Skip to main content

How actor Michelle Pfeiffer championed the world's first circular fragrance line

The first C2C- and EWG-certified fragrances were made with a unique startup-nonprofit-corporate collaboration. Here's what that means for the cosmetics industry at large.

When Michelle Pfeiffer launched a perfume line in the spring, she wasn't just selling the brand as a movie star. She was the co-founder of an innovative fragrance startup, realizing a longtime wish as a consumer and parent to enjoy a scent that wouldn’t bring ill-effects to her body or the environment.

The fine fragrances from that venture, Henry Rose, are the first in the world to achieve seals of approval from two trusted proponents of consumer safety in chemistry: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) verification and Cradle to Cradle (C2C) certification. Pfeiffer's direct-to-consumer business developed by forging a partnership with those brands, as well as storied fragrance house International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), to design and formulate its products. The five unisex Henry Rose scents meet stringent low-toxic standards for humans and ecosystems, and their C2C vetting makes them the first fragrance line to meet exacting levels of circularity.

The relatively quiet launch attracted some magazine headlines, thanks in part to the Academy Award-nominated actor’s fame. But Henry Rose's plotline surfaces as more than a skin-deep story. Its emergence marks a fundamental shift happening in the cosmetics and personal care space, and more quietly in fragrance specifically. While public concern about skincare products and food has already reached the mainstream, worry about fragrance safety generally has trailed behind.

An ingredient described as 'fragrance' on a label is like an author named 'anonymous' on a book.
The company’s co-founders, Pfeiffer with CEO Melina Polly, seek to prove there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between a luxury fragrance and safety. They publish all of their ingredients online, which is unheard of for fragrances — the industry's sales practices tend to be cloaked in mystique and mirrors.

"Hopefully this will be the beginning of a move towards more transparency within the industry because it’s something that consumers deserve," Polly told GreenBiz.

Fragrance is one of the last frontiers of secrecy in products used daily by billions of people. An ingredient listed as "fragrance" on a label is like a book whose author is named "anonymous"; it's impossible to consider a source that’s unidentified. Even products billed as "natural" or "organic" are not labeled for full chemical disclosure, as it's not required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. U.S. cosmetics regulation hasn’t been updated since rules made in 1938 that focus mostly on truth in labeling, not safety.

"Fragrance is incredibly important," said Nicole Acevedo, CEO of Elavo Mundi Solutions, which helps personal care and cosmetics companies produce "clean" products. "It’s probably in almost everything we encounter as consumers."

Perfumes and flavorings are an immense business, with a global market estimated to grow to $52 billion by 2025, from $39 billion in 2015, according to Statista. Fragrance houses including IFF, Givaudan and Firmenich are at the center of the industry. They initially formulate the "coconut," "apple citrus" or other scents that cosmetics and household care companies later drop into their lotions, shampoos or household cleaning products.

Race to top (notes)

Henry Rose is emerging as more big businesses are not only selling more personal-care goods as healthy and environmentally benign but backing those claims for the first time. In a "race to the top," several massive corporations are pledging greater transparency in fragrance. Unilever, SCJohnson and Procter & Gamble recently have acted on their public promises to disclose fragrance chemicals, while L'Oréal made a commitment in that direction last year. In January, for 15 of its brands, Unilever published lists of fragrance and other ingredients down to 0.01 percent of a formulation, or 100 parts per million.

This level of corporate action likely wouldn't be happening without niche players demonstrating longtime success in selling chemical wholesomeness. "They have the ability to innovate, be the game changers, push the big guys," Acevedo said. Meanwhile, the largest mass-market brands can have the most impact on evolving supply chains and business practices.

Small fragrance-centric companies emanating Earth-positive vibes have grown up, such as the Body Shop since the 1970s and Lush since the 1990s. Scores of other brands in "natural" or organic personal care products, fragrances and essential oils appear in the Whole Foods aisles.

Toxicity and secrecy

However, by and large, most any personal care or makeup product on the market could be permeated with chemicals linked to asthma, cancers and reproductive problems. It's nearly impossible for the average shopper to know.

"The fragrance sector is a last bastion of the way business is done, in terms of really maintaining a stronghold on practices of developing in-house, proprietary ingredients and maintaining the highest levels of (secrecy)," said Acevedo, who as an independent scientist has studied the hormone- and DNA-disrupting potential of chemicals common in fragrances and plastics.

Bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates used in a wide array of consumer products have increasingly been in the spotlight as endocrine disruptors.

Because there is no U.S. federal or state regulation, the fragrance industry regulates itself. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA), which represents the industry, determines safety standards, which are voluntary. It also runs the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM), which maintains a database of nearly 6,000 ingredients that is unavailable to the general public. Furthermore, there are few peer-reviewed studies of fragrance, with most research relying on reviews of previously published studies instead of conducting new lab experiments.

