The aroma of oak moss is inky and bitter, reminiscent of a dank forest floor, and sometimes turpentine. But for perfumers, the tree-bark lichen smells like nothing else. “There is no real substitute, no single material that could replicate the depth and velvety texture,” explains Michael Edwards, author of the industry bible Fragrances of the World. Entire perfume genres, such as the classic chypre, wouldn’t exist without the note. It’s what makes the magic of Mitsouko by Guerlain, invented in 1919 and still ranked by critics as one of the most brilliant creations of all time. It gives the woodsy finish in the originals of Chanel No. 5 and Miss Dior by Dior. It acts as a “fixative,” granting staying power to otherwise volatile notes. It’s been the backbone of beloved modern scents for a century, but soon, pure and unadulterated oak moss will be—poof!—perfume history.
The prized moss harbours two compounds, atranol and chloroatranol, now considered by the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, to be among the worst offenders for triggering skin reactions such as allergic or irritant contact dermatitis (think itchy, scaly rash). Allergy-prone people can potentially become sensitized to new allergens through repeated exposure, like dousing themselves daily with an eau. “Some of my patients become so allergic, they will develop skin and respiratory symptoms from volatile fragrances in the air—in workplaces, malls, movie theatres,” explains Dr. Sandy Skotnicki of Toronto’s Bay Dermatology Centre. One of the few Canadian derms with a sub-specialty in allergic contact dermatitis, Dr. Skotnicki says she identifies fragrance allergies in almost half a dozen patients per month.
So in the interest of public health, the EU is now ushering in toughened-up cosmetic regulations to ban atranol and chloroatranol from fragrances altogether, along with an ingredient called Lyral (or HICC), a widely used synthetic chemical that mimics a whiff of delicate lily of the valley. The perfume industry has long played by its own rules, voluntarily following an ever-expanding number of ingredient restrictions as set out by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), but now the orders, set to take hold by early 2015, will be law.
The EU’s moves—which will inevitably ripple over to North America, since many global beauty giants are based in Europe—reflect a growing sense of perfume unease. In the excess-loving ’80s, liberally splashing on a brash fragrance like Giorgio by Giorgio Beverly Hills was de rigueur. But since then, an anti-scent movement has taken hold, with offices, hospitals and schools declaring themselves fragrance-free zones for fear of provoking sensitivities, allergies or asthma. While some people do have bona fide allergies, most just loathe the overpowering, personal-space-invading feeling of breathing someone else’s perfume. Add to this a new cultural chemophobia, stoked by the all-natural-all-the-time crowd, and the mystery of exactly what’s in a scent (the formulas are trade secrets) elicits extra suspicion. The result is heightened sensitivity to the issue—if not the actual ingredients—and, in turn, the push for stricter rules.
Beyond the imminent bans, and looming even more ominously, the European Commission is putting 20 more substances of “special concern” under research scrutiny, a move that some industry insiders fear could lay the groundwork for more government meddling. The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), an advisory body, has already called for restricting the concentration of a dozen culprits, including isoeugenol, coumarin and geraniol. Sound unfamiliar? The compounds are found in ylang-ylang, tonka bean and rose oil, respectively, and in many other popular ingredients. The potential blacklist forms “the spine of about 90 percent of fine fragrances,” Pierre Sivac, president of IFRA, told Reuters. Which means new regulations could force companies to fiddle with the formulas of thousands of adored perfumes.
Such tinkering is a science and an art. Taking atranol and chloroatranol out of oak moss, for instance, while technically doable, turns the ingredient into “a decaffeinated version,” says Frédéric Malle, founder of the independent fragrance house Editions de Parfums, so other notes must be added to restore the je ne sais quoi. He estimates that he’s adapted about a quarter of his scents to comply with the EU rules, taking about six months on each reformulation. “Honestly, although none of us liked doing this job, which was difficult and time-consuming, the result is quite extraordinary,” he says. “I can hardly tell the difference between the original scents and the modified versions, and if I may say, I have a better sense of smell than most.”
