Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Question of BHT: Should I wear as perfume what I would never eat?

"Cool Whip Original is made of water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (including coconut and palm oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream and less than 2% sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate and beta carotene (as a coloring). In some markets, such as Canada and the United States, Cool Whip is available in an aerosol can using nitrous oxide as a propellant." 
(from Wikipedia) 

It's easy to become disenchanted and slide into a sad cynicism when one observes what has happened to the corporatized perfume industry in recent years. There are ridiculously many flankers and trivial launches. Under the guise of IFRA health directives, companies are mangling former masterpieces left and right. At the same time, industry views about how perfumes should be made seem to be changing.

I've noticed of late that many perfume houses which did not formerly list BHT among the ingredients in their perfumes now do. Does this mean that they are only now acknowledging that BHT is an ingredient but it was in fact there before? Or is the ingredient now being added when before it was absent? My suspicion is the latter, as entire houses' line-ups have changed as they have come under the yoke of LVMH and Coty, to offer two examples where I have observed a preponderance of labels boasting BHT among the ingredients of perfumes formerly produced independently.

Let us take the case of the house of Marc Jacobs. Perfumes launched by this house before its takeover by Coty did not list BHT as an ingredient. In the last few years, all of the labels of this house, whether the cocktail splash series, Curacao, Cranberry, and Ginger; earlier splashes such as Fig or Gardenia (also produced in the post-takeover period); or recent launches such as Lola and Bang, have listed BHT among the ingredients. In contrast, there is no BHT listed for pre-takeover perfumes such as the original (eponymous) Marc Jacobs or Essence or Blush, all of which I own and which were produced in connection with Givenchy, according to the boxes.

Another in some ways even more disturbing example is Guerlain. Pre-takeover perfumes, such as the early Aqua Allegoria fragrances, or earlier versions of Shalimar, Samsara, Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue, among others, did not list BHT among the ingredients. In recent years, all of the Guerlain perfumes (all of the ones I've seen, at any rate), including Eau de Cologne Impériale—which is said to be the original formula from the time of Napoléon—have come to list BHT as an ingredient.

Clearly the head chemists at LVMH and Coty think that adding BHT to perfumes is a good idea. Why else would it be found in virtually all (if not all) of the perfumes now being put out by those companies, while it continues to be absent from the perfumes of most independent and niche houses and all traditional houses I've looked at, which suggests that perfumers were not using BHT before.

I'll offer one further example, the house of Fresh. Pre-takeover Fresh perfumes such as Sugar and Sugar Lemon appear not to have contained BHT. All of the following Fresh perfumes now list BHT among the ingredients: Cannabis Rose, Cannabis Santal, and Hesperides, along with what appear now to be discontinued perfumes such as Strawberry Flowers, Sake, and Pink Jasmine. I do not understand this. The whole image of the Fresh company is that of being, well, fresh and natural. Image and reality appear to be diverging...

It is obviously possible to produce fine perfumes without adding BHT. None of my Hermès boxes (and I have several) lists BHT among the ingredients. Not a single one. (Thank goodness that house held its ground!)

I should perhaps make clear that I am not making a global claim here about the safety of BHT, although I am not at all convinced that it is safe. I realize that its use is currently legal. (Is there a need to list here all of the morally repugnant practices which used to be legal and even a part of longstanding tradition?) Despite the legality of BHT, I certainly avoid it in foodstuffs—as readily as I avoid sucralose, which, although also currently legal, completely and utterly repulses me. The question for me (and anyone relevantly similar) is: given that I do not eat BHT, should I wear it in my perfume?

Now, I am aware that there are probably millions of people who are not troubled in the least by the fact that only one variety of Cheerios does not list BHT among its ingredients, and there are obviously millions of people drinking nonnatural diet sodas, laced variously with sucralose or aspartame (nutrasweet), one of the breakdown products of which is … drumroll … formaldehyde! Obviously, companies want to use whatever they can to maximize profits in their products, and that's fine with me, but I do not have to buy and consume them. Given my general avoidance of BHT in food products—whether justified or not—I am currently toying with the idea of boycotting all BHT-laced perfumes in the future.

I already appear to be leaning that way, as I've noticed in a few cases that purchases which I was on the verge of making I changed my mind about after reading the label and seeing those ugly three letters yet again. I do not think that I am being overly cautious here. The problem has been exacerbated for me as I've been noticing that the quality of these BHT-laden perfumes is degenerating in direct proportion to what I believe to be their potential toxicity.

