“It's not often that I put on a fragrance in a store, fall in love, put it on again at home, and then recoil in confusion. Yet there the dark rider looms on the horizon. He's supposed to be dressed in red (we are speaking about Habit Rouge, after all...) but no, this is more like a silhouetted figure from Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal traipsing with Death across the horizon. What has happened here? The beloved, historic, storied, elegant, treasured Habit Rouge, one of Guerlain's jewels in the crown from 1965, turns out to be sticky, acrid lemon candies strewn atop plastic carnation blossoms, and then the whole lot soaked in imitation vanilla extract. After a few hours: powder, then more powder. Dusting powder to the extent that I began sneezing. Again I asked, what on earth happened here?”
"It is as though, in trying to fence off some territory for the guys, anything remotely woody was grabbed and de-feminised. There is nothing particularly manly about vetiver, aside from being told it is so, to which end all female readers are encouraged to have a go with Guerlain's Vetiver. Since its release, the Guerlain version has become the most famous of the three main vetivers, designed, according to the house, with reference to the smell of a gardener, complete with soil under his fingernails . . . Vetiver has a really chewy smell. It is often described using terms like wood, liquorice, smoke and amber. In this scent its greenness is brought out with bergamot, its aromatic qualities with nutmeg and coriander, and its sweet smokiness from tobacco."
What a good description of the current formula, which has seen some improvement on the fidelity of its citrus notes, and a re-pouching of the extra pinches of snuff found in the 2000s version. I'd add freshly-squeezed lime as another prominent "green" catalyst in the scent, its crisp (and woody) essence enduring until the far dry-down. An almost animalistic coriander/black pepper accord, with emphasis on the sweaty-lemon facet of pulverized coriander seed, is balanced on the relaxed interplay of tobacco, vetiver root, and cedar, which rounds everything off. It's linear on my skin, with the morning sunlight of its fizzy top drifting slowly under a cool vetiver horizon by day's end.
I'll end with this: to wear a vetiver fragrance of any kind is an exercise in sophistication. Despite its ubiquity in the tropics, most North Americans have no idea what vetiver is. Everyone's eyes glaze over when I tell them what I'm wearing. Guerlain's latest Vetiver is a frag I can get into. It's interesting to trial it in the winter, and I'll likely repurchase a bottle for the summer to see how it does in high heat. Good on Guerlain for keeping it going! On to Habit Rouge . . .
"Vi-Jon Spice always came across as a creamier, brighter version of OS, with an unfortunate washed-out quality in the drydown that whiffs of plastic."
To be clear, I think Vi-Jon "Spice Scent" aftershave is a suitable replacement for regular OS if you're looking for something that is decently made and captures the overall vibe. In fact, I'd say it's fairly close to Rubicon's Indian Old Spice. It has that creamy, bright, smooth quality. But my take on the performance of Vi-Jon is that it hints of plastic after five or ten minutes on skin, and given that many inexpensive aftershaves suffer from this, it's not a big deal. I do not think Vi-Jon smells much like vintage Shulton or even the current P&G formula, but a casual nose would not be picking it apart.
My comment received a response from member "OkieStubble":
"That's not plastic you're smelling, it's petroleum. Many cheap dollar store based aftershaves, and fragrances' synthetic-based scents, are produced from petrochemicals. The smell in the drydown is petroleum, not plastic."
To which I responded (making friends as usual):
"Well, that may be, but the drydown doesn't smell like petrochemicals. It smells like plastic."
Unfortunately it's difficult to debate these things on the internet. There are so many ways my points can be misconstrued just by misinterpreting the tone of my statements, and thus I keep them short and sweet. But I'd like to explore the topic of petrochemicals, and why "OkieStubble" is correct about fragrances containing them, yet wrong about me smelling them.
The simple definition of the term "petrochemical" is any chemical obtained from refining petroleum. Aromatics are one of the two most common chemical types derived this way, though I should point out that "aromatics" in this context doesn't directly relate to chemicals that produce a smell. This is just the name of the chemical classification. They're defined as "BTX," i.e., benzene, toluene, and any of the three isomers of dimethylbenzene, known as xylene isomers, which are aromatic hydrocarbons. Put simply, the most common petrochemicals in perfumery are the solvents and bases used to dissolve aroma chemical compounds. In other words, things like ethanol (alcohol) and musk ketone (used in nitro musks).
