Scents and Sensibility

Chandler Burr translates scent into words so powerfully, i just want to close my eyes and inhale his prose. Tonka beans mixed with clouds! His recent article “Synthetic No. 5,” reminded me how little we know about what we’re sniffing.

His first assertions seem sensible:

  • “Natural materials are always good.” Wrong.
  • “A synthetic is more likely to cause an allergic reaction.” Wrong again.
  • “Synthetics are ‘modern’ and ‘American,’ and naturals are ‘French.”’ Completely wrong.
  • But this part made me wonder…

    “Synthetic sandalwoods are eco-friendly. The sandalwood forests of India are being destroyed at a terrible rate, and the price of natural sandalwood is skyrocketing (currently heading up to $800 a pound). One perfumer I know told me that because of this, he now refuses to use natural materials in perfumes.”

    incredible shrinking woman
    Synthetic sandalwood is friendlier to sandalwood trees than the natural kind, but what does it do once released into the environment? Even if it is benign, can we really extend that to all natural compounds and their synthetic counterparts? How do our bodies handle synthetic sandalwood? synthetic musk? What about the nonfragrant components like phthalates affecting our endocrine systems and specifically male genitalia?

    Usually it’s hard to find out what’s in a perfume or cosmetic, since ingredients can be lumped in as trade secret “fragrance.” Even when ingredients are identified, safety information is scarce since testing is not required and the industry is self-regulated.

    A senate hearing on August 2nd convened by to consider revamping the Toxic Substances Control Act ended up with agreement that the 30 year old statute was strong enough to protect health. The EPA has used its authority to require testing for fewer than 200 of the 62,000 chemicals in commerce in 1979, when the EPA program began, and in 30 years, the EPA has issued regulations to ban or restrict the use of only 5 chemicals (from the statements of .)

    Thank you for speaking to health and our right to know what we’re putting into in our bodies and environment:

    She pointed out that the European Union had banned chemicals called phthalates in plastic toys because of reproductive risks while the U.S. had not. “I don’t want my grandchildren or anyone’s grandchildren or great-grandchildren or children to put this stuff in their mouths,” she said. Boxer criticized the EPA’s position on the law, saying the public did not know which chemicals were used in which products and what dangers they posed because of the law’s confidentiality requirements. “We are left in the dark, to our peril,” Boxer said. (LA Times)


    Here are my current favorite scents… the four on the right are all natural, the four on the left incorporate synthetics as well (I’m not sure about Nanadebary – there’s not enough information, so I’m guessing synthetics.) Ooh, I hate to have to give any up. From left to right: Frederic Malle Editions En Passant by Olivia Giacobetti, Prada Amber, Nanadebary Bronze, Jasmin 17 by Le Labo, Moroccan Rose Otto by Ren, Bliss and Rockstar by Rich Hippie, and a Jasmin absolute essential oil gifted me by fabulous friend Lily B.

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