Then the blends are mixed with alcohol before chilling, filtering and chilling again. "Sometimes we filter three to six times to remove sediment," she says.
The next step is the packaging. This, along with marketing and research and development, is the main cost in synthetic perfume production. "The new Chanel launch is going to cost $30 million to $40 million, with the marketing and packaging and renting space in department stores," Rush-Carville says.
Most natural perfumers buy stock bottles to hold down packaging costs. Flanagan opts for blue dram bottles for two reasons: "People seem to like that because it's more of a natural thing. Also, with clear glass, light gets in and alters essential oils."
Awakening Spirit perfumes are sold in simple aromatherapy bottles; Global Notes and V'TAE also offer roll-ons. Grettenberger says the results from focus groups LorAnn conducted at colleges in Michigan showed that people prefer roll-ons. Roll-on bottles generally cost about $1.50 each versus 50 cents for a standard amber aromatherapy oil bottle, he says. V'TAE also offers spray bottles. "There's something instantly gratifying in that mist," Rush-Carville says. Sprayers can add an extra 25 cents to $3 per package, she says.
Other companies manufacture balm-type perfumes, made of oils melted in beeswax and poured into a container. The mixture hardens to a wax-like consistency. Boulder, Colo.-based Shoyeido Co. offers another option—all-natural incense powders, which have a baby powder consistency and can be applied directly to the skin, says Shoyeido Sales Manager Jeff Banach. The traditional recipes, which were formulated two centuries ago in Japan, contain finely ground cloves, cinnamon, patchouli, sandalwood and Borneo camphor.
Although synthetic perfumes frequently have million-dollar marketing budgets, Grettenberger and others have discovered that advertising natural perfumes isn't very effective. "Our focus groups found that people's No. 1 interest was the smell of the perfume," he says. Rush-Carville says retail displays haven't worked for V'TAE. "We just hope the packaging speaks for itself."
Flanagan says consumers are interested in the image a perfume's name evokes. "The name is a huge thing," she says. Two of her perfumes are called Kiss Me Quick and Happiness in a Bottle.
Price also isn't as important as the aroma, Grettenberger says. Although most natural perfumes retail for less than $20, "in our focus groups we got a lot of encouragement that we could go higher priced," he says.
Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at [email protected]
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 28, 30
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 11/p. 30