As the director of IFRA UK for nearly ten years, Lisa Hipgrave has become almost synonymous with the organization, so it is sometimes easy to forget that she had a career as a perfumer prior to taking on this role.
“When I first began doing perfumery, I didn’t wholly understand what IFRA did, nor how they derived their standards. I only began to fully appreciate what they were involved with when I later worked in a more senior role within the fragrance industry,” Lisa reminisces. “I became a member of IFRA UK’s technical committee to start with, and later a member of the executive committee, which helped me to understand the breadth of what IFRA did and to fully appreciate what purpose trade associations have in supporting their membership.”
Most people on the periphery of the industry, and even sometimes within it, still struggle to fully understand IFRA’s role: “There are a lot of people that really believe IFRA is the regulator,” says Hipgrave, “that IFRA produces regulations, which of course we don’t – we have a Code of Practice, which, on the whole, mirrors what is contained within legislation – but there are distinct differences.”
It is the responsibility of the member organizations to comply with regulations and with IFRA’s Code of Practice. IFRA’s role includes working with dermatologists to understand the underlying mechanisms for sensitization and allergy, as well as participating in regulatory workgroups and other committees to put the industry’s case forward. All new IFRA Standards are open to a consultation period by members.
"I think we all understand sensitization better and are committed to ensuring as many people as possible are able to enjoy the benefits of fragrance.”
In the past, many have cast IFRA in the role of a villain, but in reality, IFRA is the Severus Snape of the fragrance world – doing the necessary work behind the scenes to protect, but often looking like the bad guy in doing so.
Backed by Science
It is actually due to IFRA that we haven’t lost some materials off the perfumer’s palette entirely, yet many wrongly view IFRA as the body attempting to take them away. “In some ways, I’m disappointed that historically we have not communicated as effectively as we could have, and when I first joined IFRA UK, we weren’t communicating to stakeholders at all,” explains Hipgrave.
“Now, I believe that we are becoming far more transparent and communicating better, however, it is probably still the case that some perfumers just aren’t exposed to what we’re doing and what we’re saying, so we need to up our game on taking this important dialogue even further.”
After all who can honestly say they wouldn’t want safe working conditions, safe products and a clean environment?
There have been many appeals to tradition about materials having historical use, and while it does sometimes look like the risk from fragrance allergy is exaggerated, approaching the topic from the point of a dermatologist gives a different perspective: “Dermatologists did have a narrow exposure because day in, day out, they are dealing with people who had acute allergies and whose lives were really affected,” explains Lisa, “whereas now, because we’re working more closely together, I think that they have a more proportionate view, and we have changed our process for developing standards, too. I think we all understand sensitization better and are committed to ensuring as many people as possible are able to enjoy the benefits of fragrance.”
“In summary, I think those casting IFRA UK in a negative light just don’t understand who we are and what we do.”
The basis of good science and rationality means that views inevitably change over time as new evidence emerges, particularly since the fragrance industry is a dynamic and constantly evolving sector. When constituents of materials are found to have been the cause of sensitization, or potential damage to the environment – or a main cause of phototoxic reactions – what kind of industry would we be if we would just carry on using them? It is in nobody’s interests to make large populations allergic to the products that we have a part in creating or to contribute to the destruction of the environment whilst doing so. Even just approaching things from a purely marketing-led point of view, eco-friendly and transparency-led companies are likely to do better with modern consumers than those wishing things were still like they were 50 years ago.
A Brief History of IFRA UK
IFRA UK was originally formed as the British Aromatic Compound Manufacturers’ Association in the 1940s, to help tackle common problems of quality and supply. This later became the BFA (British Fragrance Association), which in the early 1970’s together with other national fragrance associations developed a federation that formed the global association of IFRA. In 2010, the BFA rebranded under the name of IFRA UK.
All member associations of IFRA came together to collaborate on forming a common set of standards, attitudes and practices, which were incorporated into the IFRA Code of Practice.
The IFRA Standards form the basis for the globally accepted and recognized risk management system for the safe use of fragrance ingredients and is the self-regulating system of the industry, based on risk assessments carried out by an independent expert panel.
