Sunday, February 8, 2009

Is there an eco perfume for Valentine's Day?

In essence (distilled, of course), you are asking the question: "What does green smell like?" Traditionally the answer has been patchouli (signature fragrance of Brighton, Camden and the Glastonbury festival, partly on account of its efficacy as a dreadlock conditioner). And patchouli oil uses low-tech production, ie steam distillation, to extract essential oil from patchoili leaves. But there are even questions about the sustainability of patchouli (grown en masse in Indonesia), and besides, your paramour may find the smell repugnant.

Navigating the 600 new perfumes launched last year alongside the classics and an eye-watering array of "celebrity fragrances" is not easy. It means negotiating your way through 2,000 manmade chemicals, which suggests today's perfume is about as romantic as hazardous waste. Today 95% of chemicals used in perfume manufacture are derived from petroleum, and perfume "houses" are really laboratories full of scientists bent on discovering the most profitable apple-smelling molecule rather than artisanal "noses" mixing vats of rose petals. As the nose of Herm├Ęs, Jean-Claude Ellena, puts it: "One-third of my collection [of materials] consists of natural products and two-thirds of synthetic products."

But should we be so sniffy about synthetic materials? Traditional perfumes, which used the digestive systems of whales and glands from musk deer, hardly score conservation points either. However, when it comes to toxicity, only 20 per cent of synthetic ingredients have been tested for "safety" - perfumes contain solvents, phthalates and/or possible endocrine disrupters. The cosmetics industry-backed Research Institute for Fragrance Materials contends that things have never been safer, yet ingredients are not listed on the bottle. Some research suggests precautionary measures.

In a Swedish study, published in 2008, women with a high use of perfume during pregnancy had elevated concentration of some polycyclic musks, raising concerns over the safety of musk exposure of breast-fed infants (musks are thought to disrupt the body's natural reproductive chemicals).

The other big stink is over harvesting of "natural" materials. There have been major concerns over Indonesian sandalwood (thanks to deforestation) - and some big perfume houses have switched to supplies from Western Australia. Some houses are now investing in "sustainable"-ingredient plantations.

Instead, look at small brands, such as certified organic perfumes ( carrying the Ecocert label, Jo Wood's fragrances and Patyka (both from, and scents from Rich Hippie ( On a local level,, which makes a rare UK-produced eau de toilette, and the wild-crafted, handpicked scents from the Burren Perfumery in Ireland ( have an eco-centric ethos and planet-friendly provenance - you just need the nose for them.

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