Bleach, morgue disinfectant, medicinal antiseptic, camphorous muscle rub, copy toner, rubbing alcohol, headache-inducing toxicity, furniture varnish — or — velvety, sweet woods, smooth amber, a super floralizer, or a completely invisible skin scent that acts like a pheromone and aphrodisiac.
Those are the two faces of ISO E Super, an aromachemical which may be one of the great unofficial or secret ingredients in perfumery. Only a perfume addict is likely to know the name but — whether you are a hardcore perfumista or someone new to the world of fragrances — chances are that you’ve smelled ISO E Super. You simply may not have known it.
So, what is it? It is an aromachemical or a synthetic that is being used, more and more frequently, in perfumery. The Perfume Shrine has in-depth discussion of ISO E Super which is a good place for someone to start if they want to know the full details, but Elena Vosnaki also provides a shorter summary on Fragrantica:
Iso E Super® is the trademark name of aromachemical 7-acetyl, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8-octahydro-1,1,6,7-tetramethyl naphthalene and you can easily guess why the short code-name was invented for use instead of its long organic chemistry name. According to International Fragrances and Flavors who produce and patented Iso E Super smells:‘Smooth, woody, amber with unique aspects giving a ‘velvet’ like sensation. Used to impart fullness and subtle strength to fragrances. Superb floralizer found in the majority of newer fine fragrances and also useful in soaps. Richer in the desirable gamma isomer than isocyclemone e’. IFF
Odor profile: Synthetic note with cedar woody, abstract facets that create a fuzz on skin, extending and helping a fragrance composition radiate from the skin, very popular with modern fragrances.
The biggest surprise however comes when someone smells Iso E Super in isolation: how almost non-existent a smell Iso-E Super has (not something one would describe as a concrete smell) and at the same time how unapologetically synthetic, perhaps vaguely cedar-like, slightly sweet, nuanced, even peppery in combination with other notes it smells when you really notice it.
There is a lot of talk about how ISO E Super is, in the words of Allure magazine “the sweet smell of… nothing,” or about how its neutralness can have the crazy effect of being like a pheromone.
I don’t think any of those descriptions go far enough. Have you ever smelled a perfume where there seemed a distinct element of rubbing alcohol underneath a note of peppery wood? If so, that may very well have been ISO E Super. On my skin, large amounts of ISO E Super turn into: purely medicinal antiseptic that are reminiscent of a visit to the hospital; rubbery pink bandaids; camphorous medicine; sharply peppered woods; and what they use to scrub your skin before a vaccination shot — all combined into one. It can be loud, screechy, toxic and so powerful that astronauts in space could detect it. In small amounts, however, the shrillness of the alcohol recedes just a little to add a quiet, woody, velvety note that is highly peppered like cedar. But it is still there, still smells synthetic, and still evokes rubbing alcohol in fleeting wisps.
Some people are anosmic to ISO E Super, at least in small amounts, which means that they can’t really smell the note. The problem, however, is that there are a number of people who get severe headaches from the synthetic, even when they can’t detect it. Even more of a problem is that ISO E Super is usually not listed as an official note in a perfume list — at least, not unless it’s used in a significant quantity or the perfumer feels like being candid.
The issue of ISO E Super came up last week in the comments discussing Ormonde Jayne’s Montabaco. As I said then, and repeat now, I do not consider myself an expert on the note, but the gallons and gallons of the aromachemical in that perfume provided a rapid crash-training course. Prior to Montabaco, I had smelled the rubbing alcohol aspect of peppered woods many a time before, but never officially and to that immense degree. Montabaco has now made me acutely aware of the synthetic in any quantity, great or small. It also made me realise that some of the perfumes that I’d struggled with in the past due to their hospital-disinfectant, sharply medicinal, toxic characteristics — Montale‘s Aoud Lime and Aoud Blossoms, I’m looking straight at you — were perfumes that must have contained massive amounts of ISO E. When I compared Aoud Lime to Chernobyl and said that a mere drop could be detected out in space by the astronauts on the Space Station, that was the synthetic at play. It’s so obvious now, in hindsight….
But how is one to know if the note isn’t listed in the perfume and if one isn’t an expert on synthetics? What if one is just an average consumer who gets headaches from certain scents, but doesn’t know what to avoid just by looking at perfume notes? How can they know in the future with certainty if ISO E is rarely mentioned? That was the question raised by one of the readers to the blog, Jackie, who tried Ormonde Jayne‘s Ta’if and said that she got the exact same headache that she continuously got every time she wore Chanel‘s Chance Eau Tendre. At first, she thought it might be the rose note, but she hasn’t always had that problem with other rose fragrances. So, I mentioned the possibility of the culprit being ISO E Super. She had never heard of the aromachemical before but, when she investigated further, concluded that it might be the cause. Then she asked me, how she could ever know with certainty whether a perfume has it, so that she can avoid it? Her question is the reason for this post but, unfortunately, I have no answer.
The best measure of clarity that I can provide (and it is almost nothing, alas) is that certain types or families of perfumes are particularly susceptible to the “super floralizer” or “smooth woody” aspects of the synthetic. In my opinion, and speaking as a non-expert on ISO E Super, I think pure florals are the most likely to have ISO E Super in them; and the likelihood is increased even more if they are a mass-market perfume. Woody perfumes with things like vetiver, oud/agarwood, cypress or cedar are the next category where ISO E Super may provide some benefits in a perfumer’s mind, but it’s not quite as certain of a possibility across the board. I think gourmands may be the least likely category, simply by virtue of their ingredients.