“The lack of transparency means the public cannot independently verify the conclusions of the IFRA safety program and must blindly trust in the industry’s claims," according to "Unpacking the Fragrance Industry" (PDF), published by advocacy group Women's Voices for the Earth. The report, updated in 2018, also determined that "one-third of fragrance ingredients currently in use are flagged as known or potential chemicals of concern," according to scores using the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals List Translator. Perfumes are made up of some ugly things, even though ambergris from sperm whale intestines is mostly out of the picture today.

Research has found higher concentrations of such endocrine-disruptors in children and women than in men. It's no surprise, therefore, that women including Pfeiffer tend to lead the charge behind "natural" cosmetics startups. The body burden for women and youth has become an issue of environmental justice, addressed by organizations such as Women's Voices for the Earth and other advocacy groups such as Breast Cancer Prevention Partners and Black Women for Wellness, to name just a few.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the fragrance industry shared the names of some 4,000 chemicals that appear in fragrance in consumer products — among them are 100 "chemicals of concern" to California, Washington state and the European Union. The list includes endocrine disruptors such as nonylphenol ethoxylates and phthalates, as well as carcinogens styrene, pyridine and benzophenone.

Behind EWG and C2C

EWG and the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute have stepped into this gap with labeling systems they hope will earn public recognition and trust. They have markedly different origins and approaches.

The nonprofit EWG was launched in the early 1990s by activist and trained soil scientist Ken Cook, known as a grassroots lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Its laborious original research enables the publication of consumer-friendly, easy-to-search databases of cosmetics, sunscreens, U.S. tap water and food. EWG’s sweeping assessments have covered hundreds of thousands of products. 

The EWG Verified mark launched in 2015 "to give consumers peace of mind at the point of sale." To date, it's on 1,507 bodycare products from aftershaves to vapor rubs, as well as 16 fragrances besides the Henry Rose line. 

Bottles in a promotional video by International Fragrances & Flavors

The Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Program takes a different tack, informed by a focus on the circular economy that advances the concept of being "not just ‘less bad’ but also ‘more good’ for people and the planet." The Cradle to Cradle Design Framework aims to accelerate design for circularity, in which no molecules are wasted in the processes of industrial design, production and consumer usage. It treats ingredients as biological and technical "nutrients."

The nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute manages the C2C certification, which was originally launched and run by MDBC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), founded by designer William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. MDBC, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, maintains a database of 30,000 chemicals it has evaluated, having assessed each one beyond its potential harm to human or environmental health. (It handled the C2C assessment for Henry Rose.)

C2C awards products a ranking up to Platinum across five categories: Material Health; Circular Economy; Renewable Energy & Carbon Management; Water Stewardship; and Social Fairness, all of which correspond to key United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

Some 582 goods, from automotive parts to toys, are C2C-certified, including 15 health and beauty products, the Henry Rose lines being some of the only fragrances.

How Henry Rose developed

Melina Polly is an advertising and communications veteran, a former global managing director at Apple during the rise of the iPhone and former marketing vice president at the meditation app Headspace.

When Polly met Pfeiffer several years ago through a mutual contact, she was intrigued right away by the actor’s interest, which had been marinating for decades, in building a clean fragrance line. Nearly a decade ago Pfeiffer approached cosmetics companies with the idea of working together, without success. About five years ago, EWG declined when she asked if it would work with her, but expressed support for efforts she might make independently.

"She always wanted to pry open that black box of fragrance," Polly said. "It’s really difficult. She had a few attempts over time but ... the timing wasn’t on her side because the conversation hadn’t advanced to that point yet."

As Henry Rose co-founders, however, things started to align. Popular interest in prestige fragrances had faded since in the early 2000s, but artisanal perfumes were helping to drive a comeback, "gaining their dignity back as a respected craft and art form," researcher NPD Group wrote in its Scentiments 2018 report. Consumers also were becoming more suspicious of chemicals in cosmetics.

Meanwhile, IFF already had worked with MDBC to create the first Cradle to Cradle certified fragrance, Pura Vita, in 2016 — the same year that Pfeiffer joined the board of EWG, where she still sits.

"I saw this as wow, there’s a white space, and no one’s done anything innovative in this space before," Polly said.

The women entered into a close working relationship over many months with IFF, which drew on its established processes with MDBC for C2C verification, as well as with EWG, to undertake the first-time process of verifying a fine fragrance.

The undertaking was ambitious, considering the restricted chemical palette of about 10 percent of the ingredients normally available to perfume makers and Henry Rose's goal of creating original scents with quality and longevity comparable to that of a conventional fragrance.

The IFF factor

IFF was a logical partner, given that it had been talking for a number of years about revolutionizing sustainability in fragrance with 100 percent ingredient transparency, and already had crafted Pura Vita. A New Jersey manufacturing facility already was established, as were systems ensuring renewable energy, positive water stewardship and social fairness. IFF already had evaluated 3,000 ingredients.

IFF is unique among fragrance houses in embracing circularity, a central theme of its 2018 sustainability report (PDF), which spotlights "positive principles" and "regenerative products." The company seeks to eliminate waste by returning nature-derived ingredients back to nature, as its scientists describe in a promotional video. Yet it doesn’t consider organic, crop-derived materials alone; certain petro-based chemicals can help foster circularity because they can be recycled over and over, said Howie Fendley, principal at Fendley Sustainability Advisors.

