Do Perfume Reformulations Really Matter?

If you spend any amount of time with frag heads you are guaranteed to hear a rant or two on how the fragrance companies keep ruining classic fragrances by constantly reformulating them.  Talk to any Dior Homme (Amazon) fan and he will tell you great detail the nuances of each batch by year and month of release bemoaning how Dior ruined their masterpiece in search of higher profits.

Dave from Fragrance Bros., however, takes a refreshing view on reformulations: he doesn't hate them and he believes you shouldn't either.  In a video published on his YouTube channel he explains why.​

Why Do Companies Reformulate Their Fragrances? 

In his video Dave explains that companies change the composition of their fragrances to comply with industry regulations.  As the study and knowledge of different natural and synthetic aroma-chemicals grows, industry regulators change the rules fragrance companies follow in an attempt to protect consumers. Sometimes these changes make sense, but many times they are nonsensical.​

Some of the IFRA rules (the indusry's regulatory body) follow this logic: restaurants should never serve water in glasses because it is more likely that someone might drown by drinking water from a glass.  

It sounds silly but is it possible?

Yes, I suppose it is.

Is it probable?

Your chances of winning the lottery are higher, even if you don't play.​

Yet, again, IFRA's rules are sometimes made to accommodate the tiniest of minorities.

I agree with Dave's point: companies reformulate their fragrances mostly to comply with regulations.  He also argues that it makes no business sense for a company to mess with a successful product.​

Dave's point is logical but what if the successful product is not as successful as it once was?  What if sales have been steadily declining as the core clientele of a fragrance is literally dying out?  Unlike Coke, a perfume could smell dated and its sales may benefit from a little face lift.​

Take Chanel No. 5. Originally released on May 5, 1921, the fragrance is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year.  Its core customer base is not much younger.​

Perfume Reformulation | ScentBound

Source: Wikipedia

As tastes and trends change, Chanel feels pressured to evolve the No. 5 line in response to those trends.  This is why the company recently released a whole arsenal of No. 5 flankers appealing to younger crowd.  The original was also reformulated to comply with regulations (especially the oakmoss restriction) and customer preferences.

Hermes had to do a similar exercise with Equipage.  Released in 1970, the fragrance was a symbol of masculinity and elegance in its time.  Today, it is often associated with old men who spend too much time tanning in St. Tropez and chasing after girls their granddaughters' age.  I have a decant of Equipage, which I spray when I want a boost of virility and raw masculinity.

To appeal to younger crowds, in 2015 Hermes released Equipage Geranium - a much fresher and more modern scent than the original.  In 2013, the company also released Bel Ami Vetiver - a more modern version of its classic Bel Ami (which was also reformulated).​

Technically speaking these are examples of flankers.  Their existence, however, doesn't negate the fact that the originals were also touched up.  It's a fine balance of modernizing a fragrance without deterring existing loyal customers.​

​Trussardi went through a similar reinvention when in 2011 they re-released their classic Trussardi Uomo. It was a shell of the original masculine from the 1980s but much more in line with today's trends.

Overall, companies reformulate mostly to comply with regulations, stay relevant and improve margins.

Why You Shouldn't Hate Reformulations​

Dave gives five reasons why he doesn't hate reformulations and why you shouldn't either.​

1. We Live in a Post-Formulation World​

Dave makes a good point saying that the oldest versions of most fragrances we love are reformulations themselves.  This is mostly true for those of us who are in their 20s and 30s.  

Even if you are in your early forties, chances are that most of the fragrances you've laid your nose on through conventional means have been reformulations of originals.  Very few of us can brag about owning or even smelling the original version of Chanel No. 5 from 1921.

