Sarah Albee: Makes Scents

From: Sarah Albee
August 17, 2012 at 04:58AM

When my sister and I were little, we used to make perfume for our mother every Mother’s Day. We’d pick flowers, mash them in a bowl with a potato masher, and add a bit of water. Then we’d pour it into a large Mason jar. If it didn’t smell like much (and it rarely did), we’d dump in a half a bottle or so of Aqua Velva. Then we’d present the jar of cloudy, brown solution with dead and decaying blossoms floating in it to our mother. She loved it.

So I can tell you from first-hand experience that perfume making is not easy. For centuries, it was made with things like civet (derived from the butt of the African civet cat), castoreum, derived from beaver’s butts (which I blogged about before) musk, derived from a secretion of musk deer, and ambergris, an oily, waxy substance coughed up by sperm whales. Most of these animal-derived substances smelled disgusting in their raw state (sailors on whaling ships were said to have vomited after smelling ambergris, which is saying something on a whaling ship). But when diluted and mixed they made for lovely perfumes, or so I’ve read.

The serious ethical issues raised in the use of these animal-derived ingredients (and, for the manufacturers, the resulting high costs) means that they have been replaced by synthetic versions in modern perfumes.

I just read a disturbing book called Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, by Stacy Malkan. There’s a lot in there about the dangers of phthalates (pronounced THA lates), which are a set of very scary, toxic chemicals that can cause birth defects and all kinds of other cheery things. They’re ubiquitous in consumer products. They’re used to soften vinyl plastic and hold scent and color. (Yes, those volatile organic compounds that create the “new car smell,” as well as “new rug smell,” and “new shower curtain smell,” are very bad for you.) In a study done in 2002, phthalates were discovered in ¾ of the 72 products tested, including hair sprays, deodorants, cosmetics, and body lotions—and not a single product had the word “phthalates” listed on the label. The worst culprits were the biggest corporations—Unilever, Monsanto, Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson, along with the cosmetics giants Revlon, L’Oreal, and Estee Lauder (which owns Clinique, Mac, and Aveda). After some very bad press, the big conglomerates did reformulate some of their products, promising to remove a handful of hazardous ingredients from their cosmetics and personal care products.

But perfume is another matter. The ingredients in perfume remain shrouded in mystery; fragrance is considered a trade secret, so companies aren’t required to disclose what’s in it. Another study done in 2007 found phthalates in eight of eight perfumes tested.

What’s the takeaway? Try to minimize the products you buy that contain fragrance. Easy to say, I know. Ask anyone who has ever tried wresting a bottle of Axe Body Spray out of the hands of a teenage boy. Ideally, we should probably have just one product on our shower ledge—Dr. Bronner’s soap, or body wash. You can practically drink it (don’t try this, please, kids). Or, if you like, I am happy to share my perfume recipe. The only special equipment you need is a potato masher.

UPDATE: I actually drafted this blog last weekend, after I’d finished reading Not Just a Pretty Face. Talk about timing. Check out this news story that appeared in this past Tuesday’s New York Times. Johnson & Johnson is the first of the big corporations to cave and concede that some of their products miiight contain harmful chemicals. They’re going to reformulate some of their products, starting with –cough–baby products, and will remove some–though not all–of the nasty chemicals by 2015. Let’s hope some of the other giganto-corporations follow suit.

Top: John Singer Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris, 1880
Middle: African Civet, from Lloyd’s Natural History: 1896 by Richard Lydekker
Bottom: By Monsieur Gilbert RANDON (L’ILLUSTRATION Journal Universel 16 décembre 1854) via Wikimedia Commons

Posted on August 17, 2012, in Sarah Albee and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Sarah Albee: Makes Scents.

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