"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. 


  1. Funnily, both traditional plastic and petroleum comes from the same source; crude oil.

    Although I side with the Featherweight here (my opinion is that perfume doesn't belong in plastic bottles at all), I'm inclined to call it a tie.

    1. It was a very even handed conversation, more so than an argument I'd say. Very amiable chap, OkieStubble.

    2. A joker posted a manipulated picture of a "WD-40 after shave".

      Me, the fool, tried to find it somewhere. One day I will print a label and put it on a bottle of Aramis.

    3. If WD-40 made an aftershave, I'd probably buy it!

  2. Does that mean the price of after shaves and colognes will go up too? Damn.

    That Vi-jon stuff caught me by surprise. That, American OS and Indian OS are 2 completely different smells to me.

    Even if petrochemicals are in them, it cant be enough to be that dangerous. Like when people complain about 2nd hand smoke. They'd have to inhale it for days before they inhale the equivalent to one cigarette. Not that I smoke...but it doesn't bother me.

    But this article does make me question the amount of ingredients in fragrances. I recently got a hold of one from my wish list: Shultons Night Spice.

    It smells like vintage OS with lavender. So basically powdery lavender. Very simple and very nice. I wish I could wear it all the time. But the ingredients? Alcohol, water, and the fragrance. It's staying power is very impressive.

    3 simple ingredients and its got balls.

    1. The "fragrance" part is where the mystery is. Who knows how many materials comprise that element - could be five or ten, could five hundred or a thousand. The average consumer just doesn't know. But really, who cares? If it smells good it's worth having.

  3. I do often wonder about the long term dangers of living with perfume, but then I don't smoke or drink or anything else terribly fun, s basically I think it's down to perfume, caffeine or chocolate to do the job. Or cinnamon...most of which I'm told is actually cassia bark and therefore loaded with coumarin. AS for whether IFRA is keeping us safe, I often think there are a blend of elements in play. While safety from potential allergens is a legitimate concern, I also can't help but think that there is huge financial benefit to IFRA-influencing giants like Firmenich to gradually phasing out relatively natural materials (subject to the caprices of climate, geopolitical influences on trade, etc.) for synthetic approximations or reconstructions (secure, predictable, and, for those interests that can afford captive molecules and/or more hi-tech processes of extraction/reconstruction, lucratively exclusive.) Though I think the second set of motivations is kind of awful on balance (ISO-E-Super, hedione and ambroxan are all valued ingredients, but in an ideal self-serving universe I'd probably trade them for ambergris, oak moss and castoreum -- sorry beavers)... I do acknowledge your point in that either motivation undertakes some presumed control of health risks. I'm not sure if the FDA really is that big a part of the conversation if we are talking mainstream designer-level perfumery that must ultimately be bound for North American, European and other global markets, as all would be subject to IFRA anyway. It's strange bedfellows, but I would guess that only drugstore products like Pinot Clubman and niche anomalies like Rogue perfumery would be able to ignore IFRA restrictions. Honestly, if you are spraying (and splashing) your skin with alcohol everyday you are already looking for trouble.

    1. In regards to the natural vs. synthetic aspect of this topic, I think chemistry is advanced enough to recommend synthetic. My thoughts on the natural materials end is that (a) they're far more complex than single molecule synthetics, full of variables and flaws, and (b) they're not more effective at any one thing. A natural oakmoss will not be more oakmoss than lab-modified moss, it will simply be a bit raspier and louder. The modified moss in reformulated Mitsouko is very good at what it does. Its reduced allergenic properties are an added benefit, despite the fact that it may not project as far (or live as long) as the virgin stuff.

      Many of the synthetics that are currently used are looked upon with suspicion. But people cast a suspicious eye on science in general. GMOs are another good example of this. I once worked with someone who adamantly protested GMOs on the premise that they were probably toxic for humans to consumer, due to their lab-engineered provenance. My take on that was the same: GMOs are modern science winning battles in a war we've lost for millennia. A crop that doesn't succumb to pests? A crop that can grow and flourish in conditions previously considered too arid or sterile for farming? A crop that can offer maximum nutritional value out of very little? What's not to like? Nations in Africa have seen the benefits of having these GMOs are their disposal, and European/Asian/American countries have taken them for granted to the point where their citizenry associates them with imagined evils. Are GMOs bad for us? They're probably not all "good," but nothing in the world is. The universe is trying to kill us. That's what makes life so precious.


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