On the other hand, you have fragrances released in the last 20 years that have been reformulated.  Allegedly, Le Male (released in 1995) has been reformulated.  Chances are that if you are in your late 30s or early 40s you might have owned a bottle of the original Le Male.  In this case, the rule of knowing only reformulations would not apply to you.​

2. Creativity and Technology Will Always Outpace Regulation​

Dave argues that creativity and technology progress faster than regulations.  He is correct that restrictions force us to be resourceful and that technology allows us to be more creative.  Dave gives an example of Guerlain, which leveraged technology to remove a certain banned molecule from oakmoss, while keeping the scent profile intact.​

In an interview with Helder Suffenplan for Scentury James Heeley explains that in order to recreate the oakmoss effect in his Chypre 21, he had to combine several different ingredients.  He also had to use a patchouli oil extracted through a relatively new method called carbon dioxide extraction.  The aroma profile of the patchouli in Chypre 21 is different and unique mostly because of the technology used to obtain the note.

3. Not All Reforms are Bad​

Just because a fragrance is reformulated doesn't mean it is worse than the original.  Many times it is better.  Many times you can't even tell the difference.​

Dave makes a valid point that many frag heads obsess too much about subtle differences between different version of a fragrance.  Just like him, I don't notice much of a difference between Dior Homme 2005 vs. Dior Homme 2011.  Arguably the older version lasts longer and has a more pronounced cocoa note.  To me, however, the essence of the scent is the same regardless of which version you pick.​

4. Being an Early Adopter is Beneficial​

If you are reading this, you are probably into fragrances, which means you probably stay on top of new releases.  Dave's advice is simple: you like a fragrance, buy it now.  If it's a new release and you get it now, you don't have to worry about it being reformulated - you'd already have a bottle of the original.​

5. Fragrance is Temporal​

Fragrance is probably the only luxury item whose enjoyment requires you to live in the moment.  Instead of worrying about reformulations, just spray on some more and enjoy what you have to the fullest.​

Dave's advice here is invaluable: don't worry about reformulations.  Enjoy what you have. If you run out or it gets reformulated, move on.​

​I've experienced this first hand.  Last winter I saw Mugler's Pure Malt (Amazon) on sale at a department store near me.  I went and I bought two bottles knowing that it is a limited edition release and soon they might pull it off the market.  I was ecstatic.  I was certain I would be wearing Pure Malt all winter long and that I would definitely finish the two bottles I bought.

​I wore Pure Malt less than five times this past winter.  I found out that I wasn't that much into it as I had thought.

For me fragrances are very mood-driven.  Just because I adore a scent this season, doesn't mean I will love it a year from now.  I have tried to pre-plan fragrance purchases just to find out that I don't feel like wearing my pre-planned perfume for this occasion.  

Last year I had planned to wear Kobe (Xerjoff) during a trip in Italy.  I bought the fragrance a month before the trip but when I departed, I realized, I don't even feel like wearing Kobe.  I felt like putting on another perfume.

The lesson for me is that if perfume is related to feelings, buying perfume to have for the future is like counting on you having those same feelings associated with the perfume.  In my experience it never works.

Messing with Art and the Ethical Dilemma of Reformulations

Perfume Reformulations | ScentBound

Whether reformulations matter depends on how you see perfume.  If you look at perfume as a toiletry item, like your toothbrush or shaving cream, then reformulating a fragrance doesn't really matter. The perfume will still maintain its basic function - to smell good.  You probably wouldn't care if Colgate starts using spearmint instead of peppermint in its toothpaste as long as it still gets the job done.

If you see perfume as art, however, reformulation is a big deal.  Reproducing copies of original art and selling them as originals is called counterfeiting.  Law enforcement around the world takes counterfeiting so seriously that virtually all countries around the world have especially designated units investigating such crimes.

If you create a very close replica of a Matisse painting and "forget" to disclose that it is actually a replica, you are committing a fraud.

Matisse Fauves at Albertina

Fauves at Albertina by Henry Matisse. Source:

I don't think anyone can seriously argue the point that selling a replica as an original piece of art is legit.  Yet, the big designer fragrance houses constantly reformulate their original creations and sell these reformulations as originals.