A case in point: I purchased a tester bottle of La Perla J'aime from an online emporium. This is not an old perfume, having been launched in 2007. Upon arrival, the liquid in the previously unsprayed clear glass bottle was pink. In the ensuing weeks, although the bottle was stored under controlled climate conditions and away from light (in a closed armoire), the liquid turned brown. To be honest, I did not like the perfume from the very beginning: the first time I wore it, I woke up in the middle of the night wanting to wash it off. I had made the purchase scent unsniffed based upon my love of the original La Perla, which appears since its launch to have undergone serial reformulation and now no longer appeals to me nearly as much—evernia prunastri has been replaced by evernia furfuracea, among no doubt other changes.

La Perla gets a makeover--or will it be a lobotomy?
I definitely will not be purchasing a bottle of the latest version of La Perla, which was recently announced, but I will say that at least the house is being decent enough to repackage the perfume so that consumers will have a clue that the perfume inside is actually new. To return to the case at hand, the new perfume which I purchased from the house of La Perla, J'aime, struck me as off from the very beginning, so the change in color merely confirmed my suspicions. It seems obvious to me that there is something seriously wrong with a perfume which goes bad in such a short time, and BHT clearly did not help matters. So why, exactly, is the BHT there?

I eat well, and whenever possible choose natural and organic foods over “stuff” containing long lists of nonsense and the ultimate mystery ingredient, “artificial flavor”. Think about it: it could contain literally anything. All bets are off when you buy a food which lists among its ingredients “artificial flavor”. Why, then, should I be any less exacting when it comes to my perfume, which I apply directly to my skin and breath in as well? I may not be able to find out what all is contained in the mysterious, carefully guarded secret parfum ingredient of a perfume which I purchase, but if the blaring letters BHT are staring back at me as I glance at the box before checking out, I have the option of just saying “No.”

In some ways, it's quite odd that as modern people become more health conscious when it comes to food, perfumes seem to be becoming far less appealing aesthetically, with restrictions placed on many of the key natural ingredients of the masterpieces of the past, and the scents of household products such as dryer sheets and laundry detergent, along with shampoo and conditioner, all now being bottled and sold as perfumes. At the same time, these less aesthetically appealing perfumes may actually be more toxic. In my manifesto on this topic, PEOPLE WITH ALLERGIES DO NOT WEAR PERFUME, I attempted to navigate all of these seeming contradictions.

At the end of the day, given the natural historical trajectory of capitalism and its effects upon profit-driven corporations and those who run them, what has been transpiring in the perfume industry is not really all that surprising to me. In some ways, none of this should be surprising at all. Many of the big players in the perfume industry are also big players in the fashion world, and everyone knows (don't they?) that fashion is much more about business than it is about art.

Our tastes are molded by the fashion companies and magazines, which is the only possible explanation for how ultra-low-rider jeans are nearly the only ones available, with the result that sightings of plumber's cracks and muffin tops have become virtually ubiquitous, not to mention—though I will—the increased display of mid-back tattoos and thongs. So fashion is supposed to be about aesthetics, true believers continue to claim? (I have a very nice plot of land for you near Alligator Alley...)

The clothing designers all begin, of course, as artists, but many at some point along the path to success become much more involved in the management and augmentation of businesses than in the direct creative production of their line and the many objects which come eventually to bear their name. I recently watched Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), directed by Matt Tyrnauer, which relays the story leading up to Valentino Garavani's retirement. The overall picture painted in the film of this fashion icon is pretty much that of a diva. He gives his teams of dress designing seamstresses a few vague ideas, and they get immediately to work attempting to realize the capricious deliverances of his will in cloth. Meanwhile, Valentino himself (at least as depicted in the film...) seems far more occupied with his various residences and keeping up the appearances of the diva which he has become.

So what is the point? The point is that when design houses are in cahoots with companies such as Sephora, devising schemes by which to persuade people to part with their perfume wallet share there, not somewhere else, then the tastes of those people will indeed be molded so as to reflect what is currently available—which is dictated by the taste makers. An abundance of sweet patchouli perfumes were launched in the post-Angel period, and in the twenty-first century, shampoo and conditioner and sweet laundry scents seem to be holding sway.

What to do? Should we throw our hands up in dismay and spend the best hours of our day placing bids on e-bay for vintage perfumes which may or may not smell the same as they did decades ago? I am happy to be able to say that there is a better way. It may seem that perfumery is a dying art, given all of the developments outlined above, but what we need to do is to recognize that designer-based perfumery is merging with the fashion industry and thereby moving farther and farther away from the original vocation of the perfumer as an olfactory artist. True perfumers do still exist, but they are often working in their own ateliers, not under the yoke of corporate conglomerates.

