A Very English Problem

01st November, 2009

"If I pay for jasmine absolute, I should get jasmine absolute", said Mark in one of our early meetings. He had gathered a small group of us to discuss the never-ending problem of essential oil adulteration.

”And the same goes for any oil we buy,” he continued, “we want the best quality. Let us do our own perfumery. Don’t dilute the stuff for us.”

It doesn't help that Mark's demands exceed the generally accepted standard that he has a tendency to be paranoid.

"We know that the majority of the oils out there are adulterated, but we really want to make it clear to the suppliers: give us the real thing and we're prepared to pay for it. But if you lie to us, we'll name and shame you."

At this point our essential oil buyer cut in: "We already have them sign a declaration. Naming and shaming might mean that we could be left with no suppliers."

There aren't many good essential oil suppliers in the world and the industry is quite insular. There are fewer and fewer buyers in the industry who go out in the field to check the quality of materials and form real relationships with growers. Many houses never send visitors. So, I thought: hey - maybe we stand out a bit and demand odd things like a special diet customer in a restaurant - but surely, given the silly amounts of essential oils Lush and B buys each year, we’re such good customers that nobody would turn us away.

Instead, our buyers sometimes get taken for pranksters. A conversation with one new rose absolute supplier went like this:

Our buyer: "We're interested in your rose absolute".

Supplier: "Good, good, how much do you buy a year?"

Our buyer: "Oh, about three hundred kilos. Maybe more."

Supplier: "Did you say thirty?"

Our buyer: "No, three hundred."

By the time they'd arranged a meeting, in another country, some months down the line, and were seated around the same table, the supplier’s representatives were still scratching their ears and eyeing the ceiling until they saw the paperwork.

Then it all went very quiet.


When the company founders were starting out with perfumery, they had very limited knowledge of the industry and essential oil buying. They had an external perfumer for their first company, Cosmetics To Go, but the founders took over by the time Lush was born.

“We got ripped off. We genuinely assumed that if someone puts a label on the bottle and sells it to us as that material, then that’s what we’d be getting. It took us a while to realise what was happening,” said Mark.

“Maybe it’s a very English problem,” he said, “I mean expecting lack of corruption; expecting honesty.”

I found it easy to sympathise with Mark’s outrage at the issue. The idea of “it’s okay so long as you don’t get caught” is no longer acceptable in many other areas of business (and indeed, not even in politics), so why should we accept it here?

The trouble with natural raw materials is that it’s very easy to cheat and fiendishly difficult to detect adulteration, which Mark and Simon went on to explain. They listed a number of oils that they’d had trouble with in the past and that Simon had already looked into.

“They send you an exquisite sample at first,” said Mark, “then you commit to buying from them and bit by bit, the quality is cut. At first you might not notice, but towards the end, when you put one of the last batches through quality control, you might come across a really awful one.”

“It sounds like drug dealing!” I blurted out. Mark chuckled and said: “More like antique dealing.”

“So what can be done?” I asked.

Mark turned towards me. “We thought this would be right up your street,” he said, grinning. The corners of his eyes crinkled impishly.

He was right of course, but I realised I’d just been played. Then again, he knew he’d hit all the right buttons. When I find a problem like this I am like a dog with a bone. And I hate businesses that mislead their customers. I guess he’s figured that out.

I did have a horrible sinking feeling for a moment: where does one even begin to untangle such a big knot? Would I really be able to help?

Luckily they paired me up with Teri from quality control. She’s spent years sniffing out oils and knows which suppliers are on Santa’s naughty list and which are nice. She has an office full of spec’ sheets and a well trained nose. I started to feel more like a detective on a crack team.

Turns out we’ve also recently invested in a French essential oil manufacturer and are now able to get a lot of inside scoop from them. Not to mention a guarantee of The Good Stuff.

The best place to start seemed to be the lab. Teri and I sniffed our way through various oils and their main constituents. One of the simplest ways to cheat is to add a dollop of an already dominant constituent to an oil - even an expert will struggle to tell the difference by nose alone. So if one wanted to “extend” a jasmine absolute, adding a bit of benzyl acetate might go unnoticed. Incidentally, that’s how one might start building a nice jasmine base in the lab, but it’s not how (at least not according to Mark) essential oil producers should operate. That decision should be left for the perfumer to make.

Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry machinery can help us detect what the oils are made of. And although I discovered that our own GS/MS machine was literally gathering dust (and with what looked like bits hanging off it), I also found out that we do send our oils for GS/MS testing at a trusted consultancy, run by people who have connections to all aspects of the business and roots in traditional perfumery. When I heard we’d get a chance to spend a few days there it seemed like a really good place to head to next.

Tucked away on the coast between holiday villas and retirement homes, I almost couldn’t find the place at first. Greeted by Seb, the charming French GS/MS operator whom I’d met at the BSP Symposium earlier, we settled down to have a crash course.

Inside, a young man was carefully measuring drops of oils into a rather antiquated metallic contraption, which measures the refractive index and specific gravity of a raw material. These are set variables for each material that can act as your first clue when detecting adulteration. As with the GS/MS, this is not a foolproof process. Especially not for naturals, as we were about to learn.

The concept of a “pure essential oil” is tricky because it can be understood to mean many things, depending upon whether you are talking with an oil producer, perfumer, marketing professional or a chemist. Essential oils cannot be chemically pure, because they are made up of more than one chemical.