In 2011 one of the largest fragrance companies decided to reformulate its original release with an iconic status and continued to market the reformulation under exactly the same name, branding and packaging.  In fact, the only way to tell the fragrance was reformulated was by smelling it and being able to discern slight differences.  Several bloggers have spent countless hours comparing reformulated batches of the fragrance and analyzing how they are different.  As the time of the reformulation, if you were to ask a sales rep whether the juice was reformulated, they would have stared at you as if you have three heads.  Then, they would summarily deny such a thing.​

One could argue that fragrance companies have the right to do whatever they like with their products.  This is absolutely true.  Isn't selling one product as another still fraud?

Meriam-Webster defines counterfeit as "made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive".  Isn't this what fragrance companies are doing?  They make an imitation of a fragrance and sell it under the same name, packaging and brand with a clear intent to make their customers believe that the reformulated fragrance is in fact the original.  Isn't that deception?​

​Here's analogy from the restaurant business:

You go to your favourite restaurant famous for its lamb burger.  You've had their signature dish before and you love it, so you decide to order it again.  

You open the menu, which reads Signature Lamb Burger with a Side of Arugula Salad and Spicy Mayo.  You order the burger and shortly, the server brings you the dish looking exactly like on the picture.  You take a big bite and as you chew it you notice that something is not quite right.  The burger is delicious but it doesn't taste like lamb.  You think maybe there is something wrong with your taste buds - it has to be the lamb burger because it looks exactly the same as before and the server told you "here's your lamb burger" when he brought it.​

Lamb Burger


You take another bite and you still notice that the distinctive taste of the lamb meat is not there.  You are confident that this burger tastes like beef, not lamb.  You call the server over and you politely ask her if this is the lamb burger.  Confidently, he responds that, indeed, it is.  He also offers to go and check in the kitchen if there was a mix-up of any sort.  You don't mind because you really want the lamb burger and not a beef one.

The server comes back confirming that this is the lamb burger and offers to get you a new one if this one tastes funny.  You accept and wait for another 15 minutes for the new burger to come.  You try the second burger the server brings you and it tastes the same as the first one - beef and not lamb.

Not sure what to do next, you settle for the beef burger pretending to be a lamb one.

A week later you see a friend and you share with her your burger experience.  She waves her hand dismissively and tells you

"Oh, yes, those guys got fined for false advertising.  There was an article in the Star that they switched their meat with beef but continued to advertise their burger as lamb.  People complained about the practice and the regulator investigated them."​

This is a fictitious story but a very close one to a real case where a high end restaurant was advertising its orange juice as "freshly squeezed", when in fact it came from a concentrate.

We tend to think of such business practices as deceiving, immoral and unethical.  The owners of such businesses get fined and shut down.​

No such thing happens to the fragrance companies.  They secretly reformulate their fragrances and sell them as originals with no repercussions.​

​The fragrance industry is probably the only one where such deception is common.  One reason of the practice is that there is no requirement for fragrance companies to disclose the ingredients of their products.

Another reason is that unlike the other senses, taste, hearing, vision and touch, smell is the most subjective one.  It is very hard for the average person to discern between two similar scents.  And because most people can't make such fine discernment, they do not notice reformulations and fragrance companies march ahead reformulating with impunity.

I'm not against reformulations.  In most cases regulations force companies to change the ingredients of their products.  What I am against is the common practice to cover up such changes and be secretive about them.  I find it immoral for anyone to sell one product under the label of another product.​

Instead of pretending that nothing has ever changed with their classic, I think fragrance companies need to come out open with their reformulations.  Label your reformulated bestseller 2.0 or 51.3 (in the case of Dior).  Call the new version of your perfume the "2016 Edition".  Such honesty and openness will only gain consumer's trust and convert casual shoppers into raving fans.​

What about the art?  Don't reformulations (disclosed or not) ruin original art?  They do and, therefore, companies should keep the original versions in limited circulation or in a vault.  There will always be avid fans willing to pay ten times the retail price for a limited edition version.  They are doing it right now on Ebay.  If perfume companies manage these early releases, they can control this market and get the premium markups on their own products.​

What is your take on reformulations?  What is your favourite fragrance that got reformulated?  How did you feel about it?