Perfume has had a special place in history and culture for thousands of years. Obviously, what our ancestors made their perfume from was quite different from the additives in modern fragrances. But the basics of perfume-making itself have remained generally the same. It is made from a variety of materials from nature and synthetic materials, and the art of perfume-making has evolved over time to create some truly unique and tantalizing scented products.
What is Perfume Made of: A Brief History
The word perfume comes from the Latin word 'per fumum,' which means 'through smoke.' This reflects the ancient methods used to create what we now think of as perfume. The earliest perfumes were made by extracting oils from plants and flowers and then burning them. This created a fragrant smoke that was used to mask bad smells and to refresh the air.
As civilization progressed, different cultures began to develop their own methods for making perfume. In Mesopotamia, for example, people used to grind herbs and spices into a paste, which was then burned on charcoal. In Egypt, the most popular method was to soak plant materials in oil or fat and then apply the mixture to the skin.
The first true perfume, as we know it today, was created by the Arabs. They began by distilling and extracting oils from plants. This allowed them to create a concentrated form of fragrance that was much more potent than anything that had been created before. From there, the art of making perfume spread to Europe, where it continued to evolve.
Today, perfume is basically made up of a mixture of essential oils and other aromatic compounds, extracting them in more modern ways than those that were used in ancient days. These are dissolved in a solvent, which can be alcohol or another type of oil. The ratio dictates whether a perfume will be strong and long-lasting, or light and fleeting.
Let's look at some of the common additives used to make perfume.
These are the heart of the perfume, and they provide the fragrance's main notes. They are volatile oils that have a strong scent and are extracted from plants. These can be derived from:
The most common flower used in perfumery is the rose; other popular choices include jasmine, neroli (orange blossom), and tuberose. Fruits like citrus fruits, berries, and melons are also popular, as are spices such as cinnamon, clove, and pepper.
In addition to essential oils, aromatic compounds are often used to create perfume. These can be either natural or synthetic. Natural aromatic compounds are typically derived from:
These materials are usually extracted using a manufacturing process called steam distillation, which is the most effective manufacturing process for substances such as woods, roots, and bark.
Synthetic aromatic compounds, on the other hand, are created in a laboratory. These can be used to recreate natural aromas or to create completely new ones.
As we mentioned before, the oils and aromatic compounds need to be dissolved in a solvent to create perfume. Alcohol is the most common choice, as it evaporates quickly and doesn't leave a greasy residue on the skin. However, some people prefer their compounds are dissolved in oil-based solvents, as they tend to be more long-lasting.
To make a perfume last longer, fixatives are often added to the manufacturing process. These are materials that help to slow down the evaporation, stabilize the aroma of a perfume and help it last longer. Common fixatives include:
In addition to the primary components we've listed, other materials may be used in the creation of perfume. These include:
- floral waters (like rosewater)
- fruit extracts
- vegetable extracts
- wines and spirits (like brandy)
- diluted alcohols
- composite bases
Generally, any material that is capable of dispersing one or more perfume ingredients and which will stay dispersed in the final product can be used as a vehicle for a perfume. The choice of materials will be dictated in large part by the ultimate use to which the perfume will be put and by the type of scented aroma being created. For example, woods create a distinctive aroma that can’t be recreated using any other additive.
From the Laboratory
Some modern perfumes contain what are known as 'synthetic' ingredients. These are materials that have been created in laboratories and which may be used to recreate the smells of nature or to create something completely new.
Most synthetics are based on molecules that occur in nature but have been modified in some way to make them more stable or longer lasting, or to alter their smell. Synthetic ingredients may be used on their own or in combination with scented products found in nature.
In contrast, it’s estimated that over 95% of commercial perfume contains petrochemicals. These petrochemicals are primarily used to retain moisture which helps their longevity when you’ve applied it to your skin.
Whether you're fascinated by what our ancestors made their perfumes out of, or more interested in today's modern components, there's no doubt that perfume is an intriguing topic, and one that tells us a lot about our history and culture. As for what perfume is made of, clearly the versatility of modern-day processes and additives means a lot can be left to your own imagination!