Sunday, November 20, 2011

Warning: Natural Perfume Isolates - what is natural and what is not?

(ETA:  Since this was published a few hours ago, a great discussion has started on the two private Yahoo groups maintained for Natural Perfumers Guild members.)

This message was sent to the members of the Natural Perfumers Guild via our private discussion group, and I am posting it here for others to read:

I *know* I opened up a can of worms when I blogged that I was going to teach a course in natural isolates.  I'm the first USA-based natural perfumer to use them, and I thought I could share what I knew with everyone.  Some of you may remember back to April 2010, when I announced that I, along with some colleagues, would be teaching a natural isolates course as part of my Anya's Garden Natural Perfumery Institute. 
Someone I don't know started teaching a course shortly after that, and many perfumers struck out on their own with the excitement of incorporating these "new" elements into their perfumes. I had already used two truly natural isolates in two of my perfumes, but was hesitant about the ones that were being offered as natural by suppliers and other teachers. Guild Manager Elise Pearlstine, PhD, and I decided to write a book instead of teaching the course because so much disturbing information was coming our way as we researched the subject. We conferred with Douglas and Larry, and Murray and Andrew and Bruce.  Why?

We had to spend all this time researching and bouncing findings off of professionals because we became aware of a lot of isolates being sold as "natural" that were not.  Ever wonder why I didn't start selling them?  I knew that the suppliers didn't understand what a natural perfumer would demand as a product, and they were offering non-natural isolates.

Using them in our natural perfumes disqualifies the perfume as being a truly natural perfume.   Let me explain.

When I first spoke with several natural perfumers about isolates in 2006 or so, I used the example of ylang ylang as a true natural isolate that they were familiar with, and probably used.   The grades extra, complete, 1, 2 and 3 were made via fractional distillation (FD).  Fractional distillation is merely a conscious and deliberate way of stopping the distillation at specific points to obtain a specific odor profile that is desirable.  Sometimes absolutes, concretes and CO2s (less likely) are fractionally distilled.  Cassie flower absolute, for instance, can yield the violet-flower scent alpha ionone isolated molecule if the experienced distiller sniffs and pays attention to the right pressure and heat and time in the process and starts and stops the extraction of the alpha ionone molecule at the right time.  That same, natural process is used for many natural aromatics, and those will be the ones that are eventually approved by the Guild. Our Standards Committee will be working on this subject.

What is not a natural isolate, even if it comes from a natural plant or fruit of a plant?  Maybe when it comes from a microbe, and/or when it has to undergo numerous laboratory processes when it is tortuously put through a series of chemical procedures to produce the isolate.  Find phenyl ethyl alcohol at a good price?  Probably made from microorganisms via the biosynthesis process involving fermentation.  True PEA would cost a fortune, since it is needed to be added back to rose otto.  I have some of the biosynthesized PEA, and it smells nice, but it's not made via a simple extraction process like FD, it starts as microbes, for goodness sake.  Most of the fake natural isolates sold by suppliers will be identified as "physical process", "chemical process", or biosynthesis, as previously mentioned. 

From one catalog:
PHENYLETHYL ALCOHOL EX ROSE OIL - natural (my comment)

You have to educate yourself at this point in time.  Elise and I are struggling to carve time out of our busy schedules to write the book. Look at Payan Bertran's website: they carry many natural isolates or "process e", which is not an isolate, but something undesirable has been removed. (Note: I  have no financial or other interest in Payan Bertran).  Rectification is also a process that removes, say, eugenol from rose to make the rose more marketable and pleasing.  Process E and rectification, fractional distillation and molecular distillation are the only natural processes.  Many other suppliers have natural isolates, but often the sales people are confused when we ask our questions - don't forget we're a tiny subset of the perfume business, and we have our own, stricter rules.  If we were natural fiber weavers, nobody would question when we want true linen, not linen mixed with polyester, or linen produced from microbes, not the flax plant. The suppliers don't know this, and confuse the two when offering isolates. 

I am very concerned that some of the perfumers or associates in the Guild may have been innocently led to use the un-natural isolates.  I cannot vet them for you, as it would be looked upon very harshly by those selling them.  You have to do your own homework and ask a lot of questions.  I cannot answer individual questions because that would, as you can imagine, take every minute of the day.  I urge you to do your own research so that you can make sure we're using only natural isolates in our perfumes.


  1. I'm in a bloody panic. I just read Liz's post about the phenyl ethyl acetate, which is so cheap, and your reply that there isn't any natural version of the stuff. Can you elaborate?

  2. Dear Rachael:

    Various companies sell it, and it's a "physical" process, not a natural process. It's made from Fruit, Beer, Cocoa,
    Whisky, Wine, and put through a series of laboratory manipulations that B can answer best, if you ask in the Yahoo group.

    PS If you have a perfume made with it, well, I wouldn't! You're not a perfumer in the Guild, so the decision is your, morally and ethically. Some love synths, have no problem with them. It all depends on what team you play on!



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.