Friday, April 10, 2009

Art vs. Commerce: a new look

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This was a very early entry I made to "Olfactarama" when I first became aware of the IFRA regulations brouhaha. I believe even more strongly now that the perfume industry should take a look at the art supply business as a possible solution to this problem. Not that they will. But they could. Not that they will.

Here's what I wrote, edited somewhat, back in the dark ages of last September: (edits bolded)

"I’m trying to sort all of this regulation/restriction stuff out.

I’m a painter as well as a semi-noob perfumista. Hmmmm.

Art supplies. Well, let's see. We could start with the solvents, like turpentine, and then delve into heavy metals – the cadmiums, cobalts – don’t forget manganese, chromium oxide, or mediums like stand oil (which is given to spontaneous combustion). Then there are the easily inhaled dry pigments; pastels, varnishes…the list goes on and on. So I’m going to look at one ingredient: white lead. And two industries: perfumery and art supply.

Lead is toxic. But the white it makes is incomparable. In painting, especially of skin, nothing else even comes close. It’s warm in tone, opalescent when thinned, with an almost-crumbly texture when thick. There are substitutes, the most common being Titanium White, a pastelike goo that chills everything it touches, turns green to mint and red to Pepto-Bismol pink. Many painters use it because of lead’s bad rep. But you can still buy flake white in any well-stocked art supply store. Why is that?

Is it because it’s better? Produces better work? Or is it because the art supply industry is willing to let us decide for ourselves?

So you want to use flake (lead) white? You use a barrier cream.You never, ever “point” (suck) a loaded brush, and you dispose of everything that's touched it at a hazardous waste facility. You don’t smear paint all over yourself, eat it, eat while using it, or let the kids use it. In other words, you are a thinking, responsible grown-up.

Even the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the US exempts artists’ paints from lead restriction. Compliance is voluntary, but you’ll see a caution label on all artists’ paints that contain lead, or any toxic pigment.

So now let’s talk about oakmoss, which will be banned entirely as of January 1, 2010.

Apparently, the main problem here is that two chemicals found in oakmoss and treemoss, atranol and chloroatranol, can cause a dermal reaction – in other words, a rash. There is a long list of other suspect ingredients, too. The current standard for the two above is 100 ppm; there’s talk of reducing that to 2 ppm; and then no ppm.

I don’t claim to be an expert on this. The EU Cosmetics Directive appears to be behind it, along with something called the Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products. (Funny, I think of Europe as a sort of laissez-faire place and the US as the country of protecting-us-from-ourselves, but maybe not.)

Can we talk about peanuts on planes, cigarettes (we know they kill us, so why are they still being sold?) Booze, wine and beer? Air pollution? Dust mites? Prescription drugs that seem to have more side effects than effects? (Hey, just ask your doctor for a reason to take it!)

So what’s a little oakmoss, hunh? Couldn’t they just put a caution label on the bottles, as they do on tubes of flake white paint? Or do a niche sideline (like “Classic Coke”) of perfumes containing these supposedly hazardous substances, for people who prefer the smoothness, richness and longevity that oakmoss and its ilk provide? Who are willing, and would pay more, to risk death by oakmoss? To live dangerously, that is, over 100 ppm?

(Hmmm...maybe that's not so desirable in corporate perfumeland. Hmmm...better for the bottom line to have to spray yourself all day long, use up your bottle and have to buy more)

I smell a rat.

I’m wondering exactly how expensive it is to harvest oakmoss. I mean, it can’t be easy. It’s a lichen. It grows in lots of different places. My guess is that obtaining it might involve dealing with temperamental small-time suppliers in the boonies, weather, blights, fluctuating prices, fluctuating availability, the hassle of extracting it, shipping it, customs paperwork, etc. etc. Why not just synthesize it in some sleek lab?

But apparently, that’s not so easy. Oakmoss is not a simple substance to replicate, or so I’ve read. I wonder how difficult the other ones on the EU no-no list might be. Bet all that allergy testing costs big bucks, too. Hmmmm. Wonder where that cash is coming from?

In the world of art and painting, flake white is a “niche” product. It’s toxic, yeah, but they let us judge. They warn us, but we can get flake white if we really want it.

I could be wrong, but this issue of “dermal sensitization” seems just a little too convenient."

It's pretty clear that perfume lovers are not going to win this battle. Business is business, the stakes are high, and we're a tiny little group in the great big world. But how many painters are there? How many who paint in oil and insist on the highest-quality ingredients? There can't be that many.

Perhaps the art supply industry, with its full range of available materials, just values its own history more than the fragrance industry does. And that's a shame.


lady jicky said...

This gets my knickers in a knot! There goes Mitsouko! It has to be money related.
I can use my pastels until clouds of dust take over my room and I breath it in my the ton and I can still buy them!!
I tell you - there is something "Sniffy" up with Oakmoss and sadly it isn't going to be sniffed in perfume soon! Rrrrr

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Vida said...

I LOVE your idea of a niche line of "poisonous" perfumes, for those of us who don't mind a little risk in our lives! Wonder how we could get around the regs...?

Flora said...

I think it probably is money - the big chemical companies, with swarms of lobbyists at their beck and call, get to foist their patented molecules off on the perfumers who are unable to get their prized natural ingredients anymore. For a nice big price too.

Anonymous said...

O how I wish more citus scents were available in powder, lotion, bath gel, etc. for layering! Jean Nate?