An essential oil is the result of a number of processes, the first of which is biochemical. The same species, with the same DNA, will produce a different oil with slightly different chemical constituents depending upon where and how it’s been grown - a fact that’s been both exploited and misunderstood by marketers. There are also different species of the same plant (a rose is not simply a rose), seasonal variations, different methods of processing and what you end up with is a range of “acceptable natural variations” in each oil for each naturally occurring constituent. This makes detecting adulteration very difficult, though not impossible.

Seb showed us the machinery. It is like a cross between HAL from 2001 Space Odysssey and a microwave oven. Inside, the oils are heated and passed through extremely fine, tightly coiled tubing. Detailed graphs with spikes representing each chemical are produced. Some oils contain chemicals that are still a mystery to everyone, even though most of their major constituents are known.

Hooked up to his computer system and a painstakingly hand-built database, the machine can run an analysis from just a tiny drop. With different settings, they could use this in the forensics lab. I feel like a detective again.

He explained that building the database is a life’s work. You have to decide on what your range of acceptable variation is and the more data you’ve gathered, the better your average result. I realised that the quality of this analytical process was largely down to the experience of the GS/MS operator.

It’s easy enough to call out the constituents that shouldn’t be there; when an oil shows up a spike that clearly doesn’t belong. This can happen with blends (and blends are fine so long as both parties know that’s what they are), or when a natural is cut with synthetics or solvents. But these are fairly crude methods and there are subtler ways of cheating.

On the second day, our morning was a little disturbed because Seb’s young assistant hadn’t turned up for work. “It’s difficult to get people who have any interest in perfumery,” said Seb. “Young people around here – they just want any job.”

I thought about the people I knew of who would probably chop off an arm or a leg to work there. Then again, I wasn’t in a lab at that age either, I was applying fake blood to actors on a muddy English field, which was quite a soggy job, though fairly exciting and not the sort you’d pull a sickie from.

“These machines help a lot, but the nose is still our best tool”, explained Seb. “For example, this spike here, see this?” he said and pointed to a tiny trace on a chart, “now we can smell a sample with it in and one without”. He handed us sets of scent strips.

Turns out the proportion of a chemical in an oil doesn’t necessarily correlate with its impact on the overall odour profile. A tiny trace can make or break an oil, and sometimes it’s easier to sniff it out than to run it through the machine.

Most of the time these companies analyse perfumes, which is a lot simpler, since they are usually entirely or predominantly synthetic. Synthetic chemicals are like clean handwriting to a GS/MS operator. In fact, whilst we were there, they ran a couple of perfumes through. One of them was a brand that advertises itself as entirely natural. Seb almost ran upstairs to the perfumery department with the result: “Hey, have you ever seen anything like this? I’ve never seen this many solvents in a formula! Amazing!”

We also had some fascinating conversations about perfumes. Turns out Seb and I share an instant aversion to Kenzo Jungle and though we worked out it’s not the plum accord, we couldn’t work out what was turning us off either. It’s one of the few perfumes out there that he hasn’t put through the machine. Maybe next time he’ll know. I haven’t developed a suitably blase, hardened, professional edge yet, because when he absentmindedly showed us one of their fridges packed full of Chanel, Caron, Guerlain and everything you can imagine, I think I might have let out a little yelp.

Leaving Seb and HAL behind, I felt like I’d just been exposed to a whole new universe. To think that something I now do – no, wait, something that will now be part of my life – to think that just a fragment of that is a lifetime’s worth of work and expertise in its own right just blows my mind. Clearly, this is not the only field where this would be true, but I somehow never expected to find myself immersed in one where it is.

Given such a good start with our project, Teri and I were able to tackle several of the oils Mark had given us straight away. We also had a go at building some simple oils from scratch in the lab. My notepad still smells of geraniol.

Back home, trying to catch up with the academic side of things and going through the assessment questions of my IFEAT course, I spotted that one of them happens to be: “Review some of the ways that unscrupulous people might attempt to adulterate valuable essential oils and the measures that can be taken to protect an organisation from purchasing adulterated essential oils.”

I’d really better not flunk that one.


About the Author

Pia Long is a lifelong cosmetics and perfume enthusiast and has been involved in the industry for twenty years. She qualified from London College of Fashion in 1996 and currently works for Lush and B as a researcher, writer, trainee perfumer and a junior product developer.

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About the author: Pia Long

Pia Long is a perfumer, freelance writer and an experienced cosmetics industry professional.

Originally from Finland, she has been in the UK since 1992 and qualified from London College of Fashion in 1996. For her continuing professional development she has read the entire CLP and COSHH regulations and several EU Opinions; completed a CLP course, is studying on an IFRA course with Orchadia Solutions and attends every lecture on olfaction and fragrance chemistry she can. She won the first David Williams Memorial Award for her work on the IFEAT Diploma in Aroma Trade Studies, is a Council member of the British Society of Perfumers and has been nominated for the Jasmine Award twice.

While working for Lush Cosmetics, Pia created some of their best-selling product perfumes, including HQ “the smell of a Lush shop in a bottle.” She is a regular contributor to Basenotes and her own blog can be found at volatilefiction.co.uk

Website: http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk

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