None of that, however, is a rule set in stone that you can count on. There are plenty of niche perfumes which may have ISO E Super. I recently tested Dior‘s floral New Look 1947 from the prestige Privée line which definitely includes some ISO E Super, and that’s hardly a mass-market fragrance that you’ll find at Sephora or Macy’s. So, perhaps a better bet is to know your perfumers, as well as the categories of fragrances likely to have ISO E Super.
There are certain famous noses who are well-known to adore using the synthetic. Jacques Polge of Chanel is one. As a result, if you’re tempted by a Chanel floral scent — especially one in the mass-market line — be aware that there is a good chance it will have the synthetic. To wit, something like Chanel‘s Chance Eau Tendre which started this whole thing.
Geza Schoen is another admirer. No perfume incorporates more of the synthetic than the famous or infamous Molecules 01 for Escentric Molecules, a fragrance that is essentially 100% ISO E Super diluted in solvent. The recent news that he helped make most of Ormonde Jayne‘s established line of 12 perfumes may explain why that brand is also frequently mentioned in the discussion of ISO E. In fact, a while ago, I stumbled across a post on the I Smell Therefore I Am blog where a few people said that they got headaches from almost all the Ormonde Jaynes (except Tiare and Frangipani) due to the molecule.
Jean-Claude Ellena of Hermès is also a big fan of the note. According to the Perfume Shrine, he “has experimented with its magic properties many a time in the past to glorious effect: Terre d’Hermès, Poivre Samarkande and Déclaration are utilizing lots of it, exploring minimalism: the play of scents note-for-note with no sentimentality attached.” But these are only a few out of the many Hermès perfumes he has created, so clearly, one can’t simply eliminate all Ellena fragrances on the mere off-chance that it may have ISO E Super.
Andy Tauer of Tauer Perfumes may also use the aromachemical, since he raved about its benefits on his blog:
One of the well known molecules that you can use to add [an optimizing] layer is iso E Super. Many hate it, because they associate it with a particular type of perfumery (I think), some know its scent from the single molecule series, iso E super is No. 01, but mostly it is actually there, in the fragrance, where you do not really smell it but where it acts like a layer in photoshop.
It adds lift, and it soften all notes, and it brings out contrasts and optimizes a fragrance in quite a spectacular way. In a sense it is present by its effect, and less by its scent. It is not by chance that you find iso E Super in so many scents these days. Actually, the analogy to a photoshop layer is not so bad.
The Perfume Shrine lists a few of the perfumes officially known to have ISO E Super in them but states “Iso E Super is used in so many fragrances today that it would be hard to compile an actual list that would not bore everyone silly!” The perfumes on their list:
- 1 Molecule 01 (escentric molecules, 2005) 100%
- 2 Perles de Lalique (Lalique, 2007) 80%
- 3 PoivreSamarcande (Herme`s, 2004) 71%
- 4 Escentric 01 (escentric molecules, 2005) 65%
- 5 Terre d’Hermes (Hermes, 2006) 55%
- 6 Incense Kyoto (comme des garcons, 2002) 55%
- 7 Incense Jaisalmer (comme des garcons, 2002) 51%
- 8 Fierce for Men (Abercrombie & Fitch, 2002) 48%
- 9 Kenzo Air (Kenzo, 2003) 48%
- 10 Encrenoire (Lalique, 2006) 45%
Other perfumes mentioned in both the post and in the comments section are:
- Lancome‘s Trésor, which may have been the first perfume to have significantly large amounts of ISO E in it;
- Agent Provocateur‘s Maitresse;
- Dior‘s Fahrenheit which has 25% ISO E Super in the compound;
- Shiseido‘s Féminité du Bois which was created by Serge Lutens before he opened his own perfume house.
Fragrantica also has a list of some perfumes with the note, but its shortness means that it is far from inclusive. They mention:
- Molecules 01 and 02 from Escentual Molecules;
- Escentric 01 and 02 from Escentual Molecules;
- Le Labo’s Another 13;
- Prada’s Luna Rossa;
- Slumberhouse’s Invisible Musk;
- Neil Morris’ Rose Tattoo; and
- Olivier & Co. Mousse.
If we were to compile an unofficial, somewhat subjective list, based solely on my experiences, things said by others on a Basenotes thread, a Fragrantica thread, blogs, and Google searches, then other, additional perfumes with ISO E Super might also include:
- Montale‘s Aoud Lime, Aoud Blossoms and Oriental Flowers.
- Dior‘s New Look 1947 (though the ISO E is not unpleasant here to my nose and is quite subtle).
- Bvlgari Homme;
- Marc Jacob‘s Bang;
- Ormonde Jayne‘s Ormonde Woman, Ormonde Man, Montabaco and, indeed, much of the line except Tiare and Frangipani.
- Antonia’s Flowers‘ Tiempe Passate which is the basis of a discussion by Undina of Undina’s Looking Glass who notes its similarity to Molecule 01.
- Jean-Claude Ellena’s Bvlgari Bvlgari Eau Parfumee au The Vert Extreme.
- Kenzo‘s Kenzo Air (see the Fragrantica thread linked up above for mention of this and all the subsequent perfumes listed below).