The solution to the changes in the perfume industry is not to give up hope but to, in a phrase: follow the perfumers. Where have all the perfumers gone? some may ask. Have they all become hacks? The answers to these questions may not be obvious because of our long-engrained habits of believing that the designers are an excellent source of fine perfume. No, my fragrant friends, just as those hoping to imbibe fine wine exhibiting the traditional virtues need to seek out smaller producers, we perfumistas, too, have a much better chance of finding perfume worthy of its name by patronizing the indie and natural perfume houses.

Should we really be supporting the perfume industry's equivalent
of plumber's cracks and muffin tops?

Follow the Perfumers, my Fragrant Friends!


  1. And.....where have all the perfumer's gone?

  2. So glad you asked, Monica! Stay tuned for the answer to this and many other questions in the days to follow!

    Welcome to the salon, and thank you very much for the excellent question! So apt, so timely, almost as though I planted you in the audience! (-;

  3. Sherapop: Now I'm quite curious. Have you ever smelled BHT by itself? Does it have any smell? Also, I wonder who manufactures it - is it a matter of it being so cheap or so ubiquitous that perfume companies figure they might as well put it in? Do you have any sense of what potential harms it carries? (I'm assuming you do, if you are going out of your way not to eat it.)

    Frankly, I'm pretty sure at this point that I have more perfume socked away than I'll be able to use in this lifetime, so it's not going to take much to put me off buying any more mass-market stuff. I just wish more of the indie perfumers had sample programs. I think they are slowly getting with this, thank goodness, but slowly.

  4. Hello, pitbull friend!

    I do not know what "neat" BHT smells like. Good question! There are tons of preliminary studies on BHT, so I'd recommend googling to satisfy your curiosity on the topic. Some people say that it has adverse effects upon childhood development, for example. The jury is still out, as they say, so that's why it remains legal. But it's one of those cases where it seems better to be safe than sorry, it seems to me.

    Artificial sweeteners are a good precedent here: they are never initially thought to be dangerous. Why? Because they have not been thoroughly tested on human populations until the products containing them are launched and lots of people have actually consumed them. It's only later that the data can be marshaled and documented claims about, for example, carcinogenicity can be scientifically tested. (Think: cyclamates and saccharin here...)

    That's a great point about the sampling problem. Yes, every indie and natural perfume house needs to come up with a system making it possible for consumers to test their wares. Sample sets for purchase seem like the perfect solution to me. Many perfumistas are willing to pay for samples, so perfumers could offer such sets at their websites just as they offer full bottles, as a part of their regular inventory.

    Thank you for these comments, pitbull friend! It's always nice to read you here! (-;

    1. Hi Pitbull friend, Hi Sherapop, I actually googled BHT and it's odorless, colorless, cristalline, solid. Good thing about it is that it is effective against Herpes simplex. Personally I find the discussion of BHT contradictory. I also understand that it shows up with different names (e.g. E 321) in the INCI lists. (Reading INCIs is a science of itself. Even chemists who don't work for the food/cosmetic industry don't understand them. They use different names not the scientific ones) I also understand that before products could contain BHT but producers did not explicitly mention it in their lists.
      I remember that certain ingredients of sun cream were argued to be detrimental to women's health. It was a real hype. However, later studies showed that this was not the case. Unfortunately, this info was not hyped. But the damage done.
      It also brings to my mind the "talcum" problem. The FDA commissioned an animal test which showed that talcum was provoking cancer. A metastudy later showed that the test was done wrong. (Intersting to know since organic cosmetic companies that are against animal testing use talcum. What an irony because even on Wikipedia you can read about the FDA commissioned animal tests with talcum.) Fact is that the pharmaceutical industry only uses the so called Grade A Talcum (harmless). The cosmetic industry (the organic branch too) does not disclose which talcum they use.
      Formaldehyd is also an ingredient of nailpolish.
      My boyfriend buys our wine from small producers. But I am not entirely convinced if small producers offer the better product. Their quality management is certainly not as refined as that of bigger companies. And even small producers add chemicals that a bigger company probably would not use. Even small producers can get involved in wine scandals, as happened in my country in the past.
      You can't tell, you never can.

