Friday, August 19, 2011

What Is Natural?!

There is an ongoing and lively (at times even heated) debate in the fragrance industry as well as among consumers about what is considered “natural” and what is considered “synthetic”. The terminology that is used by scientists, manufacturers and within the perfumery and flavouring trade is significantly different than the consumers' perception of terms such as "organic", "synthetic", "natural"... Throw in a term such as "organic synthesis" and the average person would get completely confused - most consumers think of "organic" as something that was grown without pesticides, non-GMO, etc. Organic chemistry, on the other hand, is a sub-discipline of chemistry that studies carbon-based and hydrocarbon based compounds. Many of which are formed in a process called synthesis - which when utilized by people will produce what we'd call "synthetics". But synthesizing is a process that occurs in nature - it is part of the metabolism of both plants and animals, and this is how all the useful medicinal compounds and essential oils are produced in plants.

Despite my clear and stated preference for using naturals in the products I create and sell (as well as products I purchase from other companies to use personally), I highly encourage you, my dear SmellyBlog readers (as I encourage all my customers and especially my perfumery students) to examine the true meaning of the terms natural and synthetic. Rather than portray a black and white picture, where materials can clearly be classified as either “natural” or “synthetic”, I would like to suggest an approach that helps to understand how materials are obtained, extracted and processed, and place them on a continuum that illustrates their relationship to the original raw materials based on two categories:
1) How much human intervention was required to obtain the material/building block?
2) What is the olfactory and chemical relationship between the raw, crude material and the end result?
- Based on these two factors alone, one can better understand and appreciate the qualities of different materials, This way, manufacturers and consumers are better able to make informed and educated decisions about the products they produce or procure.

The rawest state of an aromatic material is the crude state – such as the entire plant, or part of the plant – as in the case of balsams. The most processed is aromachemicals or other chemicals, including alcohol. Even organic grape or grain alcohols are, in fact, synthetic since they are achieved by the process of synthesis. Between those two extremes are varying degrees of human intervention to obtain aromatic building blocks, such as steam distillation, enfleurage, tinctures, macerations, solvent extractions, CO2 extractions (aka molecular distillation) isolates, etc. The table below is extracted from my Foundation of Natural Perfumery Course Handbook (2009 - 2nd Edition). It explains this concept with examples of actual raw materials: how they were obtained, their relationship to the source, etc. As you can see, it's not easy to come up with an exact "spot" for some of the materials in this continuum. Tinctures, for example, are raw plant matter that is immersed in alcohol, which is a material that is obtained by the process of synthesis (albeit from completely natural raw materials such as corn, grapes, etc.).

Not all aromachemicals were created equal either. Some are naturally ocurring (i.e.: eugenol, which is present in cloves, menthol in peppermint, geraniol in rose and in geranium, and ambroxan in ambergris and so on). These are "nature identical" molecules that were synthesized from a completely unrelated raw material such as petroleum. Other synthetic molecules are completely man-made and do not occur in nature - they were invented by chemists in the lab either when they were trying to create interesting molecules on purpose, or stumbled upon them by pure chance. Calone, for example, was discovered by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in 1966. It does not exist in nature, although it is reminiscent of some pheromones created by brown algae, and smells somewhat like watermelon. Galaxolide, a synthetic musk used to death in most of laundry detergents and drier sheets, does not occur in nature (and neither does it break down - it's one of those polycyclic musks that is not biodegradable, which is precisely what makes it so attractive for scenting detergents - the scent endures many washes; unfortunately, the downside of this is that it also stays in the environment's water cycles, not to mention on our skin and in our own bodies for generations to come - the effects of which are still largely unknown).

Some synthetics are produced from waste that would be otherwise just thrown into landfills (such as lignin, a by-product of the paper industry, that is particularly useful for manufacturing vanilla). While some pure, beautiful naturals caused the destruction of entire forests (East Indian sandalwood, for instance). Lignin comes from trees - so would you say that synthetic vanilla is natural - or synthetic? And how about petroleum - isn't fossil fuel part of nature too? There are so many factors - environmental, political, ethical and health issues - that should affect the choice of certain materials over others.

One last interesting and important point for this debate - especially now that an increasing number of natural perfumers are choosing to use natural isolates in their perfumes - the question of what's natural and what's not is becoming more complex. It's easy to see the naturlaness and the relationship between the end result (the isolate) and its original plant when we're talking about ambrettolide isolated from ambrette seeds, galbanol from galbanum (some companies will actually label their isolates with the Latin name of the plant from which the molecule was isolated - which to me indicates that you can really know that it was not synthesized in the process). Isolates in these cases are really just a more refined forms of distillations or extractions - where the chosen components are removed from the plant's oil.

Other so-called isolates or "natural molecules" are manufactured in a different manner altogether. Ionone, for example, is a naturally occurring molecule in violets, osmanthus and other precious florals. It is not financially feasible to extract ionone as an isolate directly from violets. As far as I know, most certified-natural ionone molecules (either alpha or beta) are, in fact, synthesized from natural citral - a compound that is present in abundance in far more affordable natural raw materials such as lemongrass, citronella or litsea cubeba oils. If it's synthesized, would you say then, that it's natural, or synthetic? Or perhaps, it's a natural synthetic?!

Another confusing gray area is biosynthesis when it's used to create certain aromachemicals - at times the fact that natural enzymes were used for synthesis to create a certain molecule allows for labeling them as naturals, and the raw material from which this "natural" was synthesized remains unknown.

