Monday, December 23, 2013

In Praise of Natural Stuff: Wherein the Flagrant Lies of the IFRA are Exposed

The twenty-first century has seen a massive increase in the power and wealth of chemical companies, especially the big pharmaceutical firms. The proportion of Americans who now dose themselves with "medications" for "ailments" such as anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression doubled over the course of only a few years. Somewhat remarkably, many parents are now medicating their children, though their brains are obviously in the process of developing—or not.

This will come as a surprise to many, but during the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, about 20% of active-duty U.S. soldiers were prescribed (by military physicians) drugs such as Seroquel and many other medications whose primary clinical application is to treat psychosis. Record numbers and percentages of the veterans of the recent U.S. wars have taken their own lives. Is there a connection? Do soldiers sometimes awaken from their artificially induced state of apparent equanimity to discover that they have committed unforgiveable acts? Or perhaps they can no long bear the memories of what they have seen?

One thing is clear: pharmaceuticals are being prescribed more and more in lieu of "talk therapy," and conditions such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) are being diagnosed much more frequently than ever before. A skeptic might reasonably ask whether the advent of the internet is not itself a primary cause of what may appear to be ADD but in fact is a part of the structure of social life in the twenty-first century.

Persons plied with Prozac and the many other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) being pushed by their doctors (who often have financial incentives from the pharma firms for doing so) may not care that they are being drugged into conformity. Indeed, they will gladly swallow another pill if any inchoate questions threaten to erupt in their mind. But is this a form of happiness? Or is it just a short-lived escape? Will these people one day awaken to discover that in their quest to "Don't worry, be happy," they have squandered their lives away?

I believe that SSRI bliss is not genuine happiness, because it is not a form of flourishing but an evasion of the human condition. Popping pills induces a sort of stupor, serving the primary function of squelching criticism of the source of discontent. It also suppresses social criticism and artistic creativity. Why do anything, when you can simply cop a buzz instead—and do so legally, with the blessing of your physician?! The last time I had a physical examination, I was given a questionnaire with a battery of queries about my state of satisfaction with my life. I presume that had I expressed dissatisfaction, I would have been offered a pharmaceutical “solution” to my “psychological troubles”. Fortunately, I did not mention to my doctor that I enjoy the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

This will seem a stretch to some, but I honestly wonder whether an analogous process might not also be underway in the realm of perfume. We are told by the IFRA that a wide range of natural materials used for thousands of years in the production of perfumes are suddenly "dangerous". They cause varieties of dermatitis—above all, skin contact allergies—and for this reason, the suddenly “evil” substances are being purged from perfume. In their place, "safe" aromachemicals are being used.

The specious reasoning behind this entire pretext for what is diaphanously a ploy to maximize the profit of the ever-expanding multi-conglomerate corporations now controlling most of the formerly independent design houses is so patently fallacious, that it is in some ways difficult to believe that apparently intelligent spokespersons for the IFRA and the big houses can promulgate this charade with a straight face.

If Guerlain Mitsouko was mangled by the “need” to adhere to the new IFRA restrictions, we can now rejoice, some say, that the once-great perfume has been largely restored to its former glory through the ingenious use by Thierry Wasser of a "new molecule" which mimics the precious properties of the original masterpiece while avoiding all of the alleged dangers which led to reformulation in the first place. Huh.

Pierre François-Pascal Guerlain

I, for one, don't buy it, and I know that others do not either. We ask, first, whether these newfangled molecules are really just as good as the natural stuff for which they are said (by their promoters) to serve as surrogates. Single molecules are simple; natural substances are complex and may comprise hundreds of molecules. Second, we ask why in the world we should believe that these surrogates are safe for us at all. New molecules are new. Yes, that's a tautology, but the implications, as far as human health are concerned, are wide-ranging and easy to deduce.

