"No Benefits" By Luca Turin
Perfumery, a hundred-year-old art, has taken a long time dying, but on January 1, 2010 it will be officially dead. On that date, amendment 43 by IFRA, the international fragrance association, will take effect, and all perfumes on the market, old, young, fine fragrance or shampoo, must follow its guidelines or be in breach of the law in the EU. Among the many disasters that will befall fine fragrance, let me pick an emblematic one: oakmoss. This material is essential to perfumery and especially to the chypre category, including Mitsouko and hundreds of others. From 2010 it will be replaced by things which do not smell like oakmoss. Why? Because it contains some things which sometimes cause rashes in some people. The death blow to oakmoss was dealt by an environmental chemist called Suresh Chandra Rastogi, working in Denmark. He and colleagues identified two molecules, atranol and chloroatranol, as particularly powerful sensitizers.
One of the subcommittees of the SCCP (Scientific Committee on Consumer Products) in the EU then looked at the evidence and decided to set very low maximum levels of these two compounds. Dr Rastogi was a member of this committee. In the civilized world this might be considered a conflict of interest, but in the nebulous world of EU policymaking it is considered due diligence. Why, you ask, does that worry me? Aren’t scientists impeccably objective? I am not disputing the veracity of Dr Rastogi’s research, though it makes mind-numbingly dull reading. But consider this: you discover some real but minor problem in a fragrance ingredient. Nice work, and you can tell your family when you get home. But if an EU committee bans the thing, that enshrines you as the Man Who Saved the World From Hideous Disfigurement by Oakmoss. In environmental science as in tabloid journalism there’s no story till the plane crashes. In another scientific paper titled “The Composition of fragrances is changing” Dr Rastogi analyses old and new perfumes and notes that his work is having an effect.
It now seems fragrance is to be composed not by perfumers, but by an EU committee of experts. What can be done to resist this? There is no point questioning the evidence for and against, or the logic of the EU decision, and here’s why: fragrance has no demonstrable benefit other than beauty. Beauty cannot be measured by environmental chemists, or, to be fair, by any other kind. In the case of medicines, you balance the positive against the negative and call the negative “side-effects”. When there is no perceived benefit, any risk is unacceptable, much as dividing anything by zero gives you infinity. By all means change the scents of skin creams and shampoos, but fine fragrance is another matter. For real perfumery I see only one, beautifully simple solution: Guerlain, who will stand to lose most from all this, must take the lead and a) bravely restore Mitsouko to its pre-reformulation glory (no point in messing around) and b) add a small label that says DO NOT SPRAY ON SKIN.