What Is Perfume?

Perfume is a mixture of fragrant essential oils or aroma compounds, fixatives and solvents, usually in liquid form, used to give the human body, animals, food, objects and living spaces an agreeable scent. Traditionally, perfumes have been formulated from natural aromatic plant extracts, but modern formulations may contain synthetic odorants as well. In addition to the perfume oil itself, a typical perfume contains from ten to hundreds of ingredients.

The ingredients of perfume are derived from both natural and synthetic sources, and the perfume itself is composed of three structural parts called top notes, middle notes and base notes. Top notes have a fresh scent that evaporates quickly, typically within 30 minutes after application or during the perfume’s dry-down period. Middle notes provide the heart of the fragrance, lasting for up to 24 hours. Base notes linger on the skin, and are the result of the interaction between the perfume and its wearer. [2]

Historically, perfumes were largely a matter of personal choice, with a variety of factors influencing what scents women chose to wear. Perfume wearing was often associated with social status, and the smell of a woman’s fragrance was believed to reflect her personality and character. During the Renaissance and into the nineteenth century, perfume was very popular, with both men and women wearing scents. By the mid-nineteenth century, the promotion of germ theory and the understanding that smells carried illness led to a decline in perfume use and a more conservative view of its role. During the early twentieth century, gender stereotypes in fragrance choice began to take hold, with sweet floral blends becoming considered exclusively feminine and sharper woody, pine and cedar perfumes being deemed masculine.

The process of creating a perfume begins with selecting the raw materials. The raw materials are then processed into perfume oils using one of six methods: steam distillation, boiling, solvent extraction, enfleurage and maceration. Steam distillation is the most common technique, whereby steam passing through the plants in a still produces the oil. In the enfleurage technique, flowers are placed in tanks that are filled with a solvent such as benzene or petroleum ether. The solvent dissolves the waxes in the petals, leaving a highly concentrated flower oil known as an absolute. The remaining oil is extracted from the absolute by treating it with alcohol.

The perfumers then combine the head, middle and base notes to create the final product. The perfumer will sometimes make changes to the perfume after it has been tested on a number of people for its effect and to ensure that the perfume is pleasant to wear. The final product is bottled and sold in containers that often carry the labels “pour homme” or “pour femme” to denote whether it is intended for male or female customers. Perfumes can cause allergic contact dermatitis, and it is important to identify any sensitivities to specific components. Perfume is also flammable, and care should be taken to keep it away from open flames and heat sources.