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How Is Perfume Made?

How Is Perfume Made?

From scent formulation to packaging, the development and manufacture of perfume is a complicated, fascinating process. The manufacturing process itself involves adding scented oil to a carrier liquid, but the development of perfume is so much more than just that!

Scent Formulation: How Fragrances are Developed

Every perfume starts with an idea. Each fragrance tells a story that the perfumier wants to tell through scent. (This is why the people who create perfumes are often referred to as “the nose” behind a fragrance– smell is how perfumes tell their stories!) To begin formulating a scent, the perfumier gathers different ingredients that fall into various scent categories: floral, fruity, woodsy, green, herbal, spicy, and many, many others.

From there, the perfumier experiments with different scent oil combinations at different strengths. They choose scents that layer into head notes, heart notes, and base notes.

Head notes are the top notes that are smelled first. Heart notes, or mid notes, are what carry the perfume most. Base notes are the most durable scents that give the fragrance longevity and keep it from fading entirely. While perfumes can have different scents in each of the three layers, they will all have at least one scent in each category.

Types of Perfume

Once the scented oil is made, it is then added to alcohol to create various concentrations of perfumes. Some perfumes are made into solid perfumes by adding the perfume oils to solid carriers like beeswax mixtures. Others are added to lotions or balms. But the modern perfume industry’s cornerstone is liquid perfumes, which are generally mixed to one of the following five concentrations: Parfum, eau de parfum, eau de toilette, eau de Cologne, and eau fraiche.

Parfum/Extrait de Parfum

Sometimes called “pure perfume,” parfum is the most highly concentrated perfume type. This means that it’s typically the most expensive kind of perfume. Even though it’s sometimes called pure perfume, it is still diluted and contains anywhere from 15% to 40% fragrance. However, a concentration of  20% to 30% is most common within this range.

It does contain alcohol, but not as much as other strengths of perfume. This means it doesn’t dry out the skin as much, so people who have sensitive skin may prefer this kind of perfume. The scent typically lasts 6-8 hours.

Eau de Parfum

Eau de parfum, often referred to as EDP, is the next-strongest perfume type. It has a concentration between 15% and 20%. The scent usually lasts 5-6 hours and is considered suitable for everyday wear. 

Eau de Toilette

Eau de toilette, also known as EDT, is a very common type of perfume. Together with EDP, the two make up the vast majority of perfumes that people buy. EDT is concentrated between 5% and 15%, and usually lasts for 2-3 hours before needing reapplication.

Eau de Cologne

Eau de Cologne is a confusing one. There is a tendency to refer to all masculine perfume scents as “cologne,” but this isn’t actually the case! Many men’s perfumes are sold at EDP or EDT strengths. What “Eau de Cologne” really means is perfume that’s concentrated at 2% to 4%. It usually comes in larger bottles because it’s so dilute, and more of the scent needs to be used. Eau de Cologne’s scent only lasts for about 1-2 hours.

And, in case you were wondering, “Eau de Cologne” refers to Cologne in Germany and once referred specifically to a traditional recipe that used herbal and citrus top and mid-notes without strong base notes to anchor them. Like we said: it’s a little confusing!

Eau Fraiche

Eau Fraiche is relatively uncommon today. This type of perfume is the least concentrated, usually no more than 1%-3%. Like eau de cologne, the scent will last about 1-2 hours at most. However, what makes eau fraiche unique amongst other perfumes is that it also contains very little alcohol. For eau fraiche, the carrier liquid is mostly water, hence the name– “eau fraiche” is French for “fresh water.”

Synthetic vs Natural Fragrance: Which is Better?

While the earliest perfumes were all made with natural fragrances, today’s perfumes can be made with both natural and synthetic scents. Both types of fragrances have their advantages and bring incredible benefits to the perfumes they are used in.

For natural fragrances to be used, the perfume manufacturer must find a way to express the essential oils within the natural material, typically plant materials. There are different methods of extracting these aromatic chemicals, such as using oils and solvents for extraction or using steam distillation. Each process has advantages and disadvantages, but they all have one thing in common: they extract the essential oils from the natural ingredients. If the material doesn’t have essential oils, then it cannot be used in this way.

In modern perfumes, synthetic chemicals can replicate any number of scents and may be used to create scents that cannot be found in nature. One famous example of this is aldehydes, which are used in perfumes like Chanel No. 5 for crisp, light notes.

Other advantages to using synthetic materials are based on scarcity or difficulty in finding the source scent. For example, lily of the valley is very difficult to find and express in the quantities desired, so most lily of the valley scent used in perfume is synthetic. Synthetic animal musk is increasingly popular for ethical reasons, and modern ambergris is also synthetic. In many countries, marine mammal protection means that natural ambergris is illegal to use, so it’s a good thing we have the synthetic alternative!

What Does The Average Perfume Formula Have In It?

The majority of the liquid in that beautiful little bottle of perfume is alcohol– pure ethyl alcohol. But there are over 3,000 other chemicals that may be in the mix, each one adding something different to the perfume’s distinct aroma.

While the exact chemistry and molecular structure of the perfume’s scents don’t tell the average person much of anything, these scents are grouped not by chemical composition but by name. That’s much easier! Some of these are fairly self-explanatory– most people know what “rose” or “lilac” are, but what about “aldehyde” or “vetiver”? Here are some of the common ingredients with names you might have seen and not know what they were.

Common Fragrance Ingredients

  • Aldehydes: Organic compounds are present in many natural materials. Typically, these are synthesized artificially, as seen with the aliphatic aldehydes used in Chanel No 5.
  • Benzoin: A resin produced by the Styrax tree that has a balsamic or evergreen scent.
  • Calone: An aromatic chemical that adds marine notes to fragrances.
  • Hedione: A synthetic compound that has a fresh, green, jasmine-like scent.
  • Muguet: This is the French word for lily of the valley. Typically synthetic today.
  • Musk: Found in nearly every men’s fragrance, musk is a secretion from the glands of the musk deer. The vast majority of musk produced today is synthetic.
  • Neroli: A citrus fragrance distilled from the blossoms of the orange tree.
  • Oud: A fragrant resin found in the wood of the Agar tree from southeast Asia.
  • Ozone: A modern synthetic note meant to mimic the smell of petrichor, or fresh air right after a thunderstorm.
  • Vetiver: A type of grass with heavy, fibrous roots that have an earthy, smoky, woody aroma.

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