Whether you love it, hate it, or are somewhere in-between, it's hard to deny that perfume is an integral part of any wardrobe. In fact, it often seems like every fashionable man and woman in history has a famous quote about the bottled fragrance. But, despite its prominence in the beauty industry and pop culture, how many of us know the answer to, "What is perfume made of?"
What Is Perfume Made Of?
In the simplest terms possible, perfume is just a base and some fragrances.
The base makes up the vast majority of liquid in a bottle of perfume. Although it might serve an additional purpose by preserving, strengthening, or helping to adhere the fragrances, it largely acts as a carrier to blend and store the concentrated fragrances.
Fragrances can come from a wide variety of sources. Often, these sources determine how much or little a bottle of perfume may cost. Other times, these sources help provide a unique backstory to a crafted scent, such as the space-grown rose that inspired Zen by Shiseido.
Breaking it down
Finding an exact answer to what is perfume made of is surprisingly difficult. This is mostly because the law doesn't require ingredient lists for fragrance.
However, with some deduction, we can determine what is in the average bottle of perfume. To start, what do we know about perfume and its components?
Well, obviously, it smells good. After all, that's the purpose of perfume and cologne in the first place. But why does it smell the way it does?
Depending on the type of perfume, ingredients can come from a range of " natural and synthetic sources. Synthetic sources, rather obviously, are manmade in a lab. Natural ingredients, though, mostly come from plants and animals.
Have you heard of essential oils? While these oils have recently become popular in alternative and home-based medicine, their strong scents are even more impressive. The vast majority of fragrance ingredients in perfume, but not all, are plant essential oils.
However, natural perfume ingredients aren't inherently plant-based. Many popular perfume ingredients, especially in older formulas, come from the bodies of animals.
But when investigating the answer to what is perfume made of, fragrance is just part of the equation.
See, these essential oils, animal secretions, and, to a lesser extent, synthetic fragrances are extremely expensive. If these fragrances were the only ingredient in perfume, it would cost thousands of dollars per ounce.
To help bulk up the average bottle of perfume, these concentrated fragrances go into an alcohol base. On top of diluting the fragrances and making them last longer, this alcohol base also blends the individual fragrance notes and helps them stick to the skin.
The History Of Cosmetic Fragrance
Today, when we call something perfume, we're typically referring to a careful blend of layered fragrances and notes. When put together, even the most discerning nose may be unable to identify exactly which essential oils and other ingredients went into the mix.
Instead of reaching solely for rose, musk, or citrus, we often pick from broad descriptors like woody, floral, fresh, or spice.
While perfumes with a single fragrance do exist, they are definitely in the minority. Instead, a perfume might have one or two leading fragrances supported by several more subdued notes.
Historically, though, this was not always the case. Until very recently, people used single-origin scents to perfume themselves.
Before it was an oil or spray, perfume was actually the residual scent from burning wood and incense. This was the only common source of perfume for thousands of years. That is until the Egyptians began using scented oils, and the Greeks began using liquid perfume.
Technically speaking, it's the Arabs we need to thank for modern perfumery. They developed distillation, a process that effectively separates the different compounds in a liquid.
While the distillation process is something we largely take for granted today, it is essential for extracting essential oils from plant material. And that's exactly what the Greeks did when they adopted this technology.
Necessity or pleasure
Throughout the next several centuries, people used perfume to disguise unpleasant scents. Once the 19th century came around, though, perfumery slowly transitioned to more of a choice of fashion than anything else.
Even in the early-1900s, when mass-produced fashion and beauty products were just becoming available to the average person, perfume was almost always one-note.
Finally, with the introduction of Chanel no5 and other famous designer scents, complex blends and proprietary ingredients entered the mainstream perfume market.
Understanding How Perfume Is Made
If we want to have a grasp on perfumery as a whole, it's not enough to ask, "What is perfume made of?"
Instead, we also need to ask, "How do we make perfume?"
The answers to these questions go hand-in-hand, making learning about the creation process an excellent way to better understand perfumery and its major ingredients.
Fragrance ingredients don't just naturally appear. If they did, perfumery would be a much more accessible and affordable process!
Plant-based fragrance notes might come from fruit, spices, woods, resins, grasses, and any other plant part you can imagine. However, without a doubt, the most important source of plant fragrances is the flower.
