The EU's threatening to ban one of Chanel No 5's key ingredients… So what's really in the world's favourite perfume A bottle of Chanel No 5 is sold every 30 seconds around the world
Scientists are testing whether a key ingredient – a naturally occurring type of tree moss – causes allergies European Commission’s Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety wants the material banned Outcome could also affect Miss Dior, Guerlain’s Shalimar and Angel by Thierry Mugler
12:08 GMT, 7 November 2012
Under threat: A key ingredient used in Chanel No 5 may be banned if found to cause allergies
Famously, it was the only thing Marilyn Monroe wore in bed, and it has been synonymous with style and sophistication for more than nine decades. But now, for the first time in its 91-year history, Chanel No 5 perfume is under threat.
The reason One of its key ingredients — a naturally occurring type of tree moss — has come under the microscope of a team of EU scientists who believe it may cause allergies.
It may seem bizarre that the top-selling perfume in the world — a bottle is sold every 30 seconds — could potentially be so damaging when tens of thousands of women across the globe wear it every day.
But it’s just the latest in a long line of restrictions imposed on the scent industry in the past few years.
Under rules implemented by the European Commission in 2006, 26 common ingredients including the now-infamous tree moss and eugenol (found in rose oil), must be declared on the packaging of perfume because they are potentially allergenic.
Now it has emerged that the Commission’s Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety, charged with protecting citizens from harmful substances, has extended the list to cover 100 ‘unsafe’ materials.
While they recommend that some must be declared on packaging or the amount used in a perfume be restricted, they want some — including the tree moss used in Chanel No 5 to help give it its distinctive smell — banned entirely.
And while these are only guidelines and not law, it is likely that perfume manufacturers will feel pressure to comply. The industry watchdog, the International Fragrance Association, is taking it so seriously it has decided to conduct further research into the potential skin allergens on the back of the recommendations.
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The world's favourite perfume: A bottle of Chanel No 5 is sold every 30 seconds around the world
This doesn’t affect only Chanel; a host of other well-loved perfumes — from Miss Dior to Guerlain’s Shalimar and Angel by Thierry Mugler — could be caught up, too.
For the new list calls for restrictions of many commonly used ingredients such as citral, found in lemon and tangerine oils, and coumarine, which comes from the spicy South American tonka bean — all naturally sourced ingredients, it should be pointed out, which have been used for decades in perfume-making without causing serious harm.
It is even feared that jasmine and rose — some of the most common ingredients in the world’s favourite scents — could be put on future lists.
But back to Chanel. What is this
innocuous-sounding tree moss, and how important is it to Chanel No 5
According to Francis Pickthall, director of UK-based international
fragrance house CPL Aromas, tree moss has always been an important
ingredient in high-end fragrances thanks to its distinctive earthy,
woody scent, which No 5 fans would immediately recognise.
'Unsafe': The European Commission's Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety wants to ban the tree moss ingredient
‘It’s created by scraping moss from the bark of Northern hemisphere trees, often in former Yugoslavian countries, which is then steam-distilled,’ he says. ‘But it has already started to be phased out of many perfumes and replaced with similar-scented synthetic mosses or oak moss, though only if it is low in atranol, the component of moss which is a known skin-sensitiser’.
Oak moss, it must be mentioned, is also in Chanel No 5, and also on the future ‘forbidden’ list. But Mr Pickthall argues that ingredients being banned or restricted is nothing new to the industry, and that perfumers are expert at phasing out problem materials while finding alternatives.
That is clearly not how everyone feels, though. Chanel spokeswoman Francoise Montenay declared: ‘It would be the end of beautiful perfumes if we could not use these ingredients’; while the French Perfumer’s Society said it would lead to ‘the death of perfume if this continues’.
One wonders what Coco Chanel herself would have thought of being told by EU scientists that her beloved fragrance had to be updated before it had even reached its 100th birthday. Because the story leading to its creation is just as captivating as the scent itself.
Until Chanel No 5 emerged in 1921, perfumes had tended to be thick and rich with animal musk. Having already taken the Parisian fashion scene by storm, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel decided to turn her hand to a beauty product that had so far eluded her, a fragrance that was light, fresh and reflected the liberated spirit of the new decade.
Her mother had been a laundry woman in rural France, so she loved the smell of soap, but for years she was unable to find a perfumer who was up to the task, because citrus fragrances such as lemon, bergamot and orange just didn’t last on the skin.
Then, in 1920, she heard about a daring perfumer Ernest Beaux, who had worked for the Russian Royal family and lived in the capital of perfume, Grasse. He took up her challenge, spending months creating ten samples for her to try. They were numbered one to five and 20 to 24. And, you guessed it, she picked number five.
Testing: The International Fragrance Association is now conducting further research into potential skin allergens
She is said to have told Beaux: ‘I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year, and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it has already — it will bring good luck.’
And it did. The scent combined jasmine, rose, sandalwood and vanilla with other background notes, and it is said that when Chanel sprayed the perfume around her table in an upmarket Paris restaurant, women passing by literally stopped in their tracks to ask her what the fragrance was and where it came from.
She declared later: ‘It was what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.’
French fashion designer Gabrielle Coco Chanel released No 5 in 1921
Time would show that millions of women from all walks of life agreed with her, from the American war-time wives who had it brought back from Europe by their GI sweethearts, to the one-in-ten modern women who were wearing Chanel No 5 when they met ‘the One’, according to a study in 2009.
So will all these women really fail to notice if the formula is changed Perfumer Roja Dove is not so sure.
While he admits that it has been necessary to remove certain common components of fragrances over the last century — both for health reasons, such as when benzene was phased out when it was discovered to be a potential carcinogen, and ethical ones, like the disappearance of musks taken from slaughtered animals — he says it is never easy to recreate a well-known scent with different raw materials.
‘It’s impossible to reformulate without making a product smell different — that is why the original ingredients were used in the first place,’ he says.
Dove, as a leading figure within the British perfume industry, is more than a little troubled by the ‘Big Brother’ restrictions that are gradually taking hold.
‘While I do think the consumer’s health and wellbeing should always be our first priority, imagine if Brussels authorised for all nut products to be banned or restricted because a few people are allergic,’ he says.
‘There’s huge inconsistency. Just look at basil. I have to list it on the back of packaging if I use more than a certain percentage because it’s one of the original list of 26 the European Commission decided must be declared.
‘But a chef can take a huge bunch of basil, chop it up and sprinkle it over food, and their hands will be covered with basil oil. There are no guidelines there.’
He does make a valid point. Many of the ingredients that are now being considered dangerous are even edible.
So what does Roja Dove suggest for the future
‘As an industry, we are very responsible. We would never want to use ingredients that were scientifically proven to be a major problem, but I do believe consumers should have freedom of choice.
‘There are scents around that people have loved for centuries, so is it right to do away with them entirely I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.’
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