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On the Cusp: Why Clean Fragrance Could Be Beauty’s Next Big Bet

As the clean revolution takes root in beauty, fine fragrance is one category where consumers are looking for meaningful transparency when it comes to what’s inside the bottle.

Transparency in fragrance is not just a flash in the marketing petri dish.

“It’s not a trend,” said Carye Campbell, vice president and divisional merchandise manager, fragrance, Sephora. “It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s here to stay.”

As the clean revolution takes root in beauty, fragrance is taking shape as one of the movement’s newest driving forces.

Originally associated with nutrition and wellness, then skin care, where it remains the largest segment of the clean universe — the greening of cosmetics is quickly making inroads in fine fragrance, too.

Campbell said when Sephora was researching customer preferences to assemble its Clean at Sephora brand matrix, the most interest was in skin care, but the second most popular category was fragrance.

The category is evolving quickly to meet the demand. “Sometimes the clean fragrances in the past could be a little bit less complex and not as long-lasting,” Campbell said. “But they are getting better and better.”

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They’re also becoming more interesting olfactively. An increase in sophistication can be seen in the variety of scent profiles, as well as differentiated packaging and design.

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“This evolution is being driven by the consumer and their desire for transparency in the products they buy,” said Artemis Patrick, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of Sephora. “As an industry, it’s a movement that we have to be incredibly in tune with.”

Traditionally the mystique of the fine fragrance category has been part of its allure. Now, though, the most educated consumer base in history is clamoring to know exactly what is in the scents they are using. The retailer Credo, which maintains one of the most respected list of clean standards, has long insisted that brands at least characterize their fragrances — such as synthetic or natural.

Then Annie Jackson, Credo cofounder and chief operating officer, took another step, telling her brands, “If you fully disclose what’s in your fragrance, we are going to market the h–l out of you,” she said. “And 71 of our 135 brands did.’”

Initiatives like this are attracting more players to the category. Already, some key brand have emerged. They include:

• Skylar: One of the seven brands on Sephora’s clean fragrance list. Its newest launch is Salt Air, its seventh since 2017. It retails for $78 for 1.6 oz. Cat Chen, the brand’s founder and chief executive officer, said the new scent “is our first fragrance with full ingredient level transparency.”

• Ellis Brooklyn: Another company on Sephora’s clean fragrance list, introduced two gourmand scents — called Sweet and Salt — at the retailer, the brand’s biggest introductions of the year, according to founder Bee Shapiro. They are priced $105 for 50 ml.

• Henry Rose: Created by Michelle Pfeiffer, this marks a new model for celebrity fragrances. Pfeiffer partnered with the Environmental Working Group and International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. which adopted bold new fragrance design standards in concert with Cradle to Cradle.The brand launched last year with five scents, and a sixth, Monsters & Queens, launched at Valentine’s Day. Pfeiffer is working on two other fragrances, according to Robin Burns-McNeill, cofounder of Batallure Beauty, which works with Pfeiffer on product and supply chain development.

• Heretic Parfums: The Los Angeles-based brand created by Douglas Little is formulated primarily with 100 percent natural ingredients. While admitting that this course doesn’t allow him to obtain “the velvety, polished nuances” that synthetic ingredients provide, he wanted his perfumes “to be radically different than what you can smell at your traditional Saks Fifth Avenue perfume counter.” As his Heretic brand name implies, Little has no trouble coloring outside the industry’s lines. Take his tongue-in-cheek tag line: “clean beauty has never been so dirty.”

• Ormaie Paris: Cofounded by Baptiste Bouygues, who was motivated to create his 100 percent natural brand not “because it’s a trend, but just because I found it so chic and so elegant.”

And it’s not just niche brands. On the heels of unveiling Ck Everyone earlier this year, Coty Inc. has indicated an interest in creating more clean compositions within its portfolio of iconic brands. Simona Cattaneo, president of Coty’s luxury brands, makes it clear that the goal is not to replace established brands with new versions. “It is equally important that we stay true to the DNA of our brands,” she said. “[Clean] is a big trend, but it is just one of the areas where we want to innovate. You cannot just take an iconic fragrance from the market and make it clean,” she continued, saying the perfumer must start from scratch with the objective of “creating a beautiful fragrance with a long-lasting smell.”

Market observers see the clean movement, in general, as being transformative for fine fragrance, driven by the rising demand for transparency, sustainability, traceability and renewability. “It’s going to become a cost of entry,” said Larissa Jensen, vice president and industry adviser at The NPD Group. “It’s going to define the next decade, but it will happen over the next 10 years. We are kicking it off now.”

Admittedly, the fragrance numbers are tiny. Total volume of clean fragrance brands added up to $19 million for 2019, less than 0.5 percent of the $4.5 billion fragrance market. But as nascent as the clean fragrance segment appears, it grew by 21 percent last year, thanks to the in-flow of new brands.

At Robertet Fragrances, known for its expertise with natural perfumes, the number of briefs requesting clean fragrances has increased by 20 percent during the last two years, according to Seth Pasternak, senior director of new business and marketing.

One sharp viewpoint on the clean movement comes from Nicolas Hieronimus, deputy chief executive officer and president of industry leader L’Oréal.

“Safe beauty” is what matters to him, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Now more than ever “we live in an era where trust is becoming very important and something that people give less easily because we also live in a world of false information,” Hieronimus said. “People want to know they are safe.”

