Perfumes have been around for thousands of years, but the use of perfume in ancient cultures goes far back in human history. Biblical references mention the use of fragrant offerings such as myrrh and incense, which purify the body and mind. The production of perfumed oils and unguents began with the slow maceration of aromatic plants. Ancient perfumes were based on a combination of natural oils, essential oils, and aromatic compounds.
The smell of perfume is best perceived around 30 minutes after applying it. In some cases, the scent may not be noticeable until the next day. The most common base notes are musk, vanilla, oakmoss, patchouli, and cedarwood. Fragrances have long been associated with a positive emotional effect, and some are even known to improve mood. In addition to improving mood, pleasant scents can improve cognitive function, sleep, and even pain tolerance, through opioid pathways.
Almost all cosmetics contain some type of fragrance. Fragrances are made up of several hundred different ingredients, and are therefore often complex blends of hundreds of substances. Perfumes are the primary ingredient in air fresheners, facial cleansers, and cosmetics. Perfumes are also used in household products, such as detergents, shampoos, and shower gels. They impart a pleasant odor to these products that might otherwise lack such qualities.
A good perfume contains three distinct notes. The top note, or most important ingredient, is the most subtle and lasts only for a few hours. The middle note, or base note, is the most persistent. These notes make up the majority of the perfume’s scent. Perfumes are classified according to their dominant odours. Common top notes include light fruits and herbs like tangerines and oranges. Some perfumes even contain more than 100 ingredients, so understanding them is essential.
There are three primary ingredients used in making perfume: animal products, plant substances, and synthetic compounds. The plant substances are harvested from around the world, and they are often handpicked. The animal products are extracted from animals. Perfume chemists create synthetic compounds to use as fragrance. Various methods are used to extract oils from these substances. Steam distillation, solvent extraction, maceration, and expression are some of the methods used to extract essential oils from plant substances.
Once popular in the 17th century, perfume spread across the monarchy. King Louis XIV was known as the “perfume king” and the court contained a floral pavilion filled with aromatic scents. In the palace, dried flowers were placed in bowls throughout the palace, and guests were often doused with the fragrance. Grasse, the city where perfume was first produced, is today a leading perfume producer. Its popularity is not only a testament to its quality but also its prestigious history.
The composition of perfumes varies considerably. A typical full perfume is composed of 10 to 20 percent of pure perfume oils, while colognes are composed of three to five percent oil diluted in 80-90% alcohol. Toilet water, a less expensive version, contains 2% oil in 60-80% alcohol, and only two percent oil in water. The master perfumer works with several hundred ingredients to create a unique scent, and the final product can cost billions of dollars.