Perfume is a mixture of fragrant oils, aroma compounds, fixatives or solvents, which are used to give humans, animals, food and living spaces a pleasant scent. It is a form of aromatics and fragrance compounds produced by plants, including fruits, blossoms, vegetables and other parts of the plant.
There are many types of perfume, each with a different scent and chemistry. Some are odorless, while others are highly concentrated and last for long periods of time on the skin.
A perfume consists of a main scent that is mixed with various other compounds that are called “layers” or “bases”. They help to enhance the primary scent and add some stability and structure. There are also “fixatives” and “blenders” that help smooth out the transition between the different layers.
The main scent is typically created using a process called maceration or enfleurage. These methods capture the scent molecules in a liquid, usually oil or fat, and then extract them with alcohol. The amount of alcohol required to extract the scent varies depending on the type of perfume, as does the age of the material. The perfume can take months to years to fully develop.
Traditionally, perfume was made from essential oils, which are the most potent source of scents available. However, synthetics have become more popular, offering a variety of odorants that are not readily available from natural sources. Some of the most common synthetic odorants include linalool and coumarin.
Synthetics are also a cheaper alternative to obtaining some natural perfume components and can be created by blending chemicals found in nature. Calone, a compound of synthetic origin, imparts a fresh ozonous metallic marine scent that is widely used in contemporary perfumes.
Chemicals used in the formulation of perfumes can vary greatly, from the very expensive petrochemical compounds to the very inexpensive vegetable oils and other natural substances, which are cheaper but often produce less stable formulas. Some of these ingredients are flammable or can cause health or environmental problems.
Some of these chemicals are regulated or require registration by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They can be harmful to health, or cause allergic reactions and other negative effects, such as asthma, skin irritation, dermatitis and reproductive damage.
Natural versus synthetic perfumes
In contrast to artificially produced synthetic perfumes, natural perfumes contain no additives or preservatives and have the same basic aroma composition as the original ingredient. The primary component of most natural perfumes is a flower or fruit.
A variety of flowers and fruit can be used as the base for a perfume, including rose, jasmine, lavender, orange blossoms and geranium. Other scents such as vanilla and musk are also used to provide additional complexity.
The base of a perfume is typically mixed with several other ingredients that are called “layers” or “bases.” These include ethereal oils, resins, woods and amber bases. There are also a large number of blending and fixatives, which smooth out the transition between different layers or bases.