A feature on wired.com highlights the fragrance industry’s race to find replacements for many prized ingredients that are being regulated out of existence. In 2003, the main industry trade group, the International Fragrance Association, began to aggressively ban or restrict ingredients for health or environmental reasons. Oakmoss, one of the 174 banned or restricted ingredients, was shown in tests to cause occasional cases of skin rash like one gets from poison ivy and other chemical irritants.
Oakmoss anchors two entire classes of perfume, making the loss especially painful. The first, the top-selling family of men’s fragrances called fougére, began in the late 19th century. The second, a family of both men’s and women’s fragrances called chypre, began with Guerlain’s legendary Mitsouko, first released in 1919.
With more ingredients getting restricted every year, a divide has emerged in the industry. On one side is IFRA and on the other are those who see perfume as an art with a deep creative history. “The way I’d explain it,” writer Roja Dove says in the midst of an elegant rant about the regulations, “is that it’s like trying to make a chicken dish if you can no longer use chicken. We’re talking about raw materials that have been used in many instances for thousands of years.”
Natural ingredients can be swapped out for synthetics, but that’s a complicated process and it’s extremely difficult to find ingredients that come close to the original in scent and performance. Perfumers Ralf Schwieger of Mane and Calice Becker of Givaudan have nearly stopped using some IFRA regulated materials altogether. Becker says oakmoss “is the past 50 years of perfumery. And now if you put back the moss at the level we used to have, it will smell dated.”
Fragrance powerhouse Chanel has released an impressive chypre called 31 Rue Cambon (the address of Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment) that uses no oakmoss at all; several other major brands are releasing chypre scents that emphasize patchouli rather than moss. Will this be the fate of many of the restricted ingredients? Even if these classic elements can be duplicated, will perfumers and eventually customers simply move on?