European perfume makers are turning to preserve the scent of their fragrances in the face of new EU anti-allergy restrictions by using 'obscure' ingredients such as seaweed.
The luxury perfume industry, generating €18.4 billion in annual sales, is readying itself for EU regulations that will come into force in early 2015. These will ban widely-used ingredients such as oak moss, a natural substance, that was found in the original versions of luxury perfumes such as Chanel's No. 5, and Miss Dior.
Perfume creators say oak moss makes a scent last longer, but according to scientists between 1-3% of the EU population could suffer an allergic reaction such as dermatitis. Brussels has therefore banned two of its core molecules, atranol and chloroatranol. Perfume makers will only be allowed to use oak moss from which these two molecules have been removed. The makers say this results in a much lighter and less vigorous scent.
The European Commission is also banning a synthetic molecule called HICC, or lyral, which replicates the smell of lily of the valley. It too can cause dermatitis in allergy sufferers. L'Oréal, which makes Lancôme and Armani perfumes, said it is looking for alternatives. It declined to say which of its perfumes contained lyral.
Perfume makers say they understand that their products need to be safe, and recognise how damaging to their reputation any serious allergic reaction would be. But some say the industry is being unfairly targeted. Up until now, manufacturers contend, there have only been minor cases of allergies, specifically skin irritations, and eczema.
"I think Brussels' focus is a little exaggerated, especially compared to alcohol and cigarettes, which are sold freely and do more harm than perfume," said Patricia de Nicolaï who created the French Nicolaï perfume brand with her husband 25 years ago.
She says she has never received a complaint about allergies, but has reformulated some of her best sellers, such as New York and Eau d'été, because they used oak moss and lyral respectively.
The European Union denies targeting perfume any more than any other industry, and says its new regulation seeks to address scientists' and doctors' concerns about the health hazards related to the use of perfume.
No Intellectual property rights
Some inside the perfume industry say lobby groups for perfume makers are not that well-financed and organised compared to, for example, the tobacco industry. Perfume makers rely on Cosmetics Europe, an organisation that represents 4,000 companies including deodorant, toothpaste and perfume providers which have very disparate interests. Even within the perfume industry, there is no united front as some brands are more affected than others of the new EU regulation.
Another issue is that perfumes are not protected by intellectual property rights. The composition of a perfume is not legally recognised as a "creation of the mind" but rather an industrial formula that can be replicated and altered.
"Many perfumes have had to be reformulated even though they were considered masterpieces due to changing legislation," said Olivier Maure, head of Accords et Parfums, a supplier of major brands including Dior based in Grasse, likening it to "changing the colours of the Mona Lisa".
Some industry executives say Brussels' recent focus on the perfume industry stems from its main advisory body, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). Many of the committee's members come from northern countries such as Sweden and Denmark where there is opposition to perfume on health grounds.
"Clearly, there are more experts at the SCCS who are based in northern Europe than in the south but it is not a deliberate choice," said David Hudson, spokesman for consumer policy at the European Commission. "We strive for geographic and gender balance but the primary selection criteria is expertise."
Perfume is not as important to the economies of northern Europe as it is to southern countries. Perfumes and cosmetics are among France's top five exports, and the southern city of Grasse is the historic capital of the perfume industry where many leading brands such as Chanel, Hermes and Dior source their essences.
Added to that, research shows persons from northern regions tend to be more vulnerable to allergies than those living around the Mediterranean. One theory is that northern Europeans are more susceptible because of their lifestyle, and pollution-controlled environment.
The SCCS published a report in July 2012, which recommended banning oak moss's core molecules and severely restricting the use of many core ingredients such as linalool, found in lavender, a move that threatened the high end of the perfume industry which relied heavily on these ingredients.
Brussels included a few of the SCCS's recommendations, such as its ban on oak moss, and pledged to investigate what levels of concentrations could be considered safe for natural ingredients so that consumers did not develop allergies to them over time.
Perfume makers are worried that this will lead to more restrictions. There have been suggestions that they should offer two types of perfumes - some with allergens in them and consumer advice about the content, and others with no allergen.
Chanel said it stopped using lyral in 2010, and has been evolving its formulas in anticipation of new rules.
"At Chanel, we follow very closely talks about regulation and scientific findings concerning raw materials," Jacques Polge, Chanel's chief perfume creator, said in a response to questions from Reuters.
Polge said Chanel controls its formulas and supply chains, in order to ensure its natural oak moss is bereft of the allergens targeted by Brussels. That way, "we can respect the original scent".
But "once you change an ingredient or two, it can be very difficult to keep the scent absolutely intact, especially if those ingredients played an important role in defining the scent," said Maurice Roucel, creator of many perfumes including L'Instant for Guerlain and Hermès's 24 Faubourg. "Big brands tell me: replace this and that and make sure it smells the same and costs the same to produce," Roucel said.
- Early 2015: New EU rules enter into force.