- Dolce & Gabbana‘s Light Blue;
- Diptyque Eau Duelle;
- L`Occitane en Provence Eau d’Iparie;
- Sisley Sisley Eau de 3;
- Giorgio Armani Onde Mystere;
- Lancome Magnifique;
- Le Labo Rose 31;
- Dior Vetiver (La Collection Privée/La Collection Couturier);
- Parfumerie Générale Djhenné;
- Neela Vermeire Créations Ashoka;
- Amouage Opus VII (The Library Collection); and
- a number of Sonoma Scent Studio (SSS) woody fragrances, according to Laurie Erickson, the founder and nose.
Again, ISO E Super is rarely listed among a perfume’s official notes, so all of this is based simply on subjective, personal experience. But one has to start somewhere, and for those who can become ill from painful headaches triggered by a perfume containing the synthetic, something is better than nothing. At the very least, it will provide them with a starting point for further investigation if they see a fragrance mentioned on the list or in the comments.
So, can you help out? What perfumes have you smelled in which you detected ISO E Super? Are you like me where you can tolerate it in very minor amounts and can sometimes see its beneficial touch, but are repulsed by large quantities of the synthetic? Or are you anosmic to the scent? Are you unlucky enough to get headaches from it? If you adore it, what exactly about the note’s manifestation on your skin makes you such a huge fan?
Once you detect you can smell it everywhere which then unfortunately detracts somewhat from enjoyment. It is a heavy molecule, so slow to heat and fly off the skin. Often you stop smelling it because your brain has recognised it over period of time but the people around you can still smell it as they have not overdosed on the scent. Looking forward to figuring out OJ’s Montacbaco. I still suspect Oud rather than this molecule that you have so wonderfully written up today. Maybe it is a combo. Certainly Elena’s inclusion of this molecule in various ‘fumes is more elegant than many others. No doubt he has a special method.
Kafka- You are brilliant!!!! (and before I begin I must tell you that it is 5am so forgive typos and bad wording 🙂 ) For years my hubby would get wicked, nauseating migraines during allergy season from many of my mainstream and niche perfumes that I have sampled (hence my segue into essential oil blending). I bet many of them contain this molecule…..and perhaps this is why it takes much to move me in terms of loving some of the current stuff out on the market (am I experiencing the “nothingness”). I wore Light Blue once and for sure it was an “offender”. Another one that comes to mind is SSS Champagne de Bois- he had a fit and I had to gift that gorgeous bottle away 😦 ! ( although Laurie does use a high amount of naturals so I am not sure that there is ISO E super in that one).
For me this was an extremely eye opening post…thank you !
Your poor hubby. Those sorts of migraines are pretty ghastly. As for synthetics, whether it’s this one or another, the problem with mainstream, mass-market fragrances is that they are SO filled with something that can trigger headaches. Yes, niche fragrances can have them too, but the amount, degree and number of synthetics is usually significantly reduced. Either way, ISO E Super seems to be a particular culprit in the headache field. Calone can be another one but that isn’t as frequent in niche as in the mass-market ones which perpetuate that “fresh, clean” thing. *shudder* I’m glad my post could provide some insight for you. 🙂
Some of the scents on the lists here I really like and then there are others that smell like nothing to me. How odd… Light Blue smells like nothing to me and yet I love Kenzo Air. I wonder if it’s not necessarily the concentration but how it effects the other notes for me. I’ve wanted to get a sample of ISO E Super just to see if I can smell it all by itself. Now you have made me even more curious about it.
It may very well be the way that it works with or affects other notes that is the key for you. Someone else wrote something similar, though they said Light Blue smelled like Windex on them. LOL. If you get the ISO E Super by itself, let me know what you think of it. Have you tried Molecule 01, by the way?
I might be working with this one as a part of my thesis for a master degree
Looking forward to reading that Łukasz.
That would be very cool, Lucas! Are the notes that one focuses on for one’s thesis dissertation given to you, or do you choose them? If the latter, what made you opt for ISO E Super? And when will you begin work on that stage of your final studies? I hope you will share all your insights on your blog; I can’t wait to see what you learn or discover. 🙂
The topic of thesis dissertation is given to me by a professor who I work with but there’s always an option of negotioations to slightly change the topic 🙂
My laboratory studies will begin when I start my final university year in October this year.
I would be very interested as well!
Nice article! I don’t know that I can actually pick out ISO E Super, but very, very few perfumes are headache inducing for me, so I don’t think it’s a trigger. I do like Terre d’Hermes and Bang, and most of the Ormonde Jaynes and Tauers that I’ve smelled. Didn’t like Escentric Molecule 01, Aoud Lime, or Aoud Blossoms. So I think perhaps for me, ISO E isn’t a dealbreaker.
It doesn’t give me a headache either BUT high doses of it are simply unbearable for me. Toxic, medicinal hell. I can’t imagine spending a lot of money on perfume and then reeking of a chemist’s lab in a morgue — which is exactly how ISO E Super (in massive doses) translates on my skin. Truly, truly hateful. Even in smaller quantities, I’m not a huge fan of the rubbing alcohol undertone which can pop up here or there. There has to be VERY little ISO E for my personal tastes. I just feel badly for those who get terrible migraines from even small amounts of it. They’re in such a difficult situation given that the damn thing is rarely listed as part of the official notes. I wish we could get more perfume names to add to the list to help them.
