A Natural Perfume Primer

Smell sweet without toxic chemicals

Photo by Ann Baggley, provided courtesy of Grasseroots

Have you walked into an office or a hospital or a government building lately, and seen the signs that say ‘No Perfume’? Perfume is a toxic brew that is urging us to wake up and smell the roses. The real ones. Wheezing, sneezing and runny eyes are telling us, “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark!”

Perfume is a billion-dollar industry linked to celebrity and fashion; a mass commercial monster based on synthetic chemicals and created by the same flavour and aroma chemists in big factories who make laundry detergent smell "fresh" and fast-food french fries smell like … well, french fries! How many years have we been dousing ourselves with unhealthy chemicals, holding our babies and our lovers, and washing these same chemicals down the drain and into our streams and oceans? And still we line up in droves. Why? Because we refuse to give up our ancient human desire to smell good.

I will tell you of a perfume which my mistress has from the graces and the gods of love; when you smell it, you will ask of the deities to make of you only a nose.” – Catullus

Luckily, there is a renaissance happening in the world of perfume. Like the discovery of wind, ocean & solar energy, modern day alchemists are returning to the world of nature to create beautiful perfumes.


A really short history of perfume

The history of the world is ripe with aroma. For centuries, nature’s flowers, leaves, seeds, barks, grasses, roots, and buds were the medicine, food, aphrodisiacs, and guides to the spirit realm. The word “perfume” comes from the Latin, “through smoke” as testimony to its ability to transport us between earth and heaven (body to spirit). Scent lives on air and connects with our oldest brain – the limbic system – the birthplace of memory and desire.

Cleopatra seduced Marc Anthony by saturating the sails of her ship with precious aromatics. In the Roman Empire, Nero strung a ton of rose petals over his banquet guests that, when released, fatally smothered an unsuspecting reveler (what a way to go!). In Jerusalem, young women put frankincense and myrrh in their shoes. King Tut was buried with perfumes to see him through to the afterlife. In India women wore giant pandanus blossoms in their hair, and anointed themselves with scented oils of sandalwood, patchouli and jasmine. Fueled by a global lust for nutmegs, cloves, and peppers, Christopher Columbus accidentally “discovered” North America. Every culture around the world has a history of perfume.

Is it any wonder that we refuse to give up this sensual pleasure?

In the golden age of perfume and alchemy, France was the garden and epicenter of all things aromatic. Acres of jasmine and tuberose, mimosa and Rose de Mai were painstakingly picked and processed through ancient techniques of enfleurage, maceration and distillation to provide the seductive backdrop for medieval men and women of society. Later, Napoleon loved the scent of rosemary, and Josephine painted her walls with musk. History tells the extraordinary story of a man so entranced by natural scents (Septimus Piesse in 18th C France) that he fashioned a scent organ that released puffs of perfume when played. His symphony of scent is famous, but by all accounts the event was poorly attended.

In his novel Perfume, Patrick Suskind drew human longing for the perfect scent to its most fanatical extreme as his protagonist Grenouille composed a perfume from the scent of murdered virgins that drove the masses wild with lust.

More recently, the “Age of Patchouli” is also worthy of mention. In the 1960’s era of peace and love, cashmere shawls were exported in crates from India and sprinkled with patchouli leaves to prevent moth infestation. Patchouli thus became the scent of the hippie generation. This temporary return to the land and refusal of all things “unnatural” was important, but sadly short-lived. Patchouli, however, remains a star in the natural perfumer’s organ.

With such illustrious beginnings, how can we have strayed so far from our roots? Today there is only one field of jasmine left in France. The cost of labour combined with a thriving chemical industry rang the death knell, not only in France, but around the world. Even in Egypt, the birthplace of distillation, there is very little to nothing left of the real thing, despite rampant claims made to attract tourist dollars.


The natural perfume buyers' guide

Finding your signature scent

All perfumes are not pleasing to all people. Some people will never relinquish their signature synthetic fragrance. For those entering the brave new world, approaching the unknown can be daunting. Most perfumers offer samples. I highly recommend purchasing a sample before investing in a bottle of natural perfume. Only you know what you like. As with all good things, it might take time to get it right.

Here are three things to look for in a high-quality natural perfume:

Smooth Evolution: The top chord or introduction of the perfume should move smoothly through to its heart theme and dry-down. Although the scent will evolve on the skin over an hour or two, it should not suddenly change as its more delicate notes evaporate. Like a piece of music it should be cohesive, lull you in and leave you a soft base chord at its culmination.

Longevity: The perfume should not disappear in 20 minutes. A critical part of the perfumer’s art is called “fixation”. Although never as long-lasting as a preservative-laden synthetic perfume, a natural perfume needs to linger pleasantly on the skin for at least one to two hours.

Beauty: The perfume should have a beautiful character or feeling about it. Not merely enough to be pleasant, it should evoke ideas and emotions in the wearer.

Cost: A true natural perfume containing rare and exotic ingredients is expensive. If the price is low, be suspicious.


Fragrance classifications

Citrus: light, bright citrus splash with herbal notes

Fruity Floral: light, sweet with berry-like notes, vanilla and citrus

Oriental: rich vanillic and deep balsamic base notes, spices and precious woods

Floriental: exotic woody, resinous, and vanillic base notes with a floral heart

Chypre: forest floor mossy notes with herbs, flowers, and bright citrus

Earthy: earthy patchouli, spikenard and vetiver with spices and strong florals like carnation and tuberose

Powdery: vanilla, soft balsams, and sandalwood with creamy florals

Leather: Animilic notes with resins and smoky notes


How to wear your natural perfume

Because of its more tender nature, a natural perfume will last longer if you apply it in crevasses and hidden places (between the breasts, bend in the elbow, the nape of the neck) or under your clothes. Because of its natural affinity for protein, apply some perfume to your hands and caress into your hair or onto natural fabric like cotton, hemp, or wool. If you find that your body temperature tends to be warmer, you might consider choosing a solid version (made with beeswax and jojoba), although not as bright as an alcohol-based scent, it will last longer on the skin.

If you have a known fragrance allergy, experiment cautiously. One drop smelled on a tissue first, and then one drop under a Band-Aid for a few hours is a good idea. Make sure you are prepared in case of an allergic response.


Points of caution

  1. Big cosmetic companies are seeing the tides change. Even well-known “green” companies are splashing the world “natural” on a lot of perfumes and body care products that are not 100% natural. This is false advertising, and aimed at protecting a healthy profit margin. Read the labels.
  2. A natural isolate is a whole aromatic molecule that is fractionated through distillation or with solvents to create a stronger, simple aromatic element. Some natural perfumers use these natural isolates in small doses. Synthetic isolates are frequently used by big companies. It is not always easy to tell the difference. Usually limonene, citral, eugenol, farnesol, geranial, or indole are indications of natural fragrance isolates. Words like muscone, ionone, lactone, fructone, aldehydes, damascenone, or vanillin are often indicators of synthetic aromachemicals.
  3. Vegan classification: Some natural perfumes contain animal exudations (like ambergris, castoreum, hyraceum, bee propolis, civet). Solid perfumes often include beeswax. Ask the perfumer before purchasing.
  4. A natural perfume is not an aromatherapy blend. Made exclusively from steam-distilled essences, an aromatherapy blend is therapeutic in intention. A natural perfume contains natural essences like absolutes, concretes, attars, resins and tinctures, is more complex and is aesthetic in intention.

*Originally published March 2, 2013