Anyone who has lived long enough to see a couple cycles of the artificial sweeteners—first there were Cyclamates, then Saccharin, then Nutrasweet (aspartame), and now we have the repulsive (to me) Sucralose—is well aware that at their inception the molecules are invariably hailed as "the answer". Cyclamates were demonstrated to be carcinogenic, so Saccharin was substituted in place.

Then Saccharin was found to be dangerous, but synthetic organic chemists had another new "miracle molecule", aspartame, waiting in the wings to fill the void. (Dare I point out that official denunications of the "suddenly hazardous for your health" penultimate synthetic solution never seem to be articulated until a surrogate is ready to launch?) Sure, if you happened to be phenylketonuric, you'd die if you consumed the stuff, but the chance of that happening could be minimized through rigorous FDA-enforced labeling. 

Only later, after the market was awash in Nutrasweet did people start to question the safety of a substance which can induce severe headaches—and much worse in those who consume diet sodas in copious volumes. (One of the breakdown products of this dipeptide is formaldehyde. That's right, as in: used to preserve organs in jars and to fix cadavers.)

No matter: now that Nutrasweet has fallen out of favor we have Sucralose! As sweet, it seems, as licorice root—only a lot less expensive, because it's synthetic, and a lot more neutral, because it's ... abstract! Sucralose is being overdosed in nearly every product in which it appears, leading consumers to believe that their drinks should really be considerably sweeter than ordinary sugar-sweetened drinks. Some who are turned off by the cloying quality have turned to Stevia and other "natural" artificial sweeteners—not a contradiction in terms! There have been critical studies about testicles and Stevia, but, whatever: pass the Prozac and Carpe Diem!

So what's my point? Let's connect the dots. Artificial sweeteners have always been used to replace sugar in products, but mostly drinks. That's right: liquids which people imbibe. It's supposed to be a good deal: one drinks “the same” Coca-Cola, but without cutting into one's recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calories at all. Sure, some people drink diet Coke as they eat candy bars, but that just means that they get to eat more candy! It seems like a great deal, in the short term. Will it be later on down the line?

I believe that the same questions must be entertained by any rational perfume user today. The more abstract perfume becomes, the less confidence one should have in the claims being made by chemical industry advocates—including the IFRA—that these newfangled molecules are better than the real thing. Just as persons who attempt after years to wean themselves off pharmaceutical crutches which they never really needed in the first place may face even worse problems engendered by their very addiction, we should expect that at some point in the future, at least some of these "miracle molecules" being used in perfumery to replace substances which were worn happily and safely by countless people since time immemorial will prove to have much worse effects on the human body than those which they were ostensibly designed to circumvent.

Key word: ostensibly. In truth, I believe, the health pretext is a big fat lie. We live in a liberal society where people are allowed to choose their poisons in nearly every other realm. Does it make any sense, really, that patent paternalism should have infected perfumery but without any federal regulation at all? We are told by the very people attempting to fob off aromachemicals in place of natural substances that the natural substances are dangerous, and the new molecules are safe.

The only reasonable response to such sophistry is for true perfumers to revolt. Those consumers who have recognized the contours of this veil of lies will unite in solidarity with you. We shall stand by your side and continue to buy your wares.


  1. Wonderful article Shera!! We live in a world governed by corporations … this itself is a theory as old as time too. For consumerism of any kind to flourish, whether it be anything from religion to perfume, the masses need to be enslaved and kept in line. The simplest way to do that is by inciting fear and by keeping the populace uneducated. Luckily there are still free thinkers out there willing to put their ideas out for perusal!! Thanks!!

    1. Thank you, Couture Guru! I admit to having connected some fairly wide-ranging topics together, but by the time I'd finished writing, I had persuaded myself that it was true! ;-)

      You raised a potentially fruitful Marxist critique which would certainly help to connect the dots. Thank you very much! I may explore that idea further in comparing the strange disconnects between perfume and tea, despite their many similarities.Marketing context appears to be key. (Have you ever seen such a thing as a "celebrity tea"?)

      Happy Holidays and best wishes for a splendid 2014! xxxooo


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