Sustainable fragrances: separating myth from reality

Published: 8-Aug-2023

Ana Ripoll, perfumer at Iberchem, tells us about her experiences in creating sustainable fragrances and the truth behind the use of certain claims. Recyclable, natural, biodegradable... these claims may sound good, but they might not actually be what they seem

"Let's take fashion as an example. I recently read a report about the use of recycled plastic to produce textiles that claimed to be "sustainable", which is becoming more and more widespread, especially in fast fashion. They argued that the use of plastic for textiles was breaking the recycling chain of these polymers, which, in the medium and long term, was going to have a negative effect on the environment.", says Ana Ripoll.

This example perfectly illustrates the two-sided nature of sustainability, and there are nuances that we need to clarify. To this end, with the help of perfumer Ana Ripoll, we are going to address the area of perfumery and the most common misconceptions about its sustainability.

The sustainability of fragrances

The fragrance industry has been moving towards sustainability for some time now, as have many other sectors.

"If we look at the sustainability of fragrances and perfumery, what initially seemed rather unclear has been taking shape in recent years, and it seems that with the implementation of the European Green Deal and the Sustainable Development Goals as guidelines, we're becoming more and more aware of the growing reality of sustainable fragrances", says Ana Ripoll.

"As a key element of product formulation, perfumers have been obliged to keep up with the current proliferation of concepts regarding sustainability (recyclable, biodegradable, upcycled etc), which often confuses users and experts alike, as the true reality is very different from what people think", she adds.

Separating myth from reality

1. CLAIM: 100% natural fragrances are always better for the environment and thereby more sustainable

This statement is untrue. A 100% natural fragrance is not necessarily more environmentally friendly nor socially or economically more sustainable.

Suppliers of raw materials highlight the low yield of some essential oils, which require a significant amount of natural resources for their production, which pushes up the price of these ingredients to start with. If we add to this the working conditions in some of the countries of origin of these ingredients, the result can be unsustainable for both the environment and society.

Furthermore, the quality of natural raw materials is often compromised by water resources and changing climatic phenomena, making their production volatile. In many cases, natural ingredients have a higher carbon footprint, as their production is de-localised. Ylang-ylang, for example, must be imported from Madagascar, increasing its environmental impact due to transportation.

"Does this mean that we should steer clear of these kinds of natural fragrances? I don't think so, because, for me, for example, a rose absolute or a good bergamot are essential ingredients that add complexity and depth to fragrances. For this reason, looking for a 100% natural fragrance doesn't necessarily have to be a sustainability-based decision".

Sustainable fragrances: separating myth from reality

2. CLAIM: Anything containing a "chemical"; or "synthetic" ingredient in its name is hazardous to health

The cosmetics and home care industry is subject to very strict regulations to ensure the safety of these products, and many consumers cast doubt on this due to a lack of knowledge.

It is often believed that a synthetic ingredient is more harmful than a natural ingredient because it is chemically produced. However, this statement is not true. Synthetics and natural ingredients are strictly regulated in Europe. In fact, some natural ingredients contain traces of components that have been classified as posing different hazardous risks, something that some synthetic products manage to avoid.

On the other hand, there is a strong underlying reality behind the use of natural ingredients, not only because of their olfactory complexity, but also because of the economic network they rely on. This industry also provides a livelihood for many farmers who respect and carefully tend their land, bringing added value to these ingredients. "One example of this is our cardamom oil supplier, Nelixia, which operates a comprehensive environmental and social protection programme in several areas in Latin America, driving a sustainable supply chain with a positive impact at all levels", says Ana.

Due to all these factors, the solution is clearly not to eliminate them, but, rather, to choose natural ingredients that meet the sustainability criteria. "To facilitate this work, here at Iberchem we have developed VITA, an internal digital support tool that helps us to improve our understanding of the natural ingredients we have available for our fragrances, which significantly streamlines our work and our respect for the environment", she adds.

3. CLAIM: Waste is always a pollutant

This is where the upcycled-related terms come into play. By these, we mean both the ingredients and the renewable carbon, referring to the primary value of these ingredients, which refutes the above assertion. Let's take a closer look at what this all means.

In the production of upcycled ingredients, by-products, or waste from other industries, or from the manufacture of other ingredients, are used as raw materials. This is the case in the wood, paper, and citrus industries, and, to take one pertinent example, the waste that arises from the extraction of essential oils. This waste is used to develop ingredients for fragrances, thereby giving new value to the waste and promoting the circular economy.

"As far as renewable carbon is concerned, this term is included in the UNE-ISO 16128 standard on technical definitions and criteria concerning cosmetic ingredients of natural and organic origin, although the standard doesn't specify exactly what is meant by renewable carbon. Most of our suppliers regard biomass (organic matter) as a renewable carbon source, as opposed to non-renewable fossil fuel carbon sources, and that is the criterion we follow", says Ana.


In short, sustainability can be a confusing term because it depends on so many different factors and nuances. Not everything that is natural is sustainable just because it is natural, and this is a difficult concept to grasp. This is why new regulations and guidelines are continually emerging that will help to standardise and define the term sustainability in the perfume industry. At the same time, it is important to encourage consumers to trust the regulatory bodies as well as the commitment and transparency of manufacturers.

"When creating a fragrance, it isn't only important for perfumers to have the right tools, but also for consumers to understand that everything is not what it seems when it comes to sustainability, and that sustainability is a broad term with many factors to be taken into account", concludes Ana Ripoll.

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