While Light Blue smells like fancy Windex on my skin, Incense Jaisalmer is one of my favorite fragrances. Perhaps it’s not just the note by itself, but rather what notes it is supposed to be complementing that constitutes a “chemical” aroma for some noses. One Tauer perfume that I imagine has ISO E Super is Carrillon pour un Ange, which gave me a headache and smelled very much like a household cleaning product to me as well. Perhaps ISO E Super in combination with cedar and/or floral notes produces that effect for me, while in combination with spices (as in Jaisalmer) is unnoticeable.
First off, welcome Brie B!! It’s lovely of you to stop by. Thank you for helping to add to the list of possible ISO E Super perfumes. Given what Andy Tauer wrote in his blog, given how Carillon Pour Un Ange is a floral, and given your description of the smell, it probably does have ISO E in it. Interesting too about how Light Blue smells on your skin, while it had almost no smell for someone else. You clearly have a point about the combination being the key from person to person.
I’m trying to think back to when I found it intolerable and there was always wood involved whether oud, cypress or cedar. In one it was cypress or cedar with tobacco. But, in one Montale, it was oud with floral notes, so…. hmm. All of them, however, had the equivalent of bucketfuls (if not gallons) of ISO E, so I think for me, personally, the quantity is key and, then, secondarily the issue of whether it comes with wood. But we’re all different so your point is an excellent one for people to consider. I’m so glad you stopped by and shared your thoughts. 🙂
I would constantly get headaches from Terre d’Hermes back in the day, as well from a sample of Poivre Samarcande(Hermes). So i stoped using them for good. Now it all makes sense. ISO E its clearly the synthetic chemical that`s not for me. i also detect it in marc Jacob`s Bang and Lalique`s Encre Noire(which I can`t stand). Thank you for this brilliant post, Kafka 🙂
Aww, I’m so glad I could help and, most of all, that it all makes sense now! I’m fascinated by how all the official ISO E perfumes have unanimously proved to be an issue for you — regardless of type of perfume or what notes combine with the synthetic! As for Lalique’s Encre Noire… LOL. Those are some seriously harsh words from you. *grin* Have you tried Chanel’s Sycomore? It’s said to be very close but smoother, more elegant and without the synthetic overlay that so many people find in Encre Noire. I suspect that means it’s Encre Noire without the ISO E and with greater refinement on the whole vetiver thing.
P.S. — Welcome back. You were missed, dear Ross. I hope your trip went well. xoxox
Glad to be back, Kafka! Now I`m going to catch up with your previous reviews 🙂
I haven`t tried Sycome yet, but to be honest I was kinda hesitant to try it as to its comparisons to Encre Noire… I`ll give it a shot though. In general I have love/hate relationship with vetivers(if ISO E is added to a vetiver based scent its a total nightmare for me).
If you have a very iffy issue with vetiver, I wouldn’t strongly recommend Sycomore as an absolute MUST try. I like vetiver to some degree but Sycomore was a little too much vetiver for me. On the other hand, I’m not a man so I don’t have necessarily the same threshold for it and I know a lot of men (and many women) swoon for Sycomore’s smoothness and elegance. Since Surrender to Chance is having a $20% off sale today and since I think each vial of the Exclusifs is $3.00, it may be worth a small test for you. 🙂
You’re amazing!!! You have no idea how much I appreciate you writing this post!:):)
After asking you the question, I couldn’t get ISO E off my mind…I also have a tendency to get OCD on things that bother me!lol Anyhow, I thought if ISO E are used in both florals & woody notes then shouldn’t my reaction be similar? But it’s not. Which leads me to believe that allergies have to be influencing my reaction too! So, I have a nerdy plan to figure out which floral notes don’t work for me.
Using Chanel’s Chance Eau Tendre as a scent & headache base, I’m going to head over to the nursery by me and start smelling flowers! Start with the basics, right?!? I never said my plan was genius but I think this will help me differentiate floral notes…I’m not ready to write florals off just yet.
Although, after Ta’if I do feel like I have a better nose for ISO E, the scent memory is a strong one….Which is too bad because I really do like Ta’if but I can’t handle the headache!!
Another perfume that you might want to add to the list is Flora by Gucci, I have never worn it but my mother does…anytime she wears it around me I get a headache! But in all fairness she does like to bathe in her perfumes:)
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When I saw the title of the post, I immediately thought this was going to be boring. How wrong I was! This was informative and easy to understand for someone who is just starting their perfume journey. I am a migraine sufferer and scents are always a trigger. I noticed several perfumes on the list that I could never tolerate, but never understood why. I just assumed they didn’t ‘work’ with my body chemistry. I can’t wait to start observing my scents with a new perspective. I don’t think my nose is quite as good as many of the other posters, but it will be interesting to see if I can distinguish for myself now. Thank you for doing all the hard work and summing it up for those of us who are new.
I’m so glad I could be of help, Ann. A lot of people who have issues with perfumes and say it gives them headaches don’t always realise that it’s because perfumes (at least the mainstream, mass-market ones) have now become FILLED with synthetics. It’s one reason why I rarely review them. Those synthetics are a great way for the brand to keep their costs down because the real version of the product would cost so, so, so much more. They can use synthetics, lower costs of production, but then increase retail costs and make a huge profit. For some houses associated with fashion, the profits from perfume are often one of the ONLY ways that they can afford to keep making expensive clothes. I think I once read that as much as 60% of a house’s profit (like Armani, for example) comes from the perfume and beauty side of things.