Chandler Burr, ex–New York Times scent critic and curator of olfactory art at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design, maintains a similarly optimistic, though cautious, view. “Industry experts I’ve spoken with have indicated that [the changes are], in some cases, excessive and unwarranted,” he admits. “Perfumers will have to be inventive, but in using materials ingeniously, there is always a way to maintain virtually complete fidelity to the original.”
The truth is that—unbeknownst to most beauty buffs—stealth tinkering has been standard industry practice since way before regulations came along. It’s necessary for turning unpredictable nature into a predictable product. “Take Chanel No. 5. If you don’t tweak the fragrance, the jasmine from last year’s crop smells different from the year before. It’s no different from wine,” explains Edwards. “Part of perfumer Jacques Polge’s job at Chanel is to ensure that year-to-year consistency, and also to tweak the fragrance little by little so that it remains contemporary.”
Even so, fine-tuning a winning formula isn’t the same as giving up incomparable ingredients, and not everyone agrees that decaf gives the same rush as the real deal. “Perfumers have shown ingenuity being able to find some alternatives, but they are alternatives,” says Mark Behnke, founder of the blog Colognoisseur and former managing editor at fragrance website ÇaFleureBon. “In the end, these perfumes are turned into lithographs of the originals. Are they still beautiful? Yes. But are they the same? No.” Behnke is surprised by the lack of industry uproar over the regulations. In part, the absence of a unified front comes from the culture of secrecy: in a business where formulas are kept hush-hush for fear of copycatting, there isn’t trust between companies.
What’s more, not everyone has a huge stake at risk, says Behnke, explaining the muted reaction of brands that rely mostly on cheap and simple synthetic materials—these one-note wonders are generally easier to replace than complex natural extracts. “As a result, everybody is looking at this oncoming train wreck, but nobody wants to do much more [to avert it].” Behnke’s biggest concern is that the EU bans are only the beginning; he fears for the fate of the 20 other substances under scrutiny.
On the record at least, the major houses are putting on a diplomatic, happy-to-oblige face. L’Oréal Group (whose perfume labels include Lancôme, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and more) says its products do not contain atranol or chloroatranol, and it will phase out Lyral once it has found the best alternative. “Our priorities remain product safety and quality, and we will adapt to this regulatory change while preserving the distinctive smell of our beloved perfumes,” the company said in a statement provided by a press spokesperson. Similarly, Chanel acknowledged in a statement that keeping up with regulations can be a challenge, “but that is exactly what our ‘nose’ and the Chanel Fragrance Laboratory is for: to use [Polge’s] talents to comply with the regulatory constraints and at the same time preserve the personality of the perfumes.”
What most frustrates insiders like Kevin Verspoor, a FiFi Award–winning perfumer who has worked on both mass-market and niche scents for brands such as Victoria’s Secret, J. Lo and Odin, is the questionable logic underpinning ingredient restrictions in the first place. “When we have trillions of cars driving around on earth, emitting fossil-fuel fumes, maybe we should look at that first instead of how much coumarin is in a fragrance,” says Verspoor, currently at work on launching his own company, PerfumeKev. More bluntly, Edwards characterizes the situation as “political correctness gone lunatic.” The hardline EU bans are motivated by concern that the ingredients may be the culprits behind contact allergies in an estimated one to three percent of the European population, but both Verspoor and Behnke argue that labelling the potential allergens (the same way food packaging warns, “May contain nuts”) would allow consumers the right to choose. “It’s disgraceful that such wonderfully artistic fragrances are being thrown to the wayside under the guise of being bad for people,” Verspoor mourns.
In the case of Guerlain’s iconic Mitsouko, reports of its imminent death have been greatly exaggerated: the juice was quietly updated in 2012 with new, modified oak moss—the forbidden nasties removed—and has earned the thumbs-up from critics. “Mitsouko was probably the toughest of all to reformulate, and I think they’ve done a marvellous job,” says Edwards. To fool the nose into perceiving the original, perfumer Thierry Wasser put in the green note of a perennial scrub, lentiscus, then added a weighty solvent to lend the long-lasting tenacity he’d get from the old oak moss. Like all fragrances, which are fleeting by nature, the latest iteration will one day disappear into the ether. Breathe easy while you can.