This calls for trust. “Transparency is the new norm,” he said, which is one reason why L’Oréal started including a feature on its corporate web site, called “Inside Our Products,” which talks about ingredients.

The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., too, is including ingredient glossaries on its brand websites, starting with Aveda, a few months ago; Origins, and Le Labo. “This is not a fad,” said Nancy Mahon, senior vice president global corporate citizenship and sustainability. She vowed to institute similar glossaries, which reveal what’s in a product and why, for all of Lauder’s brands.

Still, as full transparency becomes the norm, Hieronimus cautions that companies must follow the science, noting that some ingredients that have come under scrutiny have actually been proven safe after scientific investigation. For instance, a short chain variety of parabens are deemed safe by analysis, he said, adding that they act as good preservatives, like in honey. However, “a couple of years ago, there was such pressure on the ingredient that “a lot of brands” substituted them with another preservative called MIT. The substitute proved to be an allergen, Hieronimus noted. It was removed.

Further complicating matters is the regulatory landscape. The European Commission has outlawed about 1,300 ingredients, compared with 38 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Consequently, brands and retailers have become the standard bearers for ingredient safety.

Most brand founders in the clean space advocate for more government regulation. Christin Powell, cofounder with Alison Haljun, of the new indie Kinship skin-care brand, pointed out that the U.S. government needs to regulate cosmetics ingredients to encourage producers and consumers to adopt clean beauty as a standard. Speaking from the vantage point of the much larger clean skin-care market, she sees the movement already going mainstream. “This year, 2020, is (the beginning of) the decade of clean,” said Powell.

The stumbling block is the lack of a generally accepted definition of clean. “Some brands identify clean as lacking some ingredients, others define it as including natural ingredients and others say a brand is clean if it tells you what is in the formula,” said Hieronimus.

The same problem also crops up in perfumery. Clean is in the eye of the brand, and the list of ingredients found objectionable by one clean brand may not be the same as another, said Hervé Pierini, Firmenich’s vice president of fine fragrance, North America.

At this juncture, Pierini sees two opportunities for advancement. First, for brands to hammer out a standard definition of clean that is used by all. “The second opportunity is to educate the consumer much more,” he said.

IFF has acted decisively by recasting its approach. “We have engaged with all our chemists and said, ‘We have to stop everything we were doing in the past,’” said Nicolas Mirzayantz, ceo of scent at IFF. “Today is about accelerating and strengthening our green chemistry capabilities.”

The company teamed up with environmental visionary architect Bill McDonough of Cradle to Cradle and applied the principles of circular design. In a chemical process, the waste that is produced becomes food for the creation of another element.

As an example, IFF took a natural rose oil, called Rose Essential, and distilled it. Instead of throwing out the leftover water, the company converted it into another olfactive ingredient, called Rose Ultimate. The new material is “a cleaner rose and it doesn’t have as many of the oil compounds and the earthy dirtiness,” said Amy Rueckl, director of regional markets for fine fragrance, North America, at IFF. Both roses are used in perfumery.

Usually, perfumers work with a palette of 3,000 ingredients in conventional perfumery. IFF created 300 ingredients that received platinum certification — the highest — from Cradle to Cradle, and they were used to create Pfeiffer’s Henry Rose range.

Over the last year, the list of clean certified ingredients at IFF has grown to 751.

By comparison, a palette for 100 percent natural fragrances — a different fragrance category — contains about 800 ingredients, according to ISO standards. Clean as a category is a bit broader, perhaps rivaling the size of a traditional palette. “Naturals are great but they can be limiting,” said Pasternak. “Clean is sort of the opportunity to be more democratic.”

Also, some natural ingredients can trigger allergies, especially if used in the wrong dosage, according to a wide range of experts.

IFF’s Mirzayantz described the advent of green, clean perfumery as offering a new range of aspirations and principles, like types of milk offered in a supermarket—regular, organic and a new brand from Northern Ireland, say. He asserted that existing fragrances are safe and need not be replaced.

Burns-McNeill noted that the fascination with clean chemistry “used to be a niche. It’s the price of entry now. With this coronavirus, it’ll have a mandate.”

The future of the clean movement has always been top of mind for Gregg Renfrew, the founder and ceo of Beautycounter, who has been advocating for stronger regulations and an update of the product safety laws that date back to 1938.

That may be finally happening. According to the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health passed the Cosmetics Safety Enhancement Act of 2019 (H.R. 5279). Authored by Energy committee chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), the proposed law would require companies to substantiate the safety of their products and provide more transparency of ingredients on their labels, as well as report “adverse health events” to the FDA. The agency also would be empowered to conduct its own safety reviews. Also, a California proposal, banning 13 toxic chemicals, is also under consideration.

The ball is definitely rolling as consumers demand more transparency, the prime trust builder.

“Our industry has been built on secrets for many decades,” said Renfrew. “It’s one of the last frontiers, and it’s really exciting to be part of that change.”

Key Takeaways:

  1. Behind skin care, fragrance is the second most requested category when it comes to clean.
  2. Sales in the U.S. are still tiny — less than 1 percent of the overall market — but growing at 21 percent year-over-year.
  3. The coronavirus pandemic is changing the language from clean beauty to safe beauty.