Alcohol-free fragrances: towards more hedonistic perfumes?

Water-soluble fragrances have long been reserved for children. This segment is still expanding today, as can be seen with L’Eau Soilogne by Petit Bateau, Cabriole by Hermès, or Bonne Étoile by Dior. We can also think of the summer versions of classic perfumes, launched in the early 2000s, to smell good under the sun.

A host of launches

Alcohol-free fragrances are now appealing to a new customer base looking for a more intimate sensorial experience. “When J’adore Parfum d’Eau de Dior was launched in 2022, it marked a real turning point by reinventing the promise of pleasure,” says Sylvain Eyraud, Marketing & Communications Director at Takasago. The deeply natural floral bouquet was enriched with a generous gesture for the skin, a milky texture suggested by the opalescent bottle.

In early May, Guerlain unveiled L’Eau Rose, an alcohol-free version of La Petite Robe Noire. This reinterpretation combines the pleasure of the original formula – though a little more floral – with the moisturizing freshness of rose water. It is a first for the brand, which adapted its best-seller with a new skincare application, gentler for the skin.

These aqueous bases are just as suitable for fine perfumery as they are for hair and body care. And that is a real asset, as multifunctional products are enjoying real success, as can be seen with the Sakura body and hair perfumed mist by Rituals.

While water-soluble fragrances seem to be trendy, they also enjoy a more positive image. Plus, alcohol is sometimes targeted by the authorities. “In California, the home fragrance industry is subject to drastic restrictions on the presence of alcohol in perfumes. Regulations impose a maximum level of 18% of volatile organic compounds in stick diffusers. As a matter of fact, for a standard fragrance composed of a perfume concentrate in an ethanol base, the alcoholic molecules are considered volatile molecules,” explains Thomas Delmas, Technology Director at Cosmo International Fragrances. “Fine fragrances historically benefited from exemptions, but the pressure is mounting. Maximum concentrations are now set at 75%, and should be reduced to 50% by 2031”, he continues.

It is the perfect backdrop for the development of new generations of products!

New technologies

In late 2023, Cosmo International Fragrances filed a patent for the AquaElixir technology, promising high concentrations of water-soluble fragrances, with a moisturizing effect, longer wear, and a more assertive power in its evolution than a standard fragrance, the whole being 100% biodegradable and 100% natural.

Expressions Parfumées adopted the same approach to unveil its Aqua Hybrid technology at the in-cosmetics 2024 show. This technology makes it possible to carve water-soluble fragrances at high, tenacious, powerful doses, “ideally embracing the naturalness trend for a sophisticated rendering. Our formulas can be up to 99% natural”, says Marie-Eugénie Bouge, Marketing & Communication Director.

About ten years ago, Takasago was a pioneer with AquaScent, a fragrance micro-emulsion technology involving micro-droplets so fine that they let light pass through for a transparent finish. Plus, they are evenly distributed in water thanks to surfactants.

It is a real alternative to alcohol, because it is the perfume gesture that comes closest to traditional perfumery, in terms of transparency and texture, in particular thanks to enhanced pumps”, explains Marine Ipert, perfumer at Takasago. Above all, the aqueous base makes it possible to incorporate repairing and moisturizing actives to the fragrance. “But also to provide the skin with a soft appearance and satin-smooth touch,” she continues.

Now, that is enough to satisfy the skinification demand for perfume! This trend has got to all beauty categories, blurring the boundaries between skincare and other products.

Water-soluble fragrances have the advantage of being clean. Their moisturizing properties lend themselves perfectly to hair mists, which are much trendy, but also to the layering trend,” says Marie-Eugénie Bouge. “These alcohol-free fragrances are also environmentally friendly, as they require lower doses for the same power and longer wear,” she continues. “The concentration of AquaElixir in the finished product makes it possible to divide the use of biobased resources by four, compared with plant-derived alcohol, which reduces the environmental impact of the final product,” adds Thomas Delmas.

Alcohol-free perfumes embrace the green trend in the beauty world and have a positive image in the public unconscious. Consumers have the image of a shorter formula, which leaves out the alcohol to concentrate on the essential: the fragrance. Just like the signature of J’adore Parfum d’Eau: water, flowers, that’s all. “But in fact, this type of formula is closer to a ‘care’ than to a ‘green’ product,” explains Sylvain Eyraud.

Transformed perfumes

But these technologies also change the way perfume is expressed. This is because the alcoholic base amplifies the evaporation curve of the ingredients, whereas a “technology such as Aqua Hybrid smoothes out the evolution”, explains Marie-Eugénie Bouge. With an aqueous base, the fragrance changes to a lesser extent, it is more like one piece. To her, it is actually an advantage, because today, “the purchase decision in a shop is made from the top notes”. But it involves formulating differently, “to offset the lifting effect of alcohol at the top”.

If the fragrance is well structured, all its facets remain present, despite a less sequenced blossoming”, says Marine Ipert. This is all the more true than innovations now make it possible to “remedy the linear side of aqueous bases”, points out Thomas Delmas.

Some molecules have less affinity with water than others, like citrus fruit in the top notes, and musks and woods in the base notes. This is also the case for vanillin, which is not stable in water. “They can be used, but to a lesser extent, in order to obtain a perfume concentrate compatible with the aqueous base. Some olfactory facets are more complex to adapt, but it does not mean they will disappear. It is a question of adaptation rather than constraint,” continues Marine Ipert.

Be it as it may, given its many advantages and ever-increasing regulatory pressure, some people see water-soluble perfume as the future of perfumery! For Thomas Delmas, it could even account for a significant part of launches over the next five years.

The two gestures will coexist without competing”, says Marine Ipert. “Aqueous bases certainly offer an alternative to alcohol, but alcohol remains the most neutral matrix for the fragrance to express itself. It is also less expensive. Aqueous bases require a very long, highly technical development time: no less than three years for the alcohol-free Clean Reserve range that Takasago designed using AquaScent for Clean Beauty Collective,” she explains.

Alcohol is a real slap of freshness”, which an aqueous base does not offer, according to Sylvain Eyraud. “But water-soluble perfumes will have an existence of their own. They bridge the gap between perfume and skincare. Eventually, this approach could also embrace actives related to wellness, thanks to perfume companies’ neuroscience programmes”.

Alcohol-free fragrances are defining the contours of a benevolent, hedonistic, hyper sensitive perfumery. The skincare dimension sounds like a return to the roots of perfumes, echoing the therapeutic virtues lent to Aqua Mirabilis, from which Eau de Cologne is derived.

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