Bottom line: it’s often not perfume as a general whole which will give people headaches or asthma attacks. It’s the synthetics in them. But, as I always am careful to note, niche houses aren’t immune from using synthetics either. It may be to a much lesser amount in a particular perfume here or there (as opposed to across the board) but it *does* happen. That’s one reason why it can help to know your notes and/or to read a few reviews ahead of time.
As for your nose, we all start somewhere and we all learn. I think the nose is just like any other muscle: it becomes stronger through use and exercise. 🙂 And, if you’re a cook, have a good food palette or drink wine, you’ll have an even easier time of adjusting to things and picking up notes.
Are you familiar with Ambroxan? Juliette Has a Gun’s “Not a Perfume” (ugh) is just Ambroxan. For me, it gives that toxic, chemical, headache-inducing isopropyl effect that you seem to get from Iso E Super.
Hi Elisa, thank you so much for stopping by. 😀 Yes, I am familiar with Ambroxan. Though I haven’t smelled “Not a perfume,” I know it’s essentially just that one note, and I would share your Ugh! LOL. I’m lucky not to get headaches from ISO E Super or from many synthetics, but there is a particular vanilla-type one (which I haven’t managed to single out by type or name) that just kills me.
Was “Not a perfume” the only fragrance that you’ve had problems with? Have you encountered Ambroxan in other scents?
Yep, I’ve smelled it in a few others — Citizen Queen from the same line (which I just avoid entirely now), and I *think* it’s also present in large doses in Coromandel and Musc Ravageur, but that could be some other, related woody amber type aroma-molecule and not Ambroxan. Whatever it is definitely ruins the perfumes for me and it’s all I smell. It’s not a strong smell at all, just a painful one!
Just discovered your blog, not sure how I missed it before. 🙂
The only good thing about the misery you’ve experienced is that at least you now know what to avoid. You’re a step ahead of many other people in that regard, but it’s clearly an unpleasant way to learn what ingredients give you problems. 😦
On a more happy, positive note, Welcome Aboard!! I hope you will feel free to join in our little community and talk frequently about your perfume loves (or non-loves). Perfume is SO much more fun when shared and when it’s like a little party! 🙂 🙂
Hi Elisa, hi Kafkaesque. Ambrox is my worst perfume dread, it also expands so you don’t notice it at first but it grows and grows. It’s a beast.
Not only I have nothing against Iso E Super but, as you know, I actually like it – even in undilluted form. So clearly no headaches induced by it so far. But I enjoyed your passion in persuing the “enemy”.
My only objection is that the way you refer to that molecule in many places it sounds like this one is the Devil whereas it’s not true. Iso E Super isn’t “the synthetic”. It is “a synthetic” – one of thousands, probably. Most mainstream (but not only) perfumes use aroma chemicals and not only of this enhancing types but main ingredients – rose, tuberose, lilac, lily-of-the-valley, musk and many-many others. Fracas – so dear to many – doesn’t have a trace of a real tuberose (according to Killian Hennessy) but I do not hear cries about those “awful and harmful headache-inducing” synthetics. Most perfumes these days (starting at least a century ago) have synthetic component. And I’m a little tired of all that new age crap of everything “all-natural”, “organic”, etc. Most “all-natural” perfumes I tested were beyond boring, not interesting or plainly smelling foul. And judging by the very limited number of positive reviews for those, especially spontaneous ones, not prompted by a release campaign with sending out free samples, I’m not the only one who thinks so. That’s why I feel bad reading any attacks on “synthetics”.
I know people who get headaches from quite natural white lilies. Should we make a list of florists that are likely to use those flowers in their compositions? Just in case, so that nobody walks by the shop entrance by mistake? 😉
No, of course ISO E Super isn’t *the* synthetic and only one of many. But I couldn’t do a post that incorporated all of them, along with all the perfumes that each one might be in. At least, I couldn’t if I wanted to keep any sort of sane length and not lose people. LOL! 🙂 And, as someone posted, there are other problematic synthetics like Ambroxan which can give people headaches, or the Calone that I hate so very much.
No-one said that one should go all the way to the other extreme and wear only “all natural” perfumes, either. Just because one is not a fan of A does not mean one is advocating that people try Z.
The point of this post was not for people like you or experienced perfumistas who know all about ISO E Super and other synthetics. It’s not even for people who have tried a wide range of niche perfumery. It’s for the beginner or for those who claim that all perfume gives them a headache. It’s for those who don’t realise that it’s not perfumery in general but often a specific ingredient — usually a synthetic of some kind — that is to blame. This is a post on one of those out of the many that are out there. And it’s a post that was timely for reasons of a discussion elsewhere on the blog, as well as for the fact that ISO E is often not mentioned on a perfume’s list of ingredients. Things like synthetic musks or Calone may be.
I think your argument about florists is both false equivalency and a straw man argument. One may walk by a florist, but it’s not the same as buying a perfume without knowing that a problematic ingredient may be in it. No-one who has problems with white lilies is going to walk into a florist’s shop and buy white lilies for themselves when they can see it in a bunch. They undoubtedly wouldn’t even walk into the shop to begin with.
