What Is Fragrance?

Fragrance is a complex mixture of various odorous substances that evaporate at different times. The perfumer’s objective is to create a balance of these odorous ingredients in order to provide the desired fragrance. Modern perfumes contain from tens to hundreds of natural and synthetic ingredients. These ingredients include essential oils extracted from roots, bark and flowers of aromatic plants; and a wide range of synthetic aromatic chemicals. The scents from these natural ingredients are combined with a variety of fixatives and solvents to produce a finished product. The use of a large number of ingredients complicates the task of determining the safety of a perfume; however, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) maintains a database of 3,059 fragrance chemicals that have been linked to health problems including cancer, reproductive toxicity and sensitivities.

Modern perfumes may be grouped by their concentration level, scent family and scent note. The concentration levels, extrait, parfum, eau de toilette and eau de cologne, refer to the percentage of the aromatic compounds in a perfume. The differences in dilutions may cause the same perfume to smell differently, even within the same perfume house’s line of products. For example, a parfum of a certain perfume will likely have a higher concentration of perfume oil than an eau de toilette of the same perfume.

The scent groupings of a perfume are somewhat arbitrary; many fragrances contain elements of several families. A perfume designated as a floral will probably have a blend of notes from other families. Moreover, individual flowers tend to differ in their aromas based on how they are grown, harvested and extracted. For this reason, a perfumer will often prefer one particular flower over another, or one extraction method over another. The same is true of other raw materials; a rose harvested in Morocco and one grown and extracted in France will likely smell different, despite using the same extraction methods.

A perfume’s scent notes are divided into “top notes,” which evaporate first and quickly, middle notes and base notes. A top note may last only a few minutes, while the middle and base notes linger on the skin for hours. The middle notes are the heart of a perfume, and the base adds depth and solidity to the fragrance. The earliest perfumes were simple, consisting of only a few ingredients, including the essence of a single flower, or a blend of flowers and spices. As Christianity introduced a more austere attitude towards adornment, perfume production declined. Its revival began in the eighteenth century, with the aristocracy of Europe wearing scented body powder, and the court of Louis XV of France was known as “La Cour Perfumée.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, perfume had become an integral part of a woman’s wardrobe. The perfumer of the time advised that different perfumes should be worn for each occasion, with a special scent for going out in the evening and a different perfume for bathing. The use of perfume as a mark of social distinction continued into the twentieth century, with women wearing the most expensive scents and men wearing cologne.