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PARIS Seaweed may not be the first ingredient that springs to mind for perfume. But algae are among obscure ingredients to which perfume makers are turning to preserve the scent of their fragrances in the face of new EU anti-allergy restrictions.
The global high end perfume industry, generating $25 billion in annual sales, is readying itself for EU regulations that will come into force in early 2015.
These will ban widely-used ingredients such as oak moss, a natural substance, that was found in the original versions of best-sellers including Chanel’s No.5 and Miss Dior.
Perfume creators say they love oak moss for its woody, earthy notes which give it depth and help make scent last longer. But on the grounds that between one and three percent of the EU population could suffer an allergic reaction - such as dermatitis - Brussels is banning two of its core molecules, atranol and chloroatranol.
Perfume makers will only be allowed to use oak moss from which these two molecules have been removed. The makers say this results in a much lighter and less vigorous scent.
"I am crazy about oak moss, it is one of my favorite ingredients," says Marc-Antoine Corticchiato, perfume creator or "nose" at his niche Parfum d'Empire brand. A 100 ml bottle of scent costs 120 euros.
Corticchiato, like many other "noses," is anxious about the new wave of potentially costly rules emanating from Brussels.
The fragrance industry that supplies perfume makers like Corticchiato already has its own self regulation body - the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) - financed by providers such as Givaudan, New York-listed International Flavors & Fragrances, and Germany’s Symrise. It has imposed restrictions on a growing list of ingredients over the years for various health reasons.
In addition, perfume makers do a lot of their own in-house and post-market surveillance and do their own testing, which can cost several hundred thousands euros a year, depending on the number of products and ingredients involved.
Leading brands such as Chanel, Dior and Hermes have 'noses' and their own research laboratories. They do not publish figures for the costs associated with them but industry experts estimate them to be in the order of several million euros a year.
A TOUCH OF ALGAE
One solution for oak moss, Corticchiato says, is to add a touch of algae as its wet, iodized smell coupled with other ingredients, can help recreate oak moss' moldy character.
The European Commission is also banning a synthetic molecule called HICC, or lyral, which replicates the smell of lily of the valley. It too can cause dermatitis in allergy sufferers.
L'Oreal, which makes Lancome and Armani perfumes, said it was looking for alternatives. It declined to say which of its perfumes contained lyral.
Perfume makers say they understand that their products need to be safe and recognize how damaging to their reputation any serious allergic reaction would be.
But some say the industry is being unfairly targeted. Up until now, they say, there have only been minor cases of allergies manifested by skin irritations or eczema.
"I think Brussels' focus is a little exaggerated specially compared to alcohol and cigarettes which are sold freely and do more harm than perfume," says Patricia de Nicolaï who created the French Nicolaï perfume brand with her husband 25 years ago.
She says she has never received a complaint about allergy but has reformulated some of her best sellers such as New York and Eau d'Ete because they used oak moss and lyral respectively.
The European Union denies targeting perfume any more than any other industry and says its new regulation seeks to address scientists' and doctors' concerns about the health hazards related to the use of perfume.
NORTH-SOUTH PERFUME LINES
Some inside the perfume industry say lobby groups representing the interests of tobacco firms are better financed and better organized than those representing perfume makers.
One reason is the sheer size of the global cigarette industry. In sales terms, it is more than three times the size of the perfume industry. Cigarette lobby groups include the tobacco manufacturers' association and the tobacco retailer's alliance.
By comparison, perfume makers rely on Cosmetics Europe, a bulky organization that represents 4,000 companies including deodorant, toothpaste and perfume providers which have very disparate interests.
Even within the perfume industry, there is no united front as some brands are more affected than others by IFRA and new EU regulation.
One of the industry's biggest players, L'Oreal, says it uses mainly synthetic ingredients in its perfumes. These ingredients raise fewer allergy concerns than natural products found in niche perfumes and brands such as Chanel and LVMH's Dior and Guerlain.
Another issue is that perfumes are not protected by intellectual property rights. The composition of a perfume is not legally recognized as a "creation of the mind" but rather an industrial formula that can be replicated and altered.
"Many perfumes have had to be reformulated even though they were considered masterpieces due to changing legislation," said Olivier Maure, head of Accords et Parfums, a supplier of major brands including Dior based in Grasse, likening it to "changing the colors of the Mona Lisa".
Some industry executives say Brussels' recent focus on the perfume industry stems from its main advisory body, the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). Many of the committee's members come from northern countries such as Sweden and Denmark where there is opposition to perfume on health grounds.
"Clearly, there are more experts at the SCCS who are based in northern Europe than in the south but it is not a deliberate choice," said David Hudson, spokesman for consumer policy at the European Commission. "We strive for geographic and gender balance but the primary selection criteria is expertise."
Perfume is not as important to the economies of northern Europe as it is to southern countries. Perfumes and cosmetics are among France's top five exports and the southern city of Grasse is the historic capital of the perfume industry where many leading brands such as Chanel, Hermes and Dior source their essences.
Added to that, research shows people from northern regions tend to be more vulnerable to allergies than those living around the Mediterranean. One theory is that people in northern countries are more susceptible because of their lifestyle and generally cleaner environment.
MORE RESTRICTIONS TO FOLLOW?
The SCCS published a report in July 2012 which recommended banning oak moss's core molecules and severely restricting the use of many core ingredients such as linalool, found in lavender, a move that threatened the high end of the perfume industry which relied heavily on these ingredients.
Brussels included a few of the SCCS's recommendations, such as its ban on oak moss, and pledged to investigate what levels of concentrations could be considered safe for natural ingredients so that consumers did not develop allergies to them over time.
Perfume makers are worried that this will lead to more restrictions. There have been suggestions that they should offer two types of perfumes - some with allergens in them and consumer advice about the content, and others with no allergen.
"I expected big groups to take the initiative on this matter but it turns out that they are the most risk averse," said Corticchiato. One problem for big perfume brands is that their label sells a dream which is incompatible with the message "this product may cause allergies."
Dior, Guerlain and parent LVMH declined to comment for this article as did Hermes.
Chanel said it stopped using lyral in 2010 and has been evolving its formulas in anticipation of new rules.
"At Chanel, we follow very closely talks about regulation and scientific findings concerning raw materials," Jacques Polge, Chanel's chief perfume creator for 36 years, said in an emailed response to questions.
Polge said Chanel controls its formulas and supply chains to ensure its natural oak moss is bereft of the allergens targeted by Brussels. That way, "we can respect the original scent".
But "once you change an ingredient or two it can be very difficult to keep the scent absolutely intact, especially if those ingredients played an important role in defining the scent," says Maurice Roucel, creator of many perfumes including L'Instant for Guerlain and Hermes's 24 Faubourg.
A few years ago, Roucel reformulated Dior's Fahrenheit perfume to remove lyral along with a few other ingredients and he is now working on the reformulation of about eight perfumes to make them meet new regulation.
"Big brands tell me: replace this and that and make sure it smells the same and costs the same to produce," Roucel said.
(Editing by Janet McBride)
(In March 17 item, corrects paragraph 10 to say shipyard is in Newport News, not Norfolk)
By Nathan Layne, Ned Parker, Svetlana Reiter, Stephen Grey and Ryan McNeill