Industry News, Flavor & Fragrance Industry

The Return of Aroma Chemicals

The Return of Aroma Chemicals

The 1960s through the 1980s were halcyon years for the growth of the fragrance industry and also for the introduction of new aroma chemicals (ACs), many of which today are used at over several thousand tons per annum. At International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), I had the pleasure of introducing many new ACs, specialty bases and natural product replacements to the world’s perfumers. I spelt out the many time consuming steps involved from the first idea to production reality in a paper published in 1982.1 Companies such as IFF, Firmenich, Givaudan, Takasago, H&R and Dragoco (the latter two now part of Symrise) had major synthesis R&D groups that were prolific in their output. But even so the rate at which the new ACs were used by perfumers was disappoi­ntingly slow, and some were ultimately commercial failures.

The period from the mid-1990s until now has seen very few new ACs introduced with the potential of even a 1,000 tons in world annual usage. This is not to say that there have not been worthwhile new ACs conceived/​identified, but that the risks, fiscal expense, consumer safety, environmental compatibility and other factors involved have, in most cases, overruled or outweighed the perfumers’ desire for truly new odors. With the increasing emphasis on sustaina­bility and enzymatic microbial developments in the biotech field, we have seen and will continue to see traditional ACs, or their near relatives—e.​g patchoulol, nootkatone—produced via these trends but only when the consumer marketing themes or the economics allow.

However, no perfumer(s) can guarantee to management that they will use any new material in sufficiently worthwhile amounts. Note that there is even pressure from most managements to reduce the number of fragrance materials—not add to it. A perfumer who believes in and intends to use a new ingredient has to present a compelling rationale in order to add it to the official company inventory.

Think about what this entails: an active perfumer, with or without like-minded colleagues supporting their request, has to take time out of a busy schedule to argue a case with management. Assuming that the product is added to the inventory and a perfumer includes it in a formula, there is no guarantee that his creation will win the internal competition for a particular client. Even if it does, will his formula beat out the submissions from other creative houses? If their formula does win, there may be further months of improvement and then additional time taken for market testing. The overall period from the initial introduction of a new material in a fragrance creation until it appears as a consumer product can often take one and a half to two years. Such cumulative consider­ations have led corporate managements to restructure their R&D groups. This means there is less focus on discovering new ACs, more on process improvement and more focus on the application side of perfumery, as it interacts with finished consumer products, delivering more profit per dollar invested.

AC Obstacle

Nowadays, a more recent obstacle has arisen for manufacturers or importers of ACs to the European Union: the uncertain cost of conforming to the EU’s REACH program, which also inhibits the adoption of new ACs to that market. So far, the major volume products must be in conformity. However, in 2018, regulations will require a large number of ACs to meet full compliance with REACH protocols if they are to continue to be imported and/​or used in the EU. Sadly, REACH adds nothing more of significance to consumer or environmental safety that was not already addressed by the fragrance manufacturers and the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM) (Note that in 2000 the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) tried unsucces­sfully to persuade the EU to give it the right to self-police).2 So what really was the EU’s motivation to implement the highly complicated REACH program? Some might posit that it was an ill-conceived protectionist ploy on behalf of the European-based chemical manufact­urers. Unfortun­ately, REACH adds further months of delay before the initial commercial use of a new product is possible.

However, it must be stated that the drastically reduced rate of introduction of new ACs has not really handicapped the creation of fragrances to any critical extent. Be mindful that, as with art and music, an infinite number of novel paintings and songs, perfumes can be created with the existing portfolio of ingredients numbering in the thousands, when one also includes the essential oils and other naturally derived products.

Going From “Old Reliable” to Blockbuster Molecule

The writer’s first-hand experience of interacting with the world’s perfumers over thirty years and hundreds of demonstration presentations shows that the initial expressions of “like” and “I’ll work with it,” while well intentioned, are frequently very misleading. The remarks are often made to satisfy the humanistic desire to please the presenter, who may have travelled halfway round the world to visit them. Ultimately, the only proof of “like” that counts is when additional samples are requested and subsequently quantity orders are placed.

When a client issues a brief for a new fragrance, generally from the perfumer’s viewpoint, there is less than ideal time allowed between the briefing and when the final fragrance is to be selected. This means that regardless of the marketing hype about “our perfumer’s creativity,” they will tend to rely on the products that they have found serve them well, rather than be adventurous and try to employ the newer products. This is particularly the case when the consumer product is chemically demanding of the fragrance constituents.

For example, the palette of ACs and natural fragrance materials is very broad for the creation of an ethyl alcohol-based fine fragrance. Whereas the palette is severely diminished when creating a stable fragrance for a product employing sodium hypochlorite bleach. The perfumer will use the dependable “old reliables.” A study carried out by a major fragrance house, which also created new ACs, analyzed the “newness” of the constituents of what were at the time, recent new major fragrance adoptions created by its most successful perfumers. Of twenty-nine wins, eighteen could have been made twelve years ago. In other words, the new ACs derived from the hard work and expense of R&D were not used in 62% of the wins.

What then leads to a broad acceptance and usage of a product by the world’s perfumers? A good example is the imaginative use of Iso E Supera, which at the time was a patented captive IFF specialty. Bernard Chant, IFF’s chief perfumer, explored its attributes and then featured it when he created a Halston fragrance. So successful was the launch and the acclaim the fragrance received that competitors analyzed the new introduction to identify the fragrance’s important characte­ristics, i.​e. the isomers in Iso E Super. The company’s AC sales department was then besieged by requests for the product by its chemical nomenclature. Also, the IFF perfumer-force worldwide was stimulated and started to use Iso E Super in their own creative work. Although conceived and subsequently patented in the 1980s, the volume usage did not occur until the ‘90s. Now with the patents long expired, many process improvements and several competing manufacturers have resulted in a selling price under $10 per kilogram. Iso E Super has become a blockbuster product selling in the thousands of tons per annum.

Currently, the world’s largest selling musk Galaxolideb was first patented by IFF in the 1960s. By 1970, only about 10 tons were made annually. Initially its cost to produce was high and consequently, it was not immediately used by the in-house perfumers unless its superior chemical and color stability justified the higher expense. It was only in the ‘80s that the volume use increased following the commissioning of a dedicated plant, resulting in significant cost reduction and the products’ subsequent use in major household product fragrances. A tribute to its attributes is the fact that it is appreciated and used by virtually all of IFF’s competitors, some of whom even manufacture their own musks. Today, Galaxolide is one of the most used fragrance materials at over 10,000 tons per year, being made by several manufact­urers.

Unleashing Enthusiasm

So what is the fastest way to move a new AC from its initial availability to being a profitable worthwhile success? The reader is encouraged to consult the “Development and Introduc­tion…” article referred below which includes many suggestions. In the case of Iso E Super, persuading a specific friendly perfumer to work with the ingredient to then create the first major win was the “catalyst” that unleashed the enthusiasm, which was subsequently exploited by all. But what if asking, begging and cajoling requests to use it for the “corporate good” aren’t working? Then AC manufacturers need to be more creative in their marketing. Maybe offering perfumers a bonus, where legal, who are successful using the new AC in a winning fragrance for a major consumer brand might do the trick.

It certainly would get their attention.


  1. Fenn, R. S. (1982, June & July). The Development and Introduction of a New Perfumery Chemical. Perfumer & Flavorist, 7(3), 39-44.
  2. Objective: Self-Regulation by the Fragrance Creation Industry. Ronald S. Fenn. Presented to the Kangaroo Group of the European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium, September

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