I love new scent challenges.
When I’m formulating a new fragrance blend, I prefer to work with mixed media rather than with exclusively naturals for a number of reasons - sustainability being at the top of that list. But when a client approached me about creating two all-natural fragrances to scent her upcoming line of body products, I was excited to take on the project with sustainability in mind.
I was delighted (and a little relieved) when my friend, Mauricio, who is an exceedingly talented perfumer, agreed to collaborate with me. I knew I was going to need some creative backup after hearing my client’s descriptions of her ideal scents, neither of which would be easy to achieve. Here’s why: like most folks, my client didn’t know that many beloved scents found in nature actually don’t exist as essential oils. There are lots of reasons for this. Some botanicals are too fragile for extraction, while others contain too few aromatic chemicals to warrant processing.
The list of unattainable essential oils is surprisingly exhaustive – cherry blossoms, bananas, figs (most fruits, actually) all may be available as fragranced oils but not as essential oils, and the two are not the same. But sometimes certain natural scents are unattainable for other reasons. Case in point, my client also mentioned using vanilla, which is one of the most popular scents and flavors in the world, and thus also one of the most depleted natural ingredients. In fact, a current global shortage of vanilla has resulted in prices to surge up to $1500 per kilo, making vanilla totally unreachable for not just indie perfumers like myself but also anyone starting their own small beauty business. When I last checked in with all of my suppliers for vanilla absolute, each one was out of stock. I’m certain corporations still have access to the world’s increasingly limited supply of vanilla, but what’s an indie perfumer to do? Use vanillin.
What’s vanillin? It’s the chemical compound known as 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde (C8H8O3) that makes vanilla taste like vanilla, and it can be easily manufactured in a lab from natural sources including guiacol, wood pulp, and even yeast.
Lab-derived vanillin from natural sources is bio-identical to vanillin extracted from vanilla beans. It’s also a more sustainable product. Most people (myself included before becoming a perfumer!) don’t realize that vanilla beans are the seeds of orchids! These orchids are very fussy. Each blossom needs to be pollinated by hand with a little stick. It takes six hundred of these blossoms to produce about six kilos of beans, which are then soaked in water and dried out in the sun. The entire process is both breathtakingly resource and labor intensive, which is the case with many extractions of natural products. So vanillin is a good option if you want the scent (and taste) of vanilla minus the environmental impact, such as tropical deforestation, which you know, if you know me at all by now, is a pretty big bee in my bonnet.
The client and I are still going back and forth about the final formulation, and vanillin is neither on nor off the table yet, but in the meantime, I’m committed to investigating these kinds of issues as they come up. As the demand for natural products of all kinds from food to face creams increases, product makers must carefully consider and understand each ingredient’s life cycle to ensure they aren’t associated with unsustainable and/or socially and/or environmentally harmful practices. There’s a lot misinformation out there, a lot of green washing and anti-science fear mongering when it comes to the naturals versus synthetics debate, but adhering to irresponsible practices out of fear just isn’t an option. I love working with people like my client who want to make an all-natural product, but also get that.