Describing a perfume
Shelves of perfumesThe precise formulas of commercial perfumes are kept secret. Even if they were widely published, they would be dominated by such complex chemical procedures and ingredients that they would be of little use in providing a useful description of the experience of a scent. Nonetheless, connoisseurs of perfume can become extremely skillful at identifying components and origins of scents in the same manner as wine experts .
The most practical way to start describing a perfume is according to its concentration level, the family it belongs to, and the notes of the scent, which all affect the overall impression of a perfume from first application to the last lingering hint of scent
Perfume oil is necessarily diluted with a solvent because undiluted oils (natural or synthetic) contain high concentrations of volatile components that will likely result in allergic reactions and possibly injury when applied directly to skin or clothing. Solvents also volatilize the essential oils, helping to diffuse them into the air.
By far the most common solvent for perfume oil dilution is ethanol or a mixture of ethanol and water. Perfume oil can also be diluted by means of neutral-smelling lipids such as jojoba, fractionated coconut oil or wax. The concentration by percent/volume of perfume oil is as follows:
Perfume extract: 20%-40% aromatic compounds
Eau de parfum: 10-30% aromatic compounds
Eau de toilette: 5-20% aromatic compounds
Eau de cologne: 2-5% aromatic compounds
As the percentage of aromatic compounds decreases, so does the intensity and longevity of the scent created. Different perfumeries or perfume houses assign different amounts of oils to each of their perfumes. Therefore, although the oil concentration of a perfume in eau de parfum (EDP) dilution will necessarily be higher than the same perfume in eau de toilette (EDT) form within the same range, the actual amounts can vary between perfume houses. An EDT from one house may be stronger than an EDP from another.
Furthermore, some fragrances with the same product name but having a different concentration name may not only differ in their dilutions, but actually use different perfume oil mixtures altogether. For instance, in order to make the EDT version of a fragrance brighter and fresher than its EDP, the EDT oil may be "tweaked" to contain slightly more top notes or less base notes. In some cases, words such as "extrême" or "concentrée" appended to fragrance names might indicate completely different fragrances that relates only because of a similar perfume accord. An instance to this would be Chanel‘s Pour Monsieur and Pour Monsieur Concentrée.
Eau de cologne (EDC) was originally a specific fragrance of a citrus nature and weak in concentration made in Cologne, Germany. However in recent decades the term has become generic for a weakly concentrated perfum of any kind.
Grouping perfumes, like any taxonomy, cannot ever be a completely objective or final process. Many fragrances contain aspects of different families. Even a perfume designated as "single flower", however subtle, will have undertones of other aromatics. "True" unitary scents can rarely be found in perfumes as it requires the perfume to exist only as a singular aromatic material.
Classification by olfactive family is a starting point for a description of a perfume, but it cannot by itself denote the specific characteristic of that perfume.
The traditional classification which emerged around 1900 comprised the following categories:
Single Floral: Fragrances that are dominated by a scent from one particular flower; in French called a soliflore. (e.g. Serge Lutens' Sