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  • Writer's pictureLizzie Ostrom

Why Laundry is the New Perfume

There’s a lot of glamour around being a perfumer, yet most of the press goes to the relatively small number of people who compose fine fragrances. Most of the industry, however, revolves around the products we use every day and don't think about so much: shampoos; washing-up liquid; fabric conditioners. And bleach. Don't tell me you don't love a good eye-watering whiff of that pine smell! This is the real rock'n'roll perfumery, albeit with less trashing of hotel rooms (Perhaps this occurs. I was too scared to ask).

I wanted to be able to share more about the thought that goes into functional perfumery. This is the first in a series of interviews with the wonderful and fun perfumer Angela Stavrevska, Creative Director at British fragrance house CPL Aromas.

We start by tumbling around with fabric conditioner and talking about why our clothes are smelling more and more like perfumes.

Lizzie: Last night I was watching a TV programme called Secrets of the Royal Wives. In case anyone’s interested.

Anyway, the ad breaks carried SO many of adverts for laundry care. One featured some sassy CGI clothes hanging out in a wardrobe and talking about how great they smell. Then there was a very high-production values Lenor ad in which Red Riding Hood woman uses the scent of her cloak to lead a wolf through the woods. She chucks it over him, he becomes a man (Hugh Jackman Wolverine lookalike) and he shivers in arousal at the smell of her clothes.

The product, Parfum des Secrets, is a fabric conditioner, and like lots of these newer releases is taking the codes that perhaps dictated the fine fragrance conventions of the 1980s (the olfactive styles, crystal cut bottles, and emotive mood-based names like Mystery and Kiss). What’s going on?

Angela: When we talk about laundry, there’s the washing side, which has stayed reasonably traditional over the years, I mean it’s sacrosanct. We still feel the influence of seminal releases like Tide from the 1940s. Then there’s the fabric conditioner side which has recently gone completely crazy.

When it comes to household, fabric conditioner is the sexy bit. If you can have a sexy bit of household.

As a perfumer it’s an interesting area because it’s very technically-oriented but there’s this element of creativity so you can really go for it. As technology’s changed and encapsulation has come into play, it’s opened up the scope. Laundry is a commodity product and not too expensive to buy, so brands can put stuff out there, and if it doesn’t work it’s not as huge a risk as a £100 fine fragrance.

There are still traditional routes, it’s not a free for all. You’re not going to see a green chypre any time soon, and you still will get the classic aldehydic soapy characteristics, or the fruity apple clean hair style. The trend for fruity gourmands that we saw in fine fragrance (and which is still around), does lend itself well to the materials used in fabcons. And more recently ambers and sandalwood facets which blend really well in musk bases. I recently tried Lenor’s Gold Orchid which I’d certainly use in the winter (probably not summer).When it comes to household, fabric conditioner is the sexy bit. If you can have a sexy bit of household.

Bottles of fabric conditioner resembling perfumes
Parfum des Secrets fabric conditioners from Lenor

Lizzie: Let’s go there.

Angela: Yep! Most people talk about fine fragrance perfumers, they’re the ones who get the publicity, but actually the the laundry perfumers can be just as high-status. Because if they get the new Tide, the next big launch, they can make an absolute fortune for their company. I really enjoy working on laundry as it’s quite the challenge.

Lizzie: Why’s that?

Angela: When you think about the laundry cycle, you’ve got fabric going into the washing machine. It gets drowned in a load of hot water, sometimes at 100 degrees. It gets churned around for an hour or, the water gets drained away, then the fabric has to dry. After that you’ve got ironing, more heat and you want the fragrance to stick.

Lizzie: Ironing, what’s that?!

Angela: Ha! Yeah just leave it hanging and hope the creases fall out…. So the scent needs to not only stick, but emanate when you get it out, and when it’s dry. You want to smell it when you’re ironing it, when you put it on in the morning. Consumer expectations are very high and if it fails at any point it’s not going to get to market.

Lizzie: Sometimes I see people in the industry off to client meetings with endless bags of towels. It must be quite a job for fragrance evaluators given you have to test it at every stage. Is it like working at Widow Twankey’s laundry?