Regardless of the florist shop example, the reason for this post is exactly what I said: one post on one issue that was raised in discussion by a few people last week and which beginners to perfumery don’t know about because it’s rarely discussed. That’s it. Period. If you think the only way for me to be fair to ISO E Super is to have a series of lengthy posts on each and every synthetic out there, then I’m afraid it’s not going to happen in the immediate future. Or possibly ever. I will do it as the issue comes up, as I encounter it or when people have expressed interest in it. If my failure to exhaustively cover all synthetics right away doesn’t provide the necessary context for how ISO E Super is just one of many, then that’s just too bad. I have a whole Glossary which covers numerous synthetics, and that is going to have to be enough.
That said, I am truly glad you offered a different side to the argument and that you pointed out that MANY (if not all) synthetics can be an issue but, also, that it doesn’t always happen to everyone. 🙂 And, as I have repeatedly said here and everywhere in the blog, niche perfumes are not immune from the use of synthetics either. It’s a simple but unfortunate fact about modern perfumery.
My only “beef” with you was the semantics 😉 (bold is mine): “The problem, however, is that there are a number of people who get severe headaches from the synthetic, even when they can’t detect it.”, “Montabaco has now made me acutely aware of the synthetic in any quantity, great or small.” – and seven more occurances. I couldn’t understand why you kept pounding on “the synthetic” (which creates an unfavorite impression about all synthetics) instead of using the specific name (which, BTW, is one character shorter than the combination you’ve chosen ;-P)
Other than that, it was an interesting topic and I just had to add the opposite position to the uniform agreeing with you from other commenters. As to the “flowershop argument” it wasn’t even an argument, I was just poking you. But I maintain that a very natural lily might induce a headache. And I won’t even start on the effects of the all-natural arsenic.
I. WANT. MY. SYNTHETICS! 🙂
Simple issue of writing elegance and the need to avoid redundancy by using ISO E Super and *only* ISO E Super in lieu of changing it up occasionally with “synthetic.” It’s basic English Writing 101 about trying not to repeat the same thing ad nauseaum, and trying to have some grace or style in writing.
Feel free to continue to play Devil’s Advocate. 🙂 🙂
Nah, I’m fine. The fairness is restored! 🙂
I do think it’s weird that the perfume industry gets away with releasing scents without being forthright about what’s in them. I know it’s been an issue of contention in the perfume community for some time, but I guess I don’t see the harm in giving a full run-down of ingredients (at least on the back of the box or a pamphlet inside) and letting consumers decide whether or not they would be better off avoiding the perfume. I’m curious whether it was to do with maintaining secrecy of their formulas, or maintaining the mystery of the art of perfumery, or perhaps they are afraid that when people read the synthetics that are use they will get scared off and not purchase the perfume. Synthetics can obviously be used effectively, but it might be nice for people to have a clear idea of what’s in their perfume. As much as I love the song and dance of the inspiration/alleged components of a perfume that are announced in a press release, I’d also like to know what’s *actually* in them.
Can we start with posting all those “full run-down of ingredients” for detergents, softners, dishwash liquids and air freshners, etc.? Why to pick on perfumes – something that nobody has to use?
For what it’s worth, I don’t buy detergents, softeners, dishwashing liquids, with added scents and the like in them specifically because I hate the way they smell and they tend to make me itchy and/or sneezy. And I brought up labeling for perfumes because it’s relevant to the context of this blog, not to pick on perfumes in particular.
It’s not a zero sum game – just because not every detergent has all its ingredients listed doesn’t mean a perfume can’t or shouldn’t either. There’s absolutely no reason why listing ingredients in perfume means they couldn’t list it for the other items you mentioned. No, no one has to buy perfume, but if someone enjoys perfume, but know something is a problematic ingredient, it would be nice to know what’s in it. I don’t see the harm in an informed consumer.
I think that’s true for most things people ingest or put on their skin – I am glad to know what’s in things, even if I decide to use/consume something that isn’t good for me or that has an ingredient I don’t like. For the record, I’d equally advocate for listing ingredients on the items you listed – not just perfume.
I should also add – I am not against synthetics by any means. I like a lot of perfumes with them, and some I don’t. They usually don’t create an issue for me in the context of perfumes. I just like the idea of a consumer knowing what’s in a perfume. Especially because I think sometimes the creators are listing things that may not actually be in the perfume, or not listing things that are actually in the perfume. 🙂
I do not oppose that in principle… But I’m affraid for many people it will be a bit of a shock to read that “no rose petals were harmed” during production of their favorite “rose” perfumes 😉
ROFL!!!! Hilarious. And I do — most definitely — agree with you on the issue of those who complain about everything in perfumery or those who think only organic fragrances are good.
Most of the products I buy are also smell-free since I prefer to scent myself with perfumes and my environment with natural scents from flowers, fruits or sometimes scented candles. But it’s not the point. The point is that most people are buying all those scented products and do not complain about sensitivity to those chemicals.
I do not know why perfume industry is reluctant to publish that information – whether that an extra cost, giving away trade secrets or just potential marketing difficulties, – but there should be a reason (or many reasons), shouldn’t it? Otherwise they would have published it already. So I think whatever it is, it’s unfair to put those demands on the perfume industry unless it’s done to other industries – if we think that this information is important to consumers. I don’t want the perfume industry to be in a better position than others, but I definitely don’t want it to be in the worse since I care about it.
