Faced with the ban on the use of more and more ingredients and the difficulty of obtaining certain natural materials, perfumers often have to do some reformulation about their compositions. But what does this really mean? How do noses make these changes, and above all, what is really at stake for our olfactory heritage? We give you some answers.
What is reformulation in perfumery?
The olfactory identity card of a fragrance lies in its formula. This is actually the list of ingredients contained in the perfume, and the dosage of each of these compounds. To create a composition, the noses establish a first formula which will be tested, modified, then re-tested before being validated. Once the final formula is elaborated, it is on this list that perfumers will base themselves to produce and market their fragrance on a larger scale.
The formula is what guarantees that the juice is always the same between two bottles of the same essence. But sometimes, fragrance creators need to reformulate a composition. In these cases, one or more ingredients must be adjusted/removed/modified. A reformulation often involves a general review of the fragrance as all the materials in it interact with each other. Reformulation is a key step to find a new olfactory balance.
Why should a fragrance be reformulated?
The impact of regulation
The main reason perfumers touch the formula of a fragrance is because of regulations. All players in the fragrance industry, from the major compounding companies to the independent perfumer, follow the guidelines imposed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA). This organization unveils new amendments every year based on scientific data. Thus, IFRA publishes new standards to be respected that will limit or even ban the use of certain raw materials in perfumes. These directives are created to guarantee the safety of consumers by limiting allergens for example, or to preserve natural ingredients. IFRA banned the use of animal ingredients in the 1980s. More recently, the use of oakmoss has been totally banned in its natural version, considered as potentially allergenic.
Sometimes reformulation is also necessary because of a shortage of an ingredient. Many perfumers remember the patchouli crisis in the early 2000s, which forced some to reformulate in a hurry because they could not get the precious essence. A climatic, economic or even political crisis can quickly put an ingredient’s supply at risk. Thus, a few years ago, heavy rains in North Africa had weakened the production of orange bigarade when a drought in Egypt had heavy consequences on the harvest of geraniums. To avoid this kind of situation, more and more producers of natural raw materials are turning to a reasoned management of their crops and their stock.
The reformulation of a perfume: a not so simple exercise
Contrary to what we might think, it is not enough to remove an ingredient and replace it with a substitute of the same smell when reformulating a perfume. The exercise is more complex, so much so that it is now an integral part of a nose’s training. During the reformulation, the goal is to obtain the same result by changing the ingredients. The challenge is to change the formula without changing the smell. Moreover, the reformulation must not have an impact on the final cost of the concentrate. For example, substitutes for lilal, the molecule with a lily of the valley smell that was banned by IFRA in 2015, can cost up to 2 times more! More than a simple change, reformulation therefore requires a lot of adjustment and knowing your ingredient palette and the properties of each one like the back of your nose!
The steps of reformulation
Concretely, when a tightening of the regulations has just been published, the composition companies, those who generally own the formulas, alert the brands of the obligation to make changes. The perfumer will then use the last marketed formula as a base. Most often, the first step is to replace the problematic ingredient by another one. But the bet is rather risky since each material, natural or synthetic, has its own characteristics and a particular evaporation time. If the substitute evaporates faster or slower, the olfactory balance of the perfume will not be the same. It is therefore almost impossible to find a 100% equivalent ingredient.
It will then often be necessary to rework the formula as a whole. When an ingredient has to disappear from a formula, the nose lists all the odorous molecules and the different assemblies of materials that can enable it to reconstitute the desired smell. This painstaking work can take several months to several years.
The reformulation of a perfume: a taboo subject
Since the 1980s, when most natural animal notes disappeared, fragrance reformulations have become more and more common. But at the beginning, in order to quickly comply with regulations and avoid marketing disruptions, the reformulation work was done (too) quickly. Consumers couldn’t really find the smell of their beloved perfume anymore, they lost confidence. These changes were never really explained by the brands, often confusing the customers. The reformulation of a fragrance is therefore a crucial commercial issue because even today, the subject is still delicate to address.
The question also arises from the point of view of our olfactory heritage. With the tightening of regulations and the disappearance of certain raw materials, we can wonder if the fragrances will not all end up looking the same in decades. Reformulation also makes us wonder about the future of the great classics of perfumery.
Did you know about the reformulation exercise in perfumery?
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