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The actor’s startup disrupts fine fragrance secrecy.
Celebrities have used their firepower for many causes. Refugees. Vaccines. AIDS. But transparency in big perfume?
On April 8, Michelle Pfeiffer, known for roles in “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Batman Returns,” announces a line of five fragrances under the label Henry Rose. Created in collaboration with 130-year old scent maker International Flavors and Fragrances, the company makes a bold claim: It is the first to disclose all its ingredients and attest to their safety.
“Fine fragrance is still the black box of transparency for ingredients,” said the 60-year old actor, during an interview at New York’s Public Hotel in March. The sleek bottles now before her, with names like “Torn” and “Last Light,” are the result of a nine year effort that both she and outside industry experts say have wedged the box open.
“Fragrance formulations are like mom’s special recipe,” said Mintel analyst Sarah Jindal, speaking before Henry Rose’s launch. “No one wants to tell anybody what their ingredients are.”
Over the last two years, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson have begun disclosing fragrance ingredients in products like shampoo and cosmetics. But fragrance houses have remained mum, even as health advocates caution that some of their ingredients contribute to hormone disruption and cancer. Concerns about transparency aren’t hurting growth. Euromonitor International projects global perfume’s retail value will reach $57 billion by 2022, up from $52 billion today.
A 2018 report from Breast Cancer Prevention Partners listed big-name perfumes among those that contain chemicals with long-term problems. It says many synthetic chemicals disrupt the endocrine system, harm the reproductive system, contribute to asthma, and can affect fetal development when pregnant women are exposed. Around 11 percent of the U.S. has also become “sensitized” or allergic to chemicals, causing things like contact dermatitis, according to its report.
“The fine brands continue to be major laggards when it comes to removing chemicals of concern like phthalates,” said Mike Schade, a campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which presses retailers to disclose ingredients.
Frederic Pignault, a vice president of sales at IFF, said “there is no concern” about the safety of the fragrance ingredients it or other perfume houses use, but that IFF was excited to work with Pfeiffer to answer growing consumer interest in transparency.
“I went down the rabbit hole,” Pfeiffer said, describing how in the mid-90s finding out both her father and best friend had cancer awakened her to environmental health risks. She became an avid label reader, but went fragrance-free—even turning down endorsement opportunities—when she couldn’t find enough data on perfumes. And then, around nine years ago, missing perfume, she decided to make one she could prove was safe.
“The fine brands continue to be major laggards when it comes to removing chemicals of concern.”
“It was a dead end,” she said, recalling how one fragrance house said it could only be 75 percent transparent. “What’s that? It’s like being 75 percent organic.” Another backed out after she’d already done a considerable amount of work, and thought she was close to a final product. She declined to name them, or say how much she spent on false starts.
When asked about perfume transparency, two major fragrance houses, Givaudan and Firmenich, referred inquiries to the International Fragrance Association and Personal Care Products Council. IFRA said it helps the industry to self-regulate by disclosing around 4,000 ingredients used and submitted anonymously by its members. PCPC, a trade council for personal care companies, said it’s working on a plan that “responds to all stakeholders’ interests around greater ingredient transparency.”
Retailers and startups are stepping into the void left by the big manufacturers. Sephora’s “clean” fragrance line offers formulas without certain infamous ingredients, like parabens, phthalates and formaldehyde. The startup brand Phlur says its scents are “crafted with clean ingredients that won’t harm your skin or the planet,” and another, Skylar, says its are “hypoallergenic, vegan and free from harsh chemicals.”
Jindal said such diverse and vague promises show the industry’s challenge—no one has fully addressed all the fractured demands of health-conscious consumers. “Some want ‘organic,’ or ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-derived,’” she said. “It’s hard to slap one label on it.”
The breakthrough for Pfeiffer came approximately three years ago when she met Ken Cook, a co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit with a database that scores the toxicity of chemicals.
“My reaction was, that’s impossible,” Cook said. But Pfeiffer’s determination soon won him over. She took a seat on EWG’s board, and soon Cook was going with her to meetings at fragrance houses.
IFF was moving toward transparency when Pfeiffer approached them two years ago. The company had already started working with another nonprofit group, the Cradle to Cradle Product Institute, which has partnered with L’Oreal on personal-care items. It certifies sustainably-produced goods and eliminates plant-based allergens, two big hurdles for the fragrance industry. That led to new challenges—like finding a scent that Pfeiffer liked while using less than 1 percent of the usually available ingredients.
Pfeiffer was drawn to vetiver, with notes of lemon grass. It turned out that the Haitian farm that supplied it to IFF was harvesting the grass earlier than was desirable from a quality standpoint because it needed to make ends meet. Pfeiffer tackled the problem head-on, traveling to the farm herself.
“We put in wells so they had access to water, and gave them chickens and goats,” she said. “We helped the community become sustainable.”
Written by for Tiffany Kary and Jonathan Roeder Bloomberg