The nose. It belongs to Karine Vinchon-Spehner, one of the great French perfume creators, a real artist in the fragile world of fragrances. Her working tool smells them all: the scents of harmony, but also the whiff of something wrong.
In Brussels there is something in the air: the European Commission clash with perfume producers in a “battle of scents”. A report from the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) is on the negotiating table. It contains over 300 pages that recommend restricting some natural ingredients that cause allergies, and banning outright three ingredients.
This report gets up Karine’s nose: if it becomes law, perfumers would be forced to reformulate several famous fragrances – like Chanel Number Five, for example.
Karine explained to euronews: “We will lose some subtle tones, we risk that some precious perfume properties will disappear… It’s like forcing a painter to get rid of one of the five primary colours, he wouldn’t be able to paint like before. Or like taking notes away from a musician… It would be a real pity…”
Meanwhile the tiny village of Montségur-sur-Lauzon is at the very heart of French lavender flower production. The summer air smells different. Fragrant. Here, Kriss, a young distillery manager, and a tractor driver nicknamed Mirabelle share the same fears: the thunderstorm forecast for later today, and the storm brewing over the European Commission’s apparent attempt to limit the use of coumarine, an allergenic substance naturally present in lavender flowers…
Kriss told euronews: “This European law on allergenic substances under discussion would be a catastrophe for all professions dealing with natural raw materials. Such a law would limit the use of those substances on a very low level. 90 percent of existing natural raw materials from plants could not be used any longer. The perfumers would have to change all their formulas…it would be like the debate to ban peanuts in Europe all over again. It’s just stupid.”
Not everyone agrees, as we discover in Lyon, where consumer protectors warn ‘ambient perfumes’ are flooding public spaces, shops, even magazines to attract customers, creating big problems.
About two percent of Europeans suffer from allergies. Agnes has to buy her cosmetics at the pharmacy because the ambient perfumes mean limited shopping-time, no make-up, no perfume, no nightclubs. What others perceive as beautiful fragrances everywhere can cause violent reactions with Agnes.
She said: “Quite often the smell of perfume gives me an instant headache. I can get a sudden skin reaction: it starts itching, which is very annoying. There are more and more ambient perfumes used all over the city. I think they can be quite aggressive; they have a very strong and heavy scent. These ambient perfumes should be banned from some locations.”
There are 2,500 lavender producers in France, covering 20,000 hectars. Grasse is considered by many to be the “capital of perfumes”. It is close to the lavender flower growing regions and home to Robertet, a world leader in natural fragrance production and perfume design. Their 22 branches worldwide turnover 400 million euros a year.
Robertet workers were shocked at the SCCS report with its long list of allergenic substances to declare, limit or ban. To adapt, the French perfume industry would need to pay up to 100 million euros, according to one of the directors. The cost to Robertet would be approximately five million euros.
Francis Thibaudeau, Deputy Manager Fragrance Division, Robertet told euronews: “Allergenic substances are part of perfume products. All the major perfumes would disappear if the SCCS proposals are implemented. Entire branches of perfume-making would be doomed. It would be the death of the industry… we could no longer use jasmine, ylang ylang sandalwood, or bergamotte. Those ingredients and essential natural products would no longer be used…”
At Sanary-sur-Mer we met Pascale Couratier. Her beloved eight-year-old nephew, died in his school canteen, suffering from allergies, after eating a tiny piece of sheep’s cheese. Two grams were enough to kill him. Since then, Pascale has joined the French Association for Allergy Prevention. For her, food allergies and perfume allergies are the same battle: for labels and limits:
She explained: “There’s been an uprising from allergy sufferers for years. We get more and more feedback from people suffering from those allergies… All product ingredients should be fully labeled, without exceptions. Ingredients should be clear and easily understandable. No use of scientific names, just real names which are familiar to everyone…”
The European community regulation on chemicals and their safe use is known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances).
In Manosque we talk to Bert, working at the Experimental Perfume Plant Centre, about REACH. He disagrees that this legislation should also rules over essential oils. Lavender oil is not a chemical, he says, it’s natural. He is against labeling.
He said: “The problem is not about knowing if coumarin is allergenic or not allergenic… What matters is how your body reacts: take a few drops of lavender oil, put them on your skin and see if you have an allergy. People have been using it for thousands of years without being allergic to it. We have to consider the complete product…, there is no need to dissect it and to test every single component of it…”
Meanwhile, the city of Grasse wants UNESCO to designate its local perfume tradition as World Heritage status. Lavender producers have the same idea: UNESCO should protect them against the ‘bad boys’ of Brussels.
In the International Perfume Museum of Grasse we learned about the origins of fragrances from Muriel: “Perfume-making was born from another activity, that was glove-producing… For this you have to go back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was the Queen Marie-Antoinette who wanted to have nice-smelling, perfumed gloves. You know, at those former times, there were some bad smells around… well, so it was a way to fight against those bad smells…”
European negotiations are ongoing. An initial proposal restricting coumarin and twelve other allergenic substances to 0.01 per cent of a product looks like it has been dropped. This would signal a partial success for the perfume lobby. However, it looks like at least three ingredients will definitely be banned.
Kriss said: “Well, it’s okay that we should get rules and laws for some dangerous products… Nevertheless, we should trust people’s basic common sense. There is no need to decide for people what they should eat, what they should wear or what kind of perfume they should use. This would open up the doors of the European market for Indians and Chinese who would profit from European over-regulation and conquer our market shares…”
It’s a breathtaking battle between well-organized business lobbies and patient groups, between scientific researchers and political powers. The new law will be on the table next year: will it signal the end of Europe’s perfume-makers? Only time will tell.
Bonus 1: To listen to the complete original French interview with Francis Thibaudeau, Deputy Manager Fragrance Division of Grasse-based perfume producer Robertet, you can use this link. Thibaudeau alerts against EU plans to limit the use of plants containing allergens.
Bonus 2: The full original French interview with perfume creator Karine Vinchon-Spehner can be heard here. The perfumer points out the possible consequences of an upcoming EU regulation on allergenic substances used in the production of perfumes and cosmetics.
Bonus 3: The president of the French Association for Prevention against Allergies, Pascale Couratier, wants a ban on ambient perfumes diffused in public spaces and shops and alerts about the rise of perfume allergies. Please use this link if you would like to listen to the complete original interview in French.
Bonus 4: Bert Candaele, working at the southern-France based “Experimentation Centre for Perfume and Aromatic Plants”, CRIEPPAM, claims a special status for essential oils. The complete original French interview may be uploaded here.