Lisa’s role as the director of IFRA UK is varied: “Our members contact IFRA with all sorts of questions covering a wide range of fragrance issues, including asking about interpretations of regulations or compliance, about insurance – and at the moment, as you can imagine, there is preoccupation with understanding what the impact of Brexit will be on our international industry. I am a part of the board who determine the strategic direction and business plan of the association and I also get involved with wider European projects.”
“In the UK, we need to keep abreast of proposed changes or additions to regulations and work closely with government to ensure our voice and point of view is understood by politicians and the decision-takers and policy-makers. IFRA UK organizes regular events and training days for our members and I am often called upon to speak at conferences and industry seminars. I also attend technical advisory group meetings and have collaborations with other trade associations – so life is never dull! While we are a small team at IFRA UK, I think we achieve an extraordinary amount, given that there are only three of us and we have certainly come a long way over the last decade and for me, the road ahead [for] the fragrance industry is an exciting one to be travelling on.”
A Way into Drama
Lisa originally wanted to be an actress but was told by her parents that if she wasn’t going to university, and wanted to go into theater instead, she would have to get a job to fund the endeavor herself. It was 1984 and Lisa was determined but a dreamer at heart.
“I had this notion that I was going to live a life of acting and in those days the Central School of Speech and Drama had to be self-funded. As I’d always studied and loved the sciences, I decided the answer lay in the Yellow Pages, so I trawled through looking for companies in the Milton Keynes area that dealt with chemicals.”
Unbeknownst to Lisa, she lived in the middle of a UK hub for fragrance and flavor activity.
“I phoned lots of companies up – and when you’re young, you have this idealistic conviction that just because you need a job, everyone will want to give you a job,” Lisa says and laughs, “and of course most of them said they didn’t have anything available.”
Lisa finally happened upon a company whose response was different: “They said they were advertising just then for a laboratory assistant, and invited me to go for an interview that same Friday.”
The company was Zimmerman Hobbs. When Lisa attended, she was given a smell test. She was asked to identify and try to describe different odors one might find around the house. “When they gave me – I think it was terpineol – I said it smells like Dettol, they’d say ‘Good, note that down.’”
Lisa was offered the job and started the very next week.
“I thought it was wonderful! Within a few weeks of working with the perfumers, who were very lovely and unusual characters who worked well together – they all had quite a happy-go-lucky way back then – I thought, I want to do what they do!”
Lisa was compounding, as well as transferring all the formulas to card indexes from the hand-written pieces of paper passed onto her by the perfumers. Back then they didn’t have computers, much less spreadsheets or software to help, and everything was done by hand.
“I had to take the information from scrappy pieces of paper, cost the formulas and compound them, too,” explains Lisa. “I spoke to one of the perfumers and asked how can I do what you are doing? So they said ‘Well, you’ve got to learn the odor of all the ingredients by heart first.’”
Lisa started decanting ingredients into sample vials and taking them home. “I’d write down what they were on the base of the sample vial. I’d blind test myself until I learned them, then start learning another 20.”
“I also had to enroll for a day release course at the local college to continue my studies in chemistry,” explains Lisa.
As often is the case, what happened next was part luck, part having done the homework: “It just so happened that one of the junior perfumers left when I had only been there for six months. It was very unusual to be given the opportunity so early.”
Lisa was able to immediately assist senior perfumers on GC-sniffing due to all the work she had done at home. She went straight into the junior perfumer program.
This was also a period of consolidation and acquisition in the fragrance industry. Zimmerman Hobbs was taken over by PFW. Guy Robert was a chief perfumer for PFW based in Paris.
“I used to get briefs from him,” explains Lisa, “and us juniors used to work over the phone with him. We’d put the fragrances together and then he would phone up with further instructions. By then we had computers and we were also recording the formulas that way. I would sometimes be working on the shower gel or lotion version of a big fragrance project.”
“Now, I believe that we are becoming far more transparent and communicating better ... [and] we need to up our game on taking this important dialogue even further.”
Lisa stayed at the company until 1989. “I wanted to expand my horizons at that point,” explains Lisa, “there was another job I did interview for but then turned it down.” Immediately regretting not spreading her wings, Lisa happened to hear from an evaluator colleague that Belmay was looking for young people.
