Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have attempted to mask or enhance
their own odor by using perfume, which emulates nature's pleasant smells. Many
natural and man-made materials have been use to make perfume to apply to the skin
and clothing, to put in cleaners and cosmetics, or to scent the air. Because of differences
in body chemistry, temperature, and body odors, no perfume will smell exactly the same
on any two people.
Perfume comes from the Latin "per" meaning "through" and "fumum," or "smoke." Many
ancient perfumes were made by extracting natural oils from plants through pressing and
steaming. The oil was then burned to scent the air. Today, most perfume is used to scent bar
soaps. Some products are even perfumed with industrial odorants to mask unpleasant smells
or to appear "unscented."
While fragrant liquids used for the body are often considered perfume, true perfumes are
defined as extracts or essences and contain a percentage of oil distilled in alcohol. Water is
also used. The United States is the world's largest perfume market with annual sales
totaling several billions of dollars.
According to the Bible, Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus carrying myrrh and
frankincense. Ancient Egyptians burned incense called kyphi— made of henna, myrrh,
cinnamon, and juniper—as religious offerings. They soaked aromatic wood, gum, and
resins in water and oil and used the liquid as a fragrant body lotion. The early Egyptians
also perfumed their dead and often assigned specific fragrances to deities. Their word
for perfume has been translated as "fragrance of the gods." It is said that the Moslem
prophet Mohammed wrote, "Perfumes are foods that reawaken the spirit."
Eventually Egyptian perfumery influenced the Greeks and the Romans.
For hundreds of years after the fall of Rome, perfume was primarily an Oriental art.
It spread to Europe when 13th century Crusaders brought back samples from Palestine
to England, France, and Italy. Europeans discovered the healing properties of fragrance
during the 17th century. Doctors treating plague victims covered their mouths and noses
with leather pouches holding pungent cloves, cinnamon, and spices which they thought
would protect them from disease.
Natural ingredients—flowers, grasses, spices, fruit, wood, roots, resins, balsams, leaves,
gums, and animal secretions—as well as resources like alcohol, petrochemicals, coal, and
coal tars are used in the manufacture of perfumes. Some plants, such as lily of the valley,
do not produce oils.
In fact, only about 2,000 of the 250,000 known flowering plant species contain these
essential oils. Therefore, synthetic chemicals must be used to re-create the smells of
non-oily substances. Synthetics also create original scents not found in nature.
Some perfume ingredients use animal products. For example, castor comes from beavers,
musk from male deer, and ambergris from the sperm whale. Animal substances
are often used as fixatives that enable perfume to evaporate slowly and emit odors longer.
Other fixatives include coal tar, mosses, resins, or synthetic chemicals. Alcohol and
sometimes water are used to dilute ingredients in perfumes.
Before the manufacturing process begins, the initial ingredients must be brought to
the manufacturing center. Plant substances are harvested from around the world, often
hand-picked for their fragrance. Animal products are obtained by extracting the fatty
substances directly from the animal.
Aromatic chemicals used in synthetic perfumes are created in the laboratory by perfume
chemists. Oils are extracted from plant substances by several methods: steam distillation,
solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration, and expression.
In steam distillation, steam is passed through plant material held in a still, whereby the
essential oil turns to gas. This gas is then passed through tubes, cooled, and liquefied. Oils
can also be extracted by boiling plant substances like flower petals in water instead of
Under solvent extraction, flowers are put into large rotating tanks or drums and benzene
or a petroleum ether is poured over the flowers, extracting the essential oils. The flower
parts dissolve in the solvents and leave a waxy material that contains the oil, which is then
placed in ethyl alcohol. The oil dissolves in the alcohol and rises. Heat is used to evaporate
the alcohol, which once fully burned off, leaves a higher concentration of the perfume
oil on the bottom.
During the process of Enfleurage, flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with
grease. The glass sheets are placed between wooden frames in tiers. Then the flowers are
removed by hand and changed until the grease has absorbed their fragrance.
Maceration is similar to enfleurage except that warmed fats are used to soak up
the flower smell. As in solvent extraction, the grease and fats are dissolved in alcohol to
obtain the essential oils.
Expression is the oldest and least complex method of extraction. By this process, now
used in obtaining citrus oils from the rind, the fruit or plant is manually or mechanically
pressed until all the oil is squeezed out.
Once the perfume oils are collected, they are ready to be blended together according to
a formula determined by a master in the field, known as a "nose." It may take as many as
800 different ingredients and several years to develop the special formula for a scent.
After the scent has been created, it is mixed with alcohol. The amount of alcohol in
a scent can vary greatly. Most full perfumes are made of about 10-20% perfume oils
dissolved in alcohol and a trace of water.
Colognes contain approximately 3-5% oil diluted in 80-90% alcohol, with water making
up about 10%. Toilet water has the least amount— 2% oil in 60-80% alcohol and 20% water.
It is the ratio of alcohol to scent that determines whether the perfume is "eau de toilette"
(toilet water) or cologne.
Fine perfume is often aged for several months or even years after it is blended.
Following this, a "nose" will once again test the perfume to ensure that the correct
scent has been achieved. Each essential oil and perfume has three notes: "Notes de tete,"
or top notes, "notes de coeur," central or heart notes, and "notes de fond," base notes.
Top notes have tangy or citrus-like smells; central notes (aromatic flowers like rose and
jasmine) provide body, and base notes (woody fragrances) provide an enduring fragrance.
Because perfumes depend heavily on harvests of plant substances and the availability
of animal products, perfumery can often turn risky. Thousands of flowers are needed to
obtain just one pound of essential oils, and if the season's crop is destroyed by disease
or adverse weather, perfumeries could be in jeopardy. In addition, consistency is hard to
maintain in natural oils. The same species of plant raised in several different areas with
slightly different growing conditions may not yield oils with exactly the same scent.
Problems are also encountered in collecting natural animal oils. Many animals once
killed for the value of their oils are on the endangered species list and now cannot be
hunted. For example, sperm whale products like ambergris have been outlawed since
1977. Also, most animal oils in general are difficult and expensive to extract. Deer musk
must come from deer found in Tibet and China; civet cats, bred in Ethiopia,
are kept for their fatty gland secretions; beavers from Canada and the former Soviet Union
are harvested for their castor.
Synthetic perfumes have allowed perfumers more freedom and stability in their craft,
even though natural ingredients are considered more desirable in the very finest perfumes.
The use of synthetic perfumes and oils eliminates the need to extract oils from animals
and removes the risk of a bad plant harvest, saving much expense and the lives of many
Perfumes today are being made and used in different ways than in previous centuries.
Perfumes are being manufactured more and more frequently with synthetic chemicals
rather than natural oils. Less concentrated forms of perfume are also becoming increasingly
Combined, these factors decrease the cost of the scents, encouraging more widespread
and frequent, often daily, use.
Dorman, Evelyn. "Perfume." How Products Are Made. N.p.: n.p., 1996. Encyclopedia.com. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
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