Secrets of Perfume Ingredients

Published: 01st July 2007
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Perfume today is produced mainly in laboratories but often relies on ancient ingredients. Some perfume ingredients still in use today are mentioned in ancient Egyptian texts and the Bible. Some of these ingredients had medicinal roles as well as aromatic properties which probably contributed to the belief-held until the mid-18th century-that perfume was as much a medicine as a cosmetic.

Mentioned in the Bible and other ancient texts, frankincense and myrrh were substances so valuable they rivaled even gold. Frankincense is a resin from a gum tree that is produced in shapes called "tears" when the bark of the scraggly Boswallia tree is disturbed. These trees are rare and grow mainly in arid Middle Eastern lands and require hand-harvesting, contributing to their exorbitant price.

Today, a fragrant product that uses frankincense is Love Butter by Carol's Daughter.

Myrrh, called a "bitter perfume" in the Christmas Carol "We Three Kings of Orient Are," is also used today. Myrrh is a gum resin produced from a bush-like desert plant. In Arabic, the name Myrrh means "bitter" and this burnt orange looking substance does indeed have a strong, bitter aroma. Originally used as incense, today Yves St. Laurent's Opium and Rage of the Seven Sinful Scents by Gendarme list myrrh as an ingredient.

Patchouli and sandalwood are both aromatic woods that come from Asia. Patchouli is grown in the East and West Indies while sandalwood comes from Nepal (about the farthest North it grows), India, Hawaii and Australia. While synthetics are often used today for these endangered woods, they have both been around for millennia as fragrance ingredients and have been prized for their healing properties.

The best-known patchouli scent on the market right now by far is Thierry Mugler's Angel. Mugler is a French perfumist and his unique Angel perfume is one of those love-it-or-hate-it kind of scents.

Sandalwood is used in aromatherapy and also does double-duty in the perfume world since it can serve as a fixative or anchor to other scents. Sandalwood has never really gone out of style. Today it's in lots of scents, including Dior Addict by Dior, Escada Magnetism, Hanae Mori Butterly, and the Cartier scent Delices de Cartier.

Amber has got to be one of the most surprising and unusual things that is put into perfume. People who hear that a perfume contains amber typically think of the golden resin used to make jewelry. Actually, that amber is not used in perfume making.

This amber is a short (and nicer-sounding) term for ambergris. Ambergris could be picked up along the coastline and was harvested this way for hundreds of years. It was a gray substance that beachcombers could pick up and sell to factories that used it for a variety of products. Since it had a very distinctive aroma, it was used in perfumery. Ambergris did not smell wonderful by itself, but it blended well with other ingredients and became a staple in perfume-making even before people knew what it was.

Even today, we don't really know what ambergris is, and perhaps we don't want to know. Sometime in the 19th century, it was known that this mysterious gray substance, which unpredictably appeared on the beaches of North America and other places, was associated with sperm whales. Today, it is thought that ambergris is a substance that sperm whales regurgitate after dining on their favorite meal of squid.

Be that as it may, amber in perfume today is synthetic stuff, made to mimic the scent of the original ambergris. Amber is found in Dolce and Gabbana's Light Blue, Vera Wang Princess, and Stella by Stella McCartney, to name a few.

As much as perfume relies on ancient ingredients, including plants (lavender), spices (cinnamon, cloves), flowers (roses, gardenias, honeysuckle, lilies) and fruits (orange, lemon, peach), it also relies on new ingredients.

The biggest "new thing" in perfume is the fact that today we live in a global village. Flowers indigenous to exotic lands can be easily obtained and put into perfume. We can now take advantage of Eastern spices, South Pacific flowers, North American musk, and Indian woods. Of course, much of this happens at the lab level, meaning in the form of synthetics. This helps preserve natural resources and makes perfume quality more uniform.

Another interesting new wrinkle in the perfume world occurred in the 1920s with the advent of a chemical substance called aldehyde. Aldehyde is a synthetic odor molecule but unlike other synthetics, this wasn't a fake anything. Aldehyde was artificial and not meant to mimic anything natural. It has a distinctive "sparkly" quality to it and is often mixed with florals. Probably the best known aldehyde scent in the world is the perennial favorite, Chanel No. 5. The creator of Chanel No. 5, Ernst Breaux, also created Evening in Paris, a much more difficult scent to find, but another one that uses sparkling aldehyde notes.

Today, we've added to our roster of synthetics plus we've blended more and more exotic ingredients together. Technology has also allowed us to capture unusual scents in perfume-you can find perfumes today listing "ozone" as an element or "chocolate."


Joanna McLaughlin is a freelance fragrance writer who jots down her notes in a cool notepad called "Confessions of a Perfumista." Want one? Get yours at while supplies last. You can also check out Joanna's blog at . Her favorite scent today is Storm by Niel Morris.

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