Petrochemicals have invaded our aftershaves, but it's inaccurate to say that they're responsible for off-notes and plasticky smells. This is a simplistic view of what they are, and what they do. Just because something is made from a petroleum-refined chemical doesn't mean it smells of plastic. Alcohol smells like alcohol, and nitro musks have been globally banned from most applications in perfume. Faberge's Brut hasn't used it since the 1980s. I recall smelling vintage Brut 33 from that era, and found its musk had a hint of plastic in it. But its bottle was cheap plastic, and that's obviously where the smell came from. The absolutes used in more expensive perfumes are extracted with hexane, a petrochemical, but this is part of an extraction process, not the formulation process.
The journal Scientific American published a rather weak article on this subject in 2012. It begins with this misleading paragraph:
"Ahhh . . . the sweet smell of petrochemicals! The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that, while many popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays contain trace amounts of natural essences, they also typically contain a dozen or more potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals, some of which are derived from petroleum. To protect trade secrets, makers are allowed to withhold fragrance ingredients, so consumers can't rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside that new bottle of perfume."
While it is true that perfumes contain "potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals," it only takes a cursory glance at the context of this assertion to know that it says nothing. My shirt contains potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals. My shampoo does, too. So does my toothpaste, my deodorant, my sneakers, my comb. Welcome to the modern world, reader. It's full of stuff you don't want to eat or set on fire. But that doesn't mean the "potential" for "hazard" is ever realized in any of these items. You know what else is derived from petroleum? Petroleum jelly, otherwise known as Vaseline, the stuff people use as lube for all sorts of unmentionable things.
The article in Scientific American gets only vaguer and less accurate from there:
"'The average fragrance tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label,' reports EWG . . . 'Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products.'"
Here they depart from their claim that petrochemicals are polluting perfume. The subject has inexplicably shifted to "secret chemicals" which are not-so-secretly associated with "hormone disruption" (whatever that may be) and "allergic reaction" (just like virtually everything else on earth). They go on to claim that the FDA in America has allowed these chemicals to go unchecked due to a legal loophole in cosmetics regulations that requires chemical identification in all cosmetic products except fragrances.
In no part of the article are any specific petrochemicals dissected, or even mentioned. Their piece begins with the aggressive claim that petrochemicals are everywhere, and goes on to mention none of them. The implication of the piece is that the IFRA is Europe's brilliant answer to the life-threatening dangers of perfumery, while the FDA is America's idiotic and incompetent regulatory burden putting millions of lives in jeopardy through willful neglect. Europe = Smart. America = Dumb. What a surprise.
So what is the truth here? It would be foolish for me to suggest that perfumes lack danger. Perfumes are mixtures of hundreds of synthetic chemicals that are sprayed through air onto skin. They are poisonous enough that no one should ingest them, or directly inhale them. They are certainly flammable due to their high percentage of alcohol and other low flashpoint chemicals.
They can indeed elicit mild allergic reactions in people, and in very rare cases, very unpleasant reactions. Perfume use over a lifetime very likely contributes in at least a small degree to cumulative stresses on the body, leading to illness later in life, but I emphasize the word contributes. On its own, using perfume likely does little to no harm. Together with a dozen other habitual behaviors we engage in on a daily basis, it probably does its small part in aging us.
Are we smelling petrochemicals as plastics? No. This is a misunderstanding of the role petrochemicals play in perfumes. Are petrochemicals dangerous? Any good chemist will tell you they can be, but one must consider this important question first: are perfumers, the people who formulate commercial fine fragrances, people like Mark Buxton, Alberto Morillas, Dominique Ropion, Annie Buzantian, and hundreds of others, knowingly putting us in danger? It's one thing to say perfumes are dangerous, but saying so is an indirect indictment of the people making them. Perfumers are chemists. Are they killing us for money? Or are they aware of the dangers of unchecked chemical use, and preparing formulas that adhere to legal industry safety guidelines?
I think it's likely the latter scenario. When discussing the dangers of petrochemicals, the conversation should be had with perfumers themselves, and not with people who lack basic knowledge of how and why things smell the way they do.