The Henry Rose line

IFF was a finalist in The Circulars 2019 awards, run by the World Economic Forum and Accenture, in part for "holding itself accountable through circular design metrics." IFF’s efforts to reduce emissions, use renewable energy and manage water well also helped it earn a spot on CDP’s latest A List.

"The main specifics of Cradle to Cradle had already been met, so it just came down to figuring out the specifics of the chemistry," said Fendley, who worked on Henry Rose in his previous role as director of projects and senior chemist with assessment partner MDBC. "Once IFF determined they would share the entire formulation package with us down to the raw material extract, we knew we could work with them."

Fendley also drew from data MDBC had collected since 1995 in order to whittle down the ingredients from Henry Rose’s initial desired list, screening for potential impurities, toxicants and airway sensitizers. Anything was a no-no if it persists in the environment, in human fat tissue or in aquatic systems.

Part of the "goodness filter" of C2C includes examining each molecule for 24 environmental and human health criteria — a groundbreaking step toward offering a full materials assessment report down to the raw material, Fendley said.

Pfeiffer always wanted to pry open that black box of fragrance.
"Because what we’re talking about here is the deployment of chemicals into the biosphere with really no rules," Fendley said. "You spray it on your body, it goes into your skin, it goes into your biosphere."

One big challenge for chemists and toxicologists on the project was in figuring out how to eliminate bio-based extracts known to irritate the skin or trigger anaphylactic reactions. These can include seemingly benign "natural" scents such as lavender, almond and orange peel. And because common extracts could be contaminated with common allergens, the team needed to find suppliers to prove purity in each drop.

At times, Polly said Henry Rose hit a snag in trying to satisfy the high standards of the fundamentally different labeling systems, which in essence canceled each other out, in part because checking off both boxes hadn’t been attempted before.

"Sometimes it was [that] we’re okay on the EWG side but the Cradle to Cradle side has a different lens," Polly said of the process, which involved a constant back-and-forth among the parties. "A lot of it is communication and ‘What do you mean when you say X, Y and Z?’"

Learning curves

Another wrinkle during the careful orchestration of fragrance ingredients is that as more science became available on chemical safety, the composition of a scent would change. Suddenly a single ingredient that EWG previously allowed in a certain concentration, for example, no longer was allowed in the same quantity. That sometimes resulted in at least one happy accident, but it also sent Henry Rose back to the drawing board.

Sample box from fragrance maker PHLUR

After a lot of note-sharing, twists and turns in formulation, and back-and-forth shipping of samples, the resulting creation was five unisex scents named for Pfeiffer’s children's middle names, Henry and Rose. Two musky scents evoke specific places: Pfeiffer’s grandfather’s North Dakota home (Jake’s House) and summer in San Francisco (Fog). The floral Last Light, spicy Torn and woody Dark as Night are the others.

About 50 ingredients in the Henry Rose line were evaluated and approved for C2C’s highest C2C level, Platinum. The company publishes a full list of the 300 C2C Gold-rated ingredients it uses. These include botanicals, such as vanilla bean extract, and a much longer list of "safe synthetics" such as benzyl alcohol, to impart a sense of "tobacco hay." Then there’s ambrettolide, derived from insects and used to evoke a smooth muskiness.

Pfeiffer and Polly sought out sustainable packaging for the $120 "juice." The fragrances ship with 90 percent recycled glass bottles; sustainably sourced, compostable soy bottle caps and recycled cardboard. Making that happen was another collaborative effort, in which Henry Rose engaged with glass bottle maker Verescence outside of Paris.

As Henry Rose has grown to a full-time team of five, it’s considering expanding into skin and body care products. "There’s a lot more that we can do with fragrance," Polly said.

A whiff of 'clean'

Henry Rose isn’t the only boutique perfumer riding the "clean" wave, considering downstream effects to the earth and endocrine systems.

PHLUR, a play on the French word fleur for flower, is another direct-to-consumer startup that sells sample packs in packaging that echoes an Apple-style minimalism.

Pour le Monde, a B Corporation, sells "certified natural, vegan, cruelty-free" scents. Skylar offers vegan, "clean perfume" without phthalates, synthetic dyes or parabens. Rich Hippie touts "100-percent natural" organic perfume that is free of preservatives and phthalates.

Meanwhile, fragrance giants are swallowing up plant-based ingredient companies; IFF has snapped up fragrance extract company Frutarom and fragrance house Givaudan acquired Naturex. With the Frutarom acquisition in October 2018, IFF expects to use more botanical and crop-based ingredients. 

The journey of fragrance toward transparency and circularity is only just out the door. Fewer than two dozen fragrances have a thumbs-up from either EWG or C2C among a vast field of fragrance — NPD Group counted 1,160 on the market for women alone in 2013.

Many of those working to improve cosmetics and body care products see this as an exciting time. "There is no turning back from where we are; consumers are not going to suddenly care less," Acevedo said. "Transparency and sustainability work, and they’re good for business."

More on this topic