“I phoned the chief perfumer at the time – Tony Dallimore – and spoke to him. He interviewed me and gave me a smelling test; a much more involved one this time, now that I was interviewing for a perfumer’s job rather than that of a lab assistant.”
“Tony had a very specific training process where you would work mixing one ingredient to another and multiple quantities learning how two ingredients combined until you reached the blend you were looking for. Of course, you had to see how they also worked in foam bath and shower gel and so on,” explains Lisa.
“He was a really natural teacher – and additionally, Belmay was a really open company. The teams shared everything. One day you might be working on a particular formula and someone could offer help from another country and give you a base of theirs you could start with. In fact, we had access to all the formulas at Belmay, whereas at PFW, things were more secretive because they had some big-name global fragrance formulas – they had the Old Spice fragrance, only a part of which was produced in England and the rest elsewhere.”
From Perfumer to Director
Lisa remained at Belmay for the rest of her perfumery career: “I loved my job. Just loved it there. I worked at Belmay as a perfumer and after some years there, I started to have more of a feeling about the direction the company should go in, so I took a bigger role in the management and eventually ended up as the director and general manager.”
“It was a gradual progression. I was made chief perfumer, and as part of that role, I had other responsibilities – management, training and so on. I loved the management side. And I didn’t miss the perfumery at that time because I was still within reach of it – perfumers were still bringing things to me, and I was still smelling things, and I was still interfering. I do have strong opinions that I like to share! I didn’t miss it then, but I do miss it now. I would like to bring more of the smelling into IFRA UK meetings but obviously that can only be done where appropriate. So we will try to make some of our events a bit more interactive,” explains Lisa.
Lisa left Belmay to take maternity leave. She had been the chairman of the IFRA UK executive committee and resigned the post upon departing Belmay, as it had been a company role. When she started looking for her next move, she was contacted about a role with IFRA UK.
“It was only during the interview itself that I fully realized how much I wanted the job. I realized it would be really varied, and most importantly that I could make a real difference in the industry.”
The IDEA Project
The International Dialogue for the Evaluation of Allergens (IDEA) project is designed to provide a broadly agreed and transparent framework for assessing fragrance sensitizers globally. IDEA is a long-term project conducted in partnership with the EU Commission.
“It’s a fantastic initiative,” says Hipgrave, “it’s an opportunity to build partnerships between the international fragrance industry and its stakeholders to improve the risk assessment of fragrance ingredients identified as allergens for better consumer protection.”
“It was originally done to bring the fragrance industry, dermatologists, members of EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) and other stakeholders together – to clinically look at the mechanisms of allergy; and how it happens in the first place.”
“The objective is to ensure that human health and safety are a priority. And they’ve had to look at aggregate exposure, so it’s not just single dose exposure now. They are going further down the line,” Lisa says.
As part of this collaborative effort to redefine the quantitative risk assessment (QRA) methodology, IFRA is preparing for a change to the way in which IFRA categories are presented and organised. QRA2 is due to launch this year. “We are going to arrange workshops to help people get through it,” promises Lisa, “It is going to represent a big change and for that reason, it’s being done very carefully, and while it has been delayed a little, that is because it’s being really carefully scrutinized. It also needs a thorough consultation process, and it will also have a much longer transition period than normal to try to mitigate some of the issues it might cause.”
One of the outcomes of all this work should be a much deeper understanding of what exactly triggers a reaction in the first place.
Allergy includes two phases: induction of specialized immunological T cell memory in an individual by repeated exposure to an allergen (i.e. the immune system learns to react) and elicitation, i.e. production of an immune system (T cell) mediated allergic response subsequent to exposure of a sensitized individual to the allergen (visible skin reaction). Usually, lower doses are necessary for elicitation than are required for induction. The work being done by IFRA in relation to this could further the way in which the whole industry handles potential allergens: “We could see things like consumer home testing kits in the future,” explains Lisa.
“In a nutshell, I want to get the story of fragrance and IFRA UK firmly into the public domain and while we’re definitely not a toddler anymore, there is still a lot more for us to learn and put into practice. For me, it is about everyone who works in the fragrance industry, whether they are involved in manufacturing or marketing fragrance compounds, I’d encourage them to join IFRA UK and become an active member of the community and helping us to spread the word about the benefits of fragrance in all our lives.”