Ambergris substitute for high-end perfumes found by Canadian scientists

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

The idea of daubing ambergris, or whale vomit, on your skin probably doesn't sound too appealing but women and men have been doing it for a very long time.

Now they may not have to.

Canadian scientists have found a synthetic replacement for ambergris, barf used to help perfumes and colognes last longer on the skin. Turns out, it can be synthetically engineered from the gene of the balsam fir tree.

Real ambergris is a waxy substance made from a regurgitated mixture of seashells, fish bones and a sticky inner-stomach substance that turns into a rock-like object once it reacts with sea water, Postmedia News reports. It is produced by sperm whales who barf up the musky-scented substance like giant hairballs. The chunks wash ashore and command high prices because they are prized by the perfume industry.

But University of British Columbia researchers discovered the balsam fir gene can be used to make a cheaper and more sustainable substitute that reduces the need for natural ambergris.

"The use of ambergris in the fragrance industry has been controversial," lead researcher Joerg Bohlmann, professor of botany and forest sciences, said in a university news release. "First of all, it's an animal byproduct and the use of such in cosmetics has been problematic, not to mention it comes from the sperm whale, an endangered species."

Bohlmann and postdoctoral research associate Philipp Zerbe are publishing their findings in the April 6 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The ban on commercial whaling means ambergris that's approved for use is collected on shorelines bordering known sperm whale habitats in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Caribbean. Sage has been used as a plant-based substitute but yields are variable and unpredictable, the university said.

"We've now discovered that a gene from balsam fir is much more efficient at producing such natural compounds, which could make production of this bio-product less expensive and more sustainable," said Bohlmann.

UBC's university-industry liaison office is involved in commercializing the discovery and its related technology.

But small companies will continue to use natural ambergris for their products because of the odour it adds to perfumes, said Massimo Marcone, a Guelph University professor of food sciences.

"Small manufacturers prefer the ambergris because the substitutes miss the complexity of the natural smell," Marcone told Postmedia News. "Depending on the grading, a gram of ambergris can cost up to $50.''

The cosmetics industry is embracing the use of synthetics as vital to producing environmentally-sound products, said Darren Praznik, chief executive of the Canadian Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association.

"With the difficulty in obtaining compounds in volumes, it is easy to put a group of animals or plants in danger,'' Praznik told Postmedia News.

"Fragrance is composed of hundreds of small materials so synthetic molecules should be created.''