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Luxury perfume makers create stink over Europe allergy laws

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

An employee holds a Guerlain's perfume bottle at the KaDeWe department store in Berlin in this April 15, 2008 file photo.

PARIS - Luxury perfume brands fear the European Union is about to introduce measures that could cripple the $25 billion global industry in the name of protecting consumers against allergies.

New laws could severely curb or ban natural ingredients used in vintage best-sellers and put some perfume makers out of business.

But Brussels' proposed legislation - a draft will be unveiled early next year - is also causing a stir for another reason. It sheds light on the best-kept secret in the trade: many big brands have been tweaking their formulas for years.

"It is a taboo in the industry. People are scared to say anything about it," says Fflur Roberts, head of luxury goods at market research company Euromonitor.

Until now, changes to perfume formulas have come as a result of increasingly severe restrictions imposed by the industry's self-regulatory body, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), though ingredient shortages or cost-cutting have also played a part.

A new Europe-wide law would force even more severe tweaks.

The brands most affected will be those which have been in the perfume industry for more than half a century, such as Dior, Chanel and Guerlain. All those fragrances use many natural ingredients and were created before scientists started looking into perfumes' potential health hazards. Chanel's No.5, one of the world's best-selling perfumes and named after its creator's fifth trial, was created in 1921.

Chanel declined to comment to Reuters on whether it has ever changed the formula of its world-famous perfume, as did Guerlain, Dior and luxury brand Hermes, which all make high-end perfumes using natural ingredients.

Most luxury perfume names do not want to disclose the fact that they have had to make tweaks to their scents for fear they could lose customers or damage their carefully nurtured luxury brand.

If new, even stricter rules are adopted, hundreds of perfumes would have to be reformulated with synthetic allergen-free contents. That, many in the industry fear, could threaten their business.

"If this law goes ahead I am finished, as my perfumes are all filled with these ingredients," said Frederic Malle, who owns high-end perfume company Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle. The impact on luxury perfume brands as a whole would, he said, be "like an atomic explosion and we would not have the means to rebuild ourselves."

Most fine perfumes are composed of a mix of natural ingredients and synthetic molecules. Perfumes are made up of a concentrate that is diluted with alcohol, usually from beetroots.

Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

An employee creates a fragrance in a laboratory in Granja Viana, 25 miles south of Sao Paulo in this August 2, 2012 file photo.

Since its creation in 1973, the IFRA, which is financed by scent makers such as Givaudan, New York-listed International Flavors & Fragrances, and Germany's Symrise, has restricted natural ingredients for a range of health reasons, from worries about allergic reactions to cancer concerns.

Many traditional essences that perfume creators consider core to their craft have been blacklisted in recent decades. Birch tar oil was removed from Guerlain's Shalimar several decades ago because it was thought to be a cancer risk. Clove oil and rose oil, which contain a component called eugenol, and lavender, which contains linalool, may only be used in limited quantities in case of allergies.

An estimated 5 million to 15 million people, or 1 to 3 percent of the EU population, who are allergic or potentially allergic to natural ingredients contained in fine perfumes, according to a report published in July by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), an advisory body for the European Commission.

Europe is not the only region to look more closely at the impact of fragrance. Earlier this year Republican lawmaker Michele Peckham from New Hampshire proposed a bill in the state House to ban state employees who have contact with members of the public from wearing strong fragrances.

The bill did not pass, but other lawmakers are considering reintroducing similar legislation. Meanwhile the city of Portland in Oregon has asked public workers and citizens visiting and using public spaces to limit their use of scented products.

Some hospitals in the U.S. have also introduced bans on using perfumes.

The SCCS, whose recommendations Reuters was first to report in October, recommended that 12 substances used in hundreds of perfumes on the market today be limited to 0.01 percent of the finished product, a level perfume makers say is unworkable. The SCCS has proposed a total ban on tree moss and oakmoss, which scientists say are strong allergens.

If the recommendations are enforced by the European Commission, IFRA estimates some 9,000 perfume formulas would have to be changed.

Patrick Saint-Yves, president of the French Society of Perfume Creators (SFP), is furious about the recommendation.

"I simply find that there is a huge contradiction," Saint-Yves says. "We encourage the use of many essential oils such as lavender in aromatherapy for massages, but we want to ban it in perfumes. Shops continue to sell alcohol and cigarettes which do much more harm."

Part of the problem is the secrecy surrounding perfumes. Most perfume brands are reluctant to label their products. Unlike artists and writers, perfume creators have no intellectual property rights to the fragrances they compose for big brands, and so perfume brands fight hard to keep their formulas hidden.

LVMH, which owns Dior and Guerlain, and Chanel are lobbying Brussels to protect their perfumes, many of which were created decades ago.

"It is essential to preserve Europe's olfactory cultural heritage," LVMH told Reuters in an emailed statement.

Givaudan and L'Oreal declined to comment for this Reuters report.

Ignoring the recommendations altogether would be difficult. The European Consumer Group (BEUC) has welcomed the SCCS's report as a "thorough and evidence-based study" that is a starting point for the decisions ahead. 

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