The idea of collecting flowers for their scent might seem pretty straightforward, but there's a catch. Depending on the plant species, it can take hundreds (or even thousands) of single flowers to collect enough fragrance for one bottle of commercial perfume.
Many large, designer perfume brands maintain flower fields just for their products. Without these fields and the countless plants within, it would be extremely difficult (maybe even impossible) for these companies to reliably source enough flower extract for their perfumes.
And the collection process doesn't just involve plant byproducts. Animal-sourced fragrances also require collection before the perfume-making can start.
The process of harvesting these ingredients can vary greatly. However, most of these fragrances come from animals farmed or hunted for their scented excretions.
Once all of the necessary plant or animal products are at hand, the extraction process can begin. This actually removes the scented oils from their host material.
For plant material, extraction can happen in many ways:
The easiest method, called expression, essentially squeezes the valuable oils from the rest of the plant material.
Another more complicated, but highly efficient, method uses steam distillation to pull the oils from the dry plant matter.
Finally, some perfume makers use solvent extraction. This method uses chemicals to dissolve away the unwanted plant material, leaving behind the scented oil.
Animal-based fragrances also require removal from the animal. Often, this process involves killing the animal in question.
Although synthetic ingredients don't need harvesting, at least technically, the time and expense that goes into developing and manufacturing these chemicals can also add up.
The specific answer to what is perfume made of depends on the specific formula.
Each commercial perfume is a curated combination of different scents. While there is certainly a science behind which scents the human brain finds pleasurable, much of this mixing process is more of an art than anything else.
This is also the stage in which the fragrances and base meet. After finalizing the recipe and mixing all of the necessary ingredients, each perfume typically sits for several months.
By aging a perfume formula in this way, the different notes continue to blend together into one harmonious scent and can even become stronger as they sit in the alcohol base.
"What Is Perfume Made Of?" Q&A
Here are some other common questions related to "What is perfume made of?":
Who is responsible for designing cosmetic fragrances?
Perfume making is much like any other craft that requires both inherent talent and trained skill. Just being an actor, painter, or designer, there are many avenues to becoming a successful perfume maker.
Some renowned perfume makers have years of formal training and a collection of degrees, typically in some form of chemistry. You can even get a degree in perfumery from schools like The Institut Supérieur International du Parfum or the Grasse Institute of Perfumery.
Others, though, find success by their sheer ability to combine scents in new and impactful ways. These perfume designers might start out as independent cosmetic artists, eventually working for a large design house.
Large perfume brands might have entire teams devoted to developing new scents. Still, these teams often report to a single person who is responsible for the brand direction as a whole.
And, despite their prestige, brands like Chanel and Marc Jacobs don't hold the majority of the perfume market. Instead, most perfume design takes place at companies like Proctor & Gamble.
What is perfume made of when it comes to animal products?
As mentioned earlier, animal byproducts are fairly common in perfumes. Although, with increasing awareness of animal welfare and veganism, many perfume designers are turning to synthetic alternatives.
The most well-known of these animal-based ingredients is musk, which often comes from musk deer (vegan musk fragrances also exist, though, and are a great ethical alternative). Male musk deer store this compound in a gland and spray it during the mating season as a way to attract females.
Another animal-based ingredient to look out for is castoreum. This chemical often replaces vanilla extract in perfume. However, castoreum actually comes from the anal secretions of a beaver.
Ambergris is yet another popular perfume ingredient, though it has fallen out of favor in recent years thanks to growing animal rights and environmental awareness. Ambergris comes from the sperm whale, who use this compound to aid in their digestion.
Regardless of your personal stance on veganism, we encourage you to think twice about the source of your perfume ingredients and opt for synthetic alternatives whenever possible.
Discover Beauty For The Nose
Knowing the answer to what is perfume made of might seem rather pointless. But it opens up a whole world of possibilities when it comes to your understanding of cosmetic fragrances!
First, learning a bit more about the ingredients that go into perfume, as well as the actual perfume-making process, might inspire you to test your hand at designing a personal scent of your very own.
Second, ignorance is often bliss when it comes to the cosmetic and fashion world. This is especially true for the use of animal-sourced ingredients.
But with synthetic alternatives becoming readily available, there's no reason to continue using unsustainable and potentially unethical animal products in our perfumes.
What are your favorite fragrance notes to find in perfume? Have you ever tried crafting your own perfume from essential oils and other ingredients? Let us know in the comments below!