Oh – I TOTALLY agree about people who complain about fragrances, but gladly use the horrid scented soaps, deodorants, laundry detergents, etc. Honestly, it just shows an ignorance that I just roll my eyes at. I find it’s usually not worth the argument with people. If I only ever smelled some of the most popular department store fragrances, I might claim an allergy too if it meant I could avoid having to smell some of the monstrosities out there!
I see where your coming from. I would guess that, at least in the US, a lot of these industries would have to address such theoretical labeling restrictions on their own, unless there was some sort of sweeping legislation from some authority that said “Anything to be consumed or applied to the skin must have its ingredients clearly labeled.” I don’t anticipate it will happen anytime soon, at least in the US. But I understand this is a big part of the proposed IFRA regulations. I’ve read mixed things about what they could mean – from as far as the proposed regulations will essentially gut every perfume you’ve ever loved to the new regulations mean perfume companies will simply have to label certain ingredients that are known allergens, but that they won’t actually restrict the amounts allowed.
Good point! Would be interesting to see the reaction though, no? Perhaps it could have the surprising effect of getting people to come around to loving certain synthetics!
I do agree there is often a very broad perception that synthetic = bad and natural = good, when that’s clearly not the case. It’s unfortunate, to be sure. Someone should commission a study about public knowledge of and perceptions of synthetics in perfume. I bet the results would be VERY interesting!
Molecule 01 was my fragrance for years. I think I went through 3?4? bottles? And I think it’s the smell that most of my friends associate me with even though I haven’t worn it for a very long time. I actually started wearing it because it was the one fragrance that didn’t interfere with my wines (I was giving wine tasting classes at the time). I could only detect it if I was standing under a heat lamp, or sometimes I would get a whiff of it during the day and it would disappear again. But it remains my most complimented perfume, and the only one that had people chasing me down for the name.
I’m sorry to hear that some synthetics are very problematic on your skin. That has to totally suck since they are so prevalent.
Clearly, in your case, it acted like a damn cool pheromone!! How wonderful is that?! I could do with a pheromone perfume….. 😉
I was chased down by a waitress, a hostess, a bartender, a colleague, a wine seller, and an usher at the Metropolitan Opera. Not all at once, but it was bonkers!
Great article! i think Iso E Super is a great accent to a perfume, but as they say, moderation is key. The only perfume I can detect it in is Terre d’Hermès and it reeks of it. I used to think it was my nose whenever I wore TdH and why it smelled like a combination of pine needles and minerals. The answer? You guessed it, the culprit was none other than Iso E Super. I never got the grapefruit opening that many people associate with this scent, the edt version especially. The edp is much better as you don’t smell the Iso E Super so intensely and you can actually smell the true essence of the perfume. I have a 100 ml bottle of the TdH edt and I dont think I will be able to finish the whole bottle, if I lived for 300 years. If only I could use it to kill weeds or keeps flies/ bugs away, then I would be in luck and would have found a beneficial use for it because I’m surely not wearing it.
I’m wondering, since I often hear Iso E is a floralizer – is that what accounts for the ubiquitous synthetic floral effect in a lot of Estee Lauder floral fragrances – like PC Tuberose Gardenia and Beautiful in Love? Can someone get back to me on this? It’s like a big sweet artificial note that makes these ELs and some other IFFs (Malle’s Lys Mediteranee I thinki) radiate but also smell fake. Would like to know more about if it’s an Iso E effect.
I know Iso E from the Montale, also Creed Virgin Island Water, the Hermes line, Atelier Colognes, and have smelled Molecule 1. What I would like to know is where it’s a “floralizer” and if I am right about it being a big effect in the Lauders.
Hello L, thank you for stopping by. 🙂 I haven’t smelled or tried the Estée Lauders in question, so I can’t help you there. If you’ve tried any of the Ormonde Jayne line, ISO E Super is said to be used in many of them. Ta’if is one particular O/J fragrance that has come up in this discussion. The extent to which it is noticeable or creates a synthetic effect may depend on the amount.
That said, ISO E Super is far from being the only synthetic used in fragrance, including in florals. For example, a lot of florals come ona base of synthetic white musk. But, there can also be calone, fake cashmere notes, cheap, cloying vanilla synthetics and… well, there are too many synthetics in mass-market fragrances to keep track of.
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Hmmmm…I stay away from even the counters that sell mass market Chanel perfumes in order to avoid headaches, but Kyoto is one of my favourite scents with which I have zero problems. Likewise, with Light Blue – headache, with Jaisalmer – no headache.
So something other than Iso E must be going on for me.
Hi there, biepster, thank you for stopping by and for sharing your experiences. I love hearing about people’s reactions to different synthetics. How interesting that some ISO E fragrances give you a headache, while others don’t. The ones you’ve mentioned all have it in high doses, so quantity can’t be the explanation. It’s probably another synthetic that’s to blame.
Some that people have great difficulty with are: calone (ozonic, water scents), Ambroxan (in ambers or orientals), Z11 (same) and, sometimes, hedione. Synthetic white musk is perhaps the biggest problem, followed by Calone, due to their frequency in a lot of commercial fragrances. Perhaps it’s one of those that is to blame. I haven’t tried Light Blue, but, based on what it’s supposed to be and represent, I wouldn’t be surprised if the “clean” aroma came from white musk. That could be the source of your headaches. I know that really cheap, soapy, clean, white musks can give me one in large amounts. I hope that helps. 🙂 Again, thank you for stopping by to share your experiences.
