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HOOHAA x Sarah McCartney: Synthetics vs Naturals in Fragrance

HOOHAA x Sarah McCartney: Synthetics vs Naturals in Fragrance

As the world tries to be more conscious of what it consumes, uses, and manufactures, where does that leave the fragrance industry?

Several materials have already been banned in the US and Europe, but is it actually better to use 100% natural ingredients in fragrances, and what does that do to the cost?

We sat down with Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays to discuss the differences between synthetic ingredients and natural materials, as well as what went into this month’s Easy Does It edit – Saltburn Driftwood.

Over to you, Sarah!

Synthetics vs Naturals

“Not many people realise that most indie perfumers are using a mixture of synthetics and naturals. It’s really not correct to assume that if something is inexpensive, it’s all made of synthetics and if it’s expensive, it’s all made of natural ingredients.

If you make a perfume out of 100% natural materials, then it’s actually very difficult to get it to smell like a commercial perfume. They have a certain style, you see, 100% naturals. They’re generally quite distinctive, and can be compact and dense if people are using just essential oils and absolutes.”

“So most perfumes made by indies are mixed media. We put synthetics in to get the best out of naturals; perfumers can use natural isolates - individual molecules extracted from nature - but there are others which don’t exist in nature at all, even though they can be biodegradable and made from renewables. In something like Saltburn Driftwood, I’ll use both natural woods, and synthetic woods to create the particular aroma I want.

The synthetics will boost and bring forward the good qualities of the naturals to help them last longer and project further. So it’s like the synthetics get hold of the naturals by the hand and brings them out into the world.”

Saltburn Driftwood and Synthetics

“Because this fragrance is set beside the seaside, in Saltburn, my hometown, I go there; I walk along the beach; even if it’s the coldest windy day, I will walk along the beach.

This is the aroma of the beach on one of those really windy days when the surfers are still out because they’re the surfers and they must surf. They’ve tried to light bonfires with driftwood, but that won’t work because it’s too soggy, so there’s this smell of scorched driftwood on the beach as well as the breeze and the seaweed.”

“Most aquatic marine fragrances are made with Calone, a synthetic material that really came to prominence in the 90s. It is that aquatic-marine-ozonic feeling, as if you’ve just opened your hotel room window, facing out onto the beach.

But the natural seaweed absolute, that really gives you a proper realistic ‘I just fell into the harbour when the tide’s out’ kind of a smell. It can be a bit too oyster-y and fishy if you’re not careful, so you use a tiny amount of that, with Calone to get a proper realistic seaside aroma.”

“Without the Calone, you don’t get the fresh air breezy feeling, but without the seaweed, you don’t really feel like you’re on a North Eastern, powerfully windy, proper beach with seaweed wrapped around the pillars of the pier. That’s why I often use a beautiful natural, with synthetics that paradoxically make the naturals smell more realistic”

Misunderstandings about naturals and synthetics

“If you hear, “oh yes, it’s all-natural”, there’s this implication that a perfume is going to be both better in an unspecified way, and definitely more expensive. Some companies say this in order to set your expectations - that it’s going to be scarily expensive.

It tends to be brands that are perfumer led where you’ll get openness. The creator will happily say, “I’m using Ambrox Super!. It’s derived from clary sage, but so far removed that it can’t be considered natural. And there’s Ambrox Super in Saltburn Driftwood, which gives it a salty feeling even though salt actually doesn’t have an aroma..”

“It’s also not a universal truth that synthetics are going to be less expensive or even less beautiful. But as long as many salespeople - who are not taught the realities of this - continue to tell customers that expensive perfumes are 100% natural the myth will grow. You’re not going to get into the depths of the naturals vs synthetics debate with the average department store fragrance sales assistant, especially when they only have 4 minutes to make a sale, and talking about chemistry scares people away.

If we can weave in some trends of truth, and get customers to smell individual materials maybe we can do some myth busting. If you give people Ambrox Super or Ethyl Maltol on a smelling strip, it blows away the phobia. People are afraid of things with long names they’ve never heard before, whether it’s the Latin name for a plant or a chemical name.”

“Another assumption is that using naturals will always going to be better for nature, Not the case. If we look at the virgin land torn up just go grow flower, or the virgin rainforest ripped down to harvest rare woods, farmers underpaid, workers mistreated, soil erosion and pesticides used, then often we’re better off using aromachemicals from clear, environmentally productive German factories with fairly paid workers in safe conditions. The discussion can be dangerously one-dimensional and over simplistic.”

“So if we can get ahead slightly of the game, bypassing the usual superficial - often untrue - chat about everything being totally natural, and hand around smelling strips of the actual raw materials used, somebody might say, “oh that’s nice; it smells of candyfloss.”

That’s where the difficulty lies. Reaching customers and reassuring them, and where I try to speak up and throw a brick into the pool to creates some spreading ripples. I want to take the fear away, and that comes when you’re familiar with the materials. Naturals are by no means automatically safer on human skin either.”

“A synthetic material can sound scary until you smell it, and then you realise it’s just a smell, often a really wonderful one.”


So, there we have it – straight from the Fragrance Fairy Godmother herself. Whilst it may seem like 100% natural fragrances are the best way to go and cause less damage, there seems to be a fear of chemicals that is totally unfounded.

And if a fragrance as beautiful as Saltburn Driftwood can use a mix of the two, shouldn’t we be waking up to the difference between synthetic and natural ingredients and realising that the two can - and usually do - go hand in hand?

As always, we’ll let you decide for yourself when the next edit lands on your doorstep. Let us know what you think!

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