    2. Dear Girasole,

      Thank you so much for shining the bright light of your skeptical mind here once again! I have received a couple of incisive comments at as well, and now I'm not sure at all what to think about the Question of BHT! Another person pointed out what you have pointed out above, that we do not know whether BHT was in fact added before or not, because the standards for what needs to be claimed on the label have changed.

      I'm really trying to come up with a coherent policy for myself, as I do not know how to navigate all of the sorts of contradictions which you rightly have underscored. The hyped "news" about what is and what is not safe never ends. I recall all of the hype about eggs, for example. Eggs supposedly were bad for you. Now eggs are supposed to be good for you. And there's caffeine, which I of course would not renounce under any circumstances. "They" were saying that caffeine is not good. Then the whole hype about antioxidants arrived on the scene and now red wine and coffee are supposed to be good for you I guess.

      Maybe I should just consume what I want to consume and ignore all of the hype. One thing is clear to my mind: perfume should smell and feel good. When a perfume does not meet those criteria, then it should not be worn. After all, our bodies have evolved to protect us from poisons. Therefore, if a perfume feels like a nerve toxin, then I'm just going to heed the warning signs and shun it at all costs.

      I think that natural perfumery offers the best hope of avoiding self-poisoning, so I am definitely exploring more and more creations from perfumers who are willing to disclose everything they do and use in producing their perfumes. You are right, that small production does not guarantee quality, but I think that in perfumery, there is much more accountability and a sense of responsibility from small producers, because their own reputation is on the line. With the huge conglomerates, responsibility is diffuse. Those companies are really big fat bureaucracies filled with secrets to which we are not privy.

      Thank you again for these insightful comments, Girasole. It's always a pleasure to read you here!

  5. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking article! More and more I am drawn to natural/indie perfumes for all the reasons you have listed, and I am a vintage lover from way back - I am old enough to remember when today's "vintage" perfumes were still on the shelves!

    1. Hello, Flora, thank you so much for the kind words, and welcome to the salon!

      The vintage perfumes which people love and pursue today (often on e-bay) were for the most part mainstream launches in the past. It seems to me that the entire complex of the perfume industry has undergone radical changes with the result that we can no longer count on quality from the mainstream houses. There are too many launches, especially flankers and limited editions poured into familiar bottles. I wonder whether new iconic perfumes can even be produced in this climate of rapid release and discontinuation.

      Fortunately, there are still good perfumes being made. Though they may never become household names, we can still wear and enjoy them: it's just a matter of seeking them out!

      Thank you so much for stopping by, Flora! I hope to read you here again soon!

  6. Beautifully and eloquently written! Indeed the best thing to come about for the small artisan perfumer, is the internet. It is, as they say, the great equalizer :) There's so many of us reachable to you now via the internet. And as you say, it's just a great idea to offer samples to people who want to try something from a "new to them" line so that they can see how the perfume works on the skin and with their body chemistry.

    Thanks for writing such a wonderful article!


    1. Greetings, Amanda, and welcome to the salon!

      Thank you so much for the comments and praise, which I very much appreciate. Yes, I agree, the internet acts as something of a counterbalance to some of the negative effects which we may lament. Among other things, the internet makes it possible for us to seek out great perfumes, wherever they may be... The fragrance community websites are especially helpful in providing the information we need. Entire olfactory worlds exist which we would otherwise be unable to explore—being completely ignorant of their existence!

      People have said that the internet is a democratizing force, but it can also be used as a tool for expanding one's own limited horizons. Thank goodness our perfume choices are not limited to what is available at the local department stores!

      I do think that independent perfumers are becoming aware that as consumers become more sophisticated, they wish to give perfumes a full wear before purchasing an entire bottle. Some of the houses now offer refundable sample sets, where the price is credited back to the purchase of a full bottle. I think that even when the samples are simply sold at a reasonable price, people will be willing to buy them, so I hope that at some point it becomes a regular part of the business of perfume houses to offer such samples for sale to their customers—both actual and potential.

      Thank you very much, Amanda, for weighing in on this issue!

  7. Another great piece Sherapop! I agree wholeheartedly with your decision to boycott fragrances that include additives you would never eat, but as you would never eat perfume anyway, I find it might completely limit your ability to try mainstream new releases (which probably means you wouldn't be missing anything anyway...)
    I don't drink soda unless chronic hypoglycemia and lack of ability to find orange juice forces me to, but I have tried diet soda as a diabetic who has been offered it hundreds of times, and I can see how a not-so-tasty beverage can become more addictive than methamphetamines.Diet Vanilla Coke might be the devil, but it actually almost tastes good from a child's "mmm sweet candy" perspective. I choose not to drink it because drinks are to hydrate, waken, be delicious, healthful, or intoxicate without highlighting the "toxic" well as bring people together. Fake drinks don't bring people together, just as Febreeze perfumes don't inspire love poetry.