Hmmmm…I avoid even counters that sell mass market Chanel perfumes because they give me headaches, but Kyoto is one of my favourites which I can wear day in and day out with zero problems. Likewise, Light Blue – headaches, Jaisalmer – no headaches.
So something other than Iso E must be going on for me.
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What Iso E Super is to perfumery is what Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is to the food industry……an absolute travesty! I believe they should be used in moderation to enhance or augment certain notes or flavours I.e. give it a helpful hand. But the way Iso E Super is used in perfumery nowadays it has become a specific note in its own right. …..which it shouldn’t be. At the same time whilst I may rant and complain about this aromachem there is a huge fanbase for it…..so what I say is very subjective.
It *is* an absolute travesty, but clearly, we’re in the minority on that point! I can’t stand ISO E Super, and its frequency in the perfumes I test drives me pretty insane.
As for the fanbase, I’ve often wondered about that. So, so many people seem to be completely anosmic to it, while others don’t even know the note exists. Talk all the fanboys who rave about Montale. They’re used to a specific kind of oud scent, without realising that it’s really the ISO E Super which is contributing a particular overtone to the oud. Or other fragrances where reviewers talk about the pepperiness, without realising that, again, it is really the ISO E Super that they’re smelling. Are they really fans of the ISO E Super itself? When I do reviews and talk about ISO E Super in a fragrance, many commentators who have tested or tried that exact same fragrance haven’t even smelled the note. They’re totally anosmic. (Lucky devils.) You know, often I feel like the crazy person in the desert, ranting about how the note is so strong and powerful, when no-one else can detect it. It’s frustrating sometimes. But I’m very glad I’ve got a fellow ISO E Super hater here on the blog. Those of us who can detect the note need to stick together! 😉 😀
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As I saw a film about perfume copies some time ago and learned that these copies are less damaging to the health as the originals because they are more diluted, I pricked up my ears.
Obviously, some synthetic perfume ingredients such as Cashmeran and chemically conceived musks are a threat to health. Synthetic musk molecules e. g. are quite long and therefore evaporate slowly. Unfortunately some of them last for months and thus are being absorbed through the skin and have to be processed through the liver.
I tried to find out more about this, but did not succeed.
This might be a reason for producers being reluctant to list all the ingredients on their perfume bottles.
On me PG’s Indochine’s or Piguet’s Calypso’s driedowns last forever. So this might not be a good sign. Longevity does not mean quality.
As wikipedia tells me, there’s Angelica archangelica or Ambretta seed (Abelmoschus moschatus)
which can very well be used as substitutes for animal musks. I would gladly pay a higher price if I knew they were used in a scent instead of probably cheaper synthetics.
Iso E Super does not affect me, but I cannot stand the sheer tenacity of the stuff, which also keeps me from buying full bottles of Ormonde Jayne or Geza Schön creations.
By the way, you might have come by some Lauder’s creations, as they produce for Tom Ford.
Ambrette is great as a natural form of musk! With regard to your comment about coming by some Lauder creations, I’m afraid that you lost me a little. I know that Estée Lauder owns Tom Ford, but I didn’t understand the rest.
You make an interesting comment about synthetic musks lasting for months on the skin. Months? I can’t imagine any molecule lasting that long, so I’d be interested in reading further if you have a source or cite for that. 🙂
So I did a little research: synthetic musks are lipophilic and therefore easily absorbed through the human skin (“bioaccumulation”). Tests have shown them in human milk and blood as well. As they have been deemed carcinogenic, three synthetic musks may not be used anymore: musk tibeten, – ambrette and – mosken.
Synthetic musks, as they have a low polarity (lipophilic), are not easily soluble in water and are being found in rivers and fish. Therefore, the remaining synthesised musks are subjected to a risk assessment by the European Union.
(see e. g. http://www.hlug.de/fileadmin/dokumente/wasser/fliessgewaesser/gewaesserbelastung/orientierende_messungen/6.14Moschusverbindungen.pdf)
It might be those musks inhibit the detoxification of the human body by blocking the proteins in the effluxsystem (chemosensibilisation).
Obviously, other possible consequences are still being researched.
I once had a tissue sprayed with Guerlain Idylle Extrait lying around, and the musk in the base note could be smelled for months.
The danger in synthetic musks applied on the skin does however not consist in their longevity but in them being absorbed so easily.
Very interesting. I’ve never had a musk note remain on fabric (let alone on me) for so long. Not even the heinous, terrible, white clean musk that I hate so much.
I have to say that I don’t think much of the EU’s assessment of what is “dangerous,” or to what degrees. I don’t agree with them flat out on the issues of cloves or oakmoss. As for the 3 single, solitary musks that they deem dangerous, those are not used at all any more, and they think almost everything else is “dangerous,” so I would take their views with a grain of salt, even as it pertains to synthetic musks and regardless of whether or not they are absorbed easily.
The scientific tests for items that the EU is currently considering banning appear to be nothing more than 1 test on 25 people with no controls, and no scientific true validity by established scientific tests, so I would question the rest of the EU’s basis for ruling that certain ingredients are “dangerous.” You can read quotes about the iffiness of their scientific and medical evidence in the post on the latest EU situation regarding perfume regulation.
In any event, the question of synthetic musks is rather outside the purview of a post on ISO E Super, but it’s been really interesting. Thank you for sharing, Petra. 🙂