Angela: Thankfully not. At CPL we’ve got this laundrometer, a big washing machine, and when you’re testing you put in the load 8-9 pots; each has a swatch in so you can run loads at the same time. You test when they’re wet, when dry, then 5 days later. If we’re looking at encapsulation, we’ll prep ten samples and get out a towel each week for the following ten weeks. It’s quite a business organising everything you need for a test.

Lizzie: And in terms of the perfumery, what works, what passes the tests?

Angela: The palette is much reduced, so there are certain things you know are going to work, some things you can trial if you want to take a chance. And some materials aren’t available any more as they’re problematic. One renowned example is polycyclic musks which are brilliant on cloth and last for ages. But there is a risk they are endocrine disruptors. The dosage of testing has been very high so obviously the detergent that gets into waterways would be at a very low level. It takes a long time for them to break down, so they can accumulate in the water. At some point you just have to stop. There’s an amber material which has recently been banned because it’s so tenacious in the environment, and could store up all sorts of problems in the future.

Lizzie: What sort of ingredients do you find yourself reaching for then?

Angela: So....the fragrance needs to display diffusion in bottle to attract the consumer to purchase and there needs to be diffusion on wet fabric. Raw materials that help this are things like the aldehydes that give sparkle, lift and a traditional soapy clean character, and ozonic materials that give a fresh watery feel, such as Ozonil.

There needs to be a well-rounded pleasant character on freshly dried cloth. Materials such as the salicylates work well here. Nerolin Yara Yara can give a well rounded and lingering orange blossom character, whereas Cyclacet gives a more jasmine nuance. Aldehyde C14 also clings quite well and has fruity peachy nuances that can also help support a traditional floral heart, and Lilial gives fresh soft floralcy.

Then you need the really ‘sticky’ sillage on dry fabric – traditionally musks, coumarin and ambers stick to fabric very well. Maltol and vanillas work well too and help support the fruity floral gourmande characters we see in fabcon trends that have trickled down from fine fragrance. Overuse can lead to a sweet sticky mess though! Things that approximate to sandalwood such as Javanol can also work well, they can give a sensual, comforting feel, whilst still feeling quite clean.

There are of course extremely powerful materials like Ambrocenide, a huge amber, and Dynascone, which gives a fruity pineapple/apple top note. Overdosed they're pokey. At the right level they cling brilliantly.

A fabric conditioner can’t give the complexity, nuance and feeling of fabulousness you get in a fine fragrance. It’s like like using a sledgehammer.

Lizzie: Love hearing that word, pokey, from perfumers. Given these ingredients are a bit Wild West, how do you formulate to stop them being so pokey?

Angela: With laundry it’s better to be bold and powerful than dainty. You pack in as much odour material as possible. Ram it all in there. And the formulations tend to be quite short. You look for marriages between small numbers of materials to hold in-check the potential for shouting. Encapsulates like our AromaCore is a technology we should probably cover. The fragrance goes into microscopic spheres which have an outer wall. This resists water and heat, but when it dries the walls break when we rub them, releasing more fragrance. Because of encapsulates we compose in two layers. I’ll put heavier basenotes in the liquid and the top notes in the spheres so you get the continued renewal and the whole composition sits together in a very linear way.

Lizzie: What’s encapsulation done to expectations about how long our clothes will stay fresh?

Angela: Some can last for a year. If you fold up a towel and put it in the airing cupboard and don’t touch it, there’s no reason it should have broken down. Which is great for giving that continued fresh burst, but it’s almost driven expectations in other areas to extremes. We’re being briefed to create fine fragrances that last for 12 hours without changing on the skin. And some fabric softeners are so strong their scent competes with other fragranced products.

Aromatherapy-inspired fabric conditioners. Lots of white florals imagery to give a perfumery cue.

Lizzie: Is laundry fragrance cannibalising fine fragrance?

Angela: About 15-20% of us don’t buy perfumes, so these fantasy laundry products are one way of capturing their attention. But I’m not worried that perfume’s going to be under threat. A fabric conditioner can’t give the complexity, nuance and feeling of fabulousness you get in a fine fragrance. It’s like like using a sledgehammer.

Lizzie: What an image, thanks Ange! In the next article we're going to look at how you create a fragrance for your hair. It's well worth following CPL Aromas' Instagram feed in the meantime as well as Angela's personal feed.


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