Luxury perfume brands fear the European Union is about to introduce measures that could cripple the $25-billion (U.S.) global industry in the name of protecting consumers against allergies. New laws could severely curb or ban natural ingredients used in vintage bestsellers and put some perfume makers out of business.
But Brussels’ proposed legislation – a draft will be unveiled early next year – is also causing a stir for another reason. It sheds light on the best-kept secret in the trade: Many big brands have been tweaking their formulas for years.
“It is a taboo in the industry. People are scared to say anything about it,” says Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at market research company Euromonitor.
Until now, changes to perfume formulas have come as a result of increasingly severe restrictions imposed by the industry’s self-regulatory body, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), though ingredient shortages or cost-cutting have also played a part.
A new Europe-wide law would force even more severe tweaks.
The brands most affected will be those which have been in the perfume industry for more than half a century, such as Dior, Chanel and Guerlain. All those fragrances use many natural ingredients and were created before scientists started looking into perfumes’ potential health hazards. Chanel’s No. 5, one of the world’s best-selling perfumes and named after its creator’s fifth trial, was created in 1921.
Chanel declined to comment on whether it has ever changed the formula of its world-famous perfume, as did Guerlain, Dior and luxury brand Hermès, which all make high-end perfumes using natural ingredients.
Most luxury perfume names do not want to disclose the fact that they have had to make tweaks to their scents for fear they could lose customers or damage their carefully nurtured luxury brand.
Perfume lovers, though, are hard to fool.
“Consumers know their perfume better than any expert,” says Jean Guichard, who heads the perfume school in Paris set up in 1946 by Swiss fragrance maker Givaudan AG. “We say nothing to consumers, but they notice when their fragrance has been changed and they may decide to opt for another product. Brands need to be careful when they reformulate their perfumes as they can lose consumers.”
If new, even stricter rules are adopted, hundreds of perfumes would have to be reformulated with synthetic allergen-free contents. That, many in the industry fear, could threaten their business.
“If this law goes ahead I am finished, as my perfumes are all filled with these ingredients,” said Frederic Malle, who owns high-end perfume company Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. The impact on luxury perfume brands as a whole would, he said, be “like an atomic explosion and we would not have the means to rebuild ourselves.”
Most fine perfumes are composed of a mix of natural ingredients and synthetic molecules. Perfumes are made up of a concentrate that is diluted with alcohol, usually from beetroots.
Changing a scent can cost several hundred thousand euros depending on the complexity of the original formula. Perfume makers say that replacing natural with synthetic ingredients is rarely an improvement.
Since its creation in 1973, IFRA, which is financed by scent makers such as Givaudan, New York-listed International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF), and Germany’s Symrise AG, has restricted natural ingredients for a range of health reasons, from worries about allergic reactions to cancer concerns.
“Most perfumes which are 20 years old or more will have already been reformulated several times because science has evolved and we want to ensure the safety of consumers,” said IFRA president Pierre Sivac.
Many traditional essences that perfume creators consider core to their craft have been blacklisted in recent decades. Birch tar oil was removed from Guerlain’s Shalimar several decades ago because it was thought to be a cancer risk. Clove oil and rose oil, which contain a component called eugenol, and lavender, which contains linalool, may only be used in limited quantities in case of allergies.
And oakmoss, one of the most commonly used raw materials because of its rich, earthy aroma and ability to “fix” a perfume to make it last longer, has been increasingly restricted because of worries about skin sensitivity.