I'm going to leave you with these thoughts, and let you decide for yourselves what you want to call natural, if it is at all of any importance to you. From my point of view, both as a manufacturer and a consumer, transparency is the most important aspect as far as ethics go and affects fairness in advertisement and labeling. At the end of the day, everyone decides what they want to put on their skin and flush down their drains. And hopefully with the right information, we'll make smart enough choices to leave a clean, healthy and happy planet behind us for the next generations of humans, plants and animals.

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At August 20, 2011 1:04 AM, Anonymous Jessica September said...

Love it Ayala.... super to address this subject and I think you've asked all the right questions. There is a massive grey area here- (which is of particular interest to me personally as you know). I think this subject can parallel life in general- We fight about black and white- when really the grey area is the place where we have to let down our arrogant self-righteousness judgements, and just BE. It comes down to personal choice- and if no one is hurt in the process- and beauty is created, then we can relax and stop quibbling over everything and just get along! xoxo

At August 20, 2011 1:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.
Timely & necessary.
Thanks Ayala

At August 20, 2011 2:54 AM, Blogger R.P. Dario said...

hy Ayala,
very nice and very clear article on the subject. As a chemist, I appreciate a lot the reading. i agree with you on the request of more information from the industry for a personal, clear and smart choice.

fragrant greetings

At August 20, 2011 6:11 AM, Blogger Liam Moore said...

Hi Ayala, gosh, there's time when reading up about perfumery where things become clearer and this is one of them.

I never thought about what constitutes "natural," even then, there is indeed a grey area. I suppose it all comes down to personal informed decisions. Setting your own parameters and sometimes, not getting so bogged down about the absolute finer details.

Thank you for shedding light on an area I really didn't understand.

More reading to be done I think! ;)

At August 20, 2011 11:41 AM, Blogger Carrie Meredith said...

This is a hugely useful post, Ayala, thank you for doing this. Like others have said, it's very timely. I think some extremely interesting things have come out of the use of natural isolates, and in many cases, has allowed the dreaded association between naturals and "health food store scents" to abate.

At August 20, 2011 12:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful, Ayala, you are the Ultimate Nerd Girl, in that you are skeptical and search for the truth! This is one of those articles that are kept and used as resources for many, many years. Thank you.

At August 21, 2011 9:08 AM, Blogger Liz said...

Ayala, As you know this is a subject we have been juggling over the years. I was debating as to whether I would write about it yet again, and see here that you have written a very nice compendium on the subject. It takes time away from other things to put these "lessons" together and post them to a blog.
Even with the information here in black and white (and gray areas), there will never be a consensus among perfumers. Too many variables, agendas not to mention egos in the soup pot.
Just as the consumer must choose what they feel is right for them, and their families. We as perfumers must also choose what feels right to us. We are people too, and have deep feelings about our work. Otherwise why would we bother to explain it.
Perfumery; the merging of artistry with science is a very complex situation, that is often condensed to a tag line or sound bite, to make it appear simple and beautiful to the consumer. But it is also elegant in it's complexity, and to present the information as yo have here is a great service, not only for the consumer and perfume lover, but to those who would twist and distort.
Bravo to you. LZ

At August 21, 2011 1:09 PM, Blogger indieperfumes said...

Thank you for this article and information Ayala. It is so helpful to have such a clear and concise description of a complex topic.

At August 21, 2011 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Ayala! Your explanations will really help people understand these issues better. The division between naturals and synthetics is much more complex than most people realize. What seems most important is to give people the information so they can make their own decisions.

At August 21, 2011 5:48 PM, Blogger Charna said...

What an incredibly well written, informative post on the topic Ayala. I appreciate your educated approach and willingness to openly share your knowledge, and your ability to clearly break down the information regarding natural, synthetic and in between. Thank you!

At August 21, 2011 6:01 PM, Blogger mandy said...

I love this post Ayala. You have done a beautiful job of not only making these distinctions clear but also comparing them to each other in a way that is easy to understand. I really appreciate all of the time you must have spent putting this together .

At August 22, 2011 12:00 PM, Blogger Akimon Azuki said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful post. It's interesting how these debates on merits of natural ingredients often get so heated, even though few people take their time, as you did, to reflect on the definition of "natural". While most of the perfumes I wear are classified as all natural, I don't shun synthetics in general, I just wish the debate would center more on the environmental impact, from the sourcing method to the life cycle of the final product. Substances which I try to consciously avoid are either outright harmful/toxic to humans (phthalates, nitro musks, etc) or do not decompose in timely manner and accumulate in bio-systems (like the one you mentioned, Galaxolide, which I can't stand anyway). I also think this latter category should warrant further scientific scrutiny. What worries me is that the chemical industry, with its powerful and belligerent lobby, will resists any such scrutiny while the natural ingredients are under siege. I find it absurd that filling public spaces with poisonous vapors of scented plug ins and wafting sickening fumes thorough the entire neighborhood while doing laundry is perfectly legal, but natural lemon oil is on the black list.

At August 22, 2011 1:40 PM, Blogger Ayala Moriel said...

Thank you everyone for your comments - I'm so glad that you've found the article helpful and that it sheds some light on the subject.
I'm glad some of you learned something new, or found it thought-provoking. Thinking is always good... Especially thinking for yourself and finding out the truth.
Some of the contents of this post are part of my course handbook to my students, the rest of it was in my head - so it was just a matter of putting it together in what I also felt was the right timing.

At November 19, 2013 9:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great post! Love the way you think - thank you for this! As someone very new to the world of fragrance, it is very intriguing to see that you battle the same vagaries of definitions and subsequent decisions as I do in my work.


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