    From a purely taste-based viewpoint aspartame does not taste good, but it is less disgusting-tasting than sucralose. Sucralose is one of the most vile tasting additives I've ever encountered--it's like "Who added agent orange to my Tang?"
    And Tang is not a food either...It's a sure sign of the apocalypse that you can hardly buy a tangerine that hasn't had its skin dyed "oranger".
    Girasole is right. I like to buy organic as much as my budget allows, and I like to support smaller companies, but we never know for sure whether our coffee is fair trade unless we visit the coffee plantations ourselves. I was so grateful when my bf's mom didn't mix Splenda with the berries she served us for breakfast last time we visited his parents. Eating truly "clean" can be difficult if you don't cook every meal you eat, and if you ever use anything from a box or container. Same with perfume. How should I know whether Coromandel by Chanel (my latest mad lust) contains BHT or something else dreadful? I already know I'm taking in Phthalates by the gallon, so to speak....

    1. Greetings, Kastehelmi, and thank you for these scintillating remarks. This is simply classic:

      "Who added agent orange to my Tang?"

      I love it! My sentiments precisely, although I don't drink Tang, which is fairly scary to begin with. Mark my words though, the bell is going to be tolling for Sucralose soon, just as it did a couple decades after the release onto the market of cyclamates and saccharine... That is, after massive testing on human populations! Nothing that gross can posssibly be good for you! For heaven's sake, that would be against the theory of evolution!

      People sometimes retort to the sorts of concerns I've raised by saying that you'd have to bathe in perfume to be affected by the toxins present. The problem is: I do! Literally, I wear a HUGE amount of perfume, especially in the summer when it's hot out. This year I've been wearing a bunch of fairly natural (I think, anyway...) colognes to counteract the heat and of course my unwillingness to use air conditioning, which I do not like and is also only necessary in Boston about two weeks out of the year. (I go to the library or to Starbucks, hoping that the Emperor will not expire in my absence...)

      I think that I also oppose air conditioning because of the generally irrational practices of Americans regarding appropriate temperature levels. In the wintertime, everyone wants their house to be 80F. In the summertime, they want it to be 60F. What? It makes no sense. The worst I've seen is in places like Florida, where they virtually refrigerate you inside any closed space, with the result that you're always bouncing back and forth between a sauna and a cooler. Then there's the recycled air factor, which really does make me sick--whether it's on airplanes or in hotels in hot places, or wherever. But I digress...

      You and Girasole are right: we cannot know in many cases. But that is all the more reason to shun what we believe to be bad when we do know of its presence. I just don't trust the big companies anymore. I've become the cynical person I refer to in the first line of this post. However, I'm only cynical about people and companies which give me reasons for cynicism...

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on these matters, Kastehelmi!

      This one belongs in the perfume-writing Hall of Fame:
      "Febreeze perfumes don't inspire love poetry." (-;

  8. I don't drink Tang either Sherapop--just trying to express the various layers of falsehood marketed as "edible"!

  9. An aptly chosen example indeed! Layers of falsehood, yes.

    I recall the day when my sister and I made popcorn and melted some "Spread"--a tub of which was in the refrigerator, no doubt purchased by someone who bought (literally) into the hype according to which both butter and margarine should be avoided. ("Spread" is sort of like f''(x), where x = butter.) We poured the liquid onto our popcorn, which proceeded to shrivel up. Honestly, it was like some sort of sci-fi nightmare! (-;

  10. I am on a journey to eliminate all chemicals from my life due to hormone problems. I truly love cologne. It makes me feel good when someone says that I smell good. :) I don't know why but I just now thought to focus on the fragrance which I wear every day. I am so frustrated that BHT shows up in some of my favorite colognes! Any further insight on the BHT (and other chemicals) in fragrance?

  11. I had the same issue Anthony. I liked Armani Eau Pour Homme and Acqua di Parma, but both contained BHT. So I spent literally months trying new perfumes, only to find they contained various different types of harmful crap. Eventually I discovered Eden Perfumes in the UK. They make organic, vegan equivalents of designer fragrances for men and women. There's no fancy packaging, so they keep their costs down. They're eau de parfum strength too, so they actually last longer.

  12. Thanks for the reply and info! I wish they shipped to the USA.


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