"It's Not Plastic, It's Petroleum."

I recently responded to an incredibly interesting thread on Badger & Blade (my handle there is "Featherweight") in which the OP wanted to find fragrances similar to Old Spice. Among the list of options I offered was Vi-Jon's generic drugstore version:
"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. 


Williams Mug Soap (Combe Inc.)

If we must continue to live under pandemic conditions, I am officially switching from shaving with pedestrian "canned goo," like Barbasol and Gillette, to a synthetic brush and shave soap. One can offset life's big impositions by embracing its small luxuries. There is no better way to do that than by dropping a puck of Williams shave soap into a shave mug and whipping up a stiff lather. 

Except, as gentlemen on B&B point out, lathering is tricky with Williams. Considered to be one of the cheapest standard no-frills soaps a bloke can buy, Williams is notorious for being difficult to whip, even with rigorous brushwork. To succeed you must (a) Use soft water, and (b) "Bloom" the puck before attempting use. I do the following: buy Poland Spring water, and boil some in a kettle. Then I pour it over the puck and wait about twenty minutes. By that point it has absorbed all the water and created a layer of solid fattiness over it, which then needs only a bit of brushwork to resurrect. 

It takes serious motion in my Fendrihan mug to get something like the consistency of whipped cream, but it gets there. I can brush it on my face, and it holds long enough for my razor to do its magic. I have oily skin, so the drying nature of Williams is a plus for me (and a significant minus for anyone with naturally dry skin). The scent? It is identical to the original Ivory bar soap, the one which famously floats. This makes sense, as Williams is the creator of Ivory soap.

At a buck per puck, this is a true bargain. There are pricier soaps that I'm sure I'll try, but for a guy like me who just wants a quick scratch, Williams is fine, and for the price it's impossible to beat. 


Evergreen Forest (Stirling Soap Company)

Photograph Courtesy Creative Commons by M, 7/19/12

I promised to explore this brand further, so here we are. It is with some trepidation that I review their relatively new Evergreen Forest EDT. It makes me a bit nervous, because this is a difficult fragrance to review fairly. I feel I was a bit too hard on Stirling Spice, a pretty good oriental that awkwardly compares to vintage Old Spice (and stands better on its own), and I don't want to make the same mistake twice, but I'm afraid this post will leave Stirling fans disappointed (no backsies this time).

The standard test of a label's chops is to see how it handles a "green" fragrance. If a company can render botanical notes well, it can do anything. Pine notes are among the most difficult to create for a few reasons: the inevitable comparisons to floor cleaner, the tendency to resemble car air fresheners, and the scent of fresh conifers gets tiresome fast, even if conveyed accurately. Pino Silvestre succeeds as a fougère by using basil as a dupe for pine, and it ends up smelling warm and expansive. Acqua di Selva blends mint with its pine notes to freshen things without straying into air-care territory. It takes a degree of cleverness to pull off a good evergreen frag. The perfumer must understand that less is more, and focus on compositional balance above all else.

Stirling's scent screams "PINE-SOL!!!" for an hour, then morphs into a neon Christmas tree: loud, unpleasant. It lacks dimensionality, and resembles True North by Little Trees. Perhaps some lavender or spice would've helped. Instead the perfumer misused a cheap frankincense note, and I find myself marginally appreciating the heart more than the top. The base just fades everything out. Does it conjure up a mystical emerald forest of wolves and witches and gorgeous lake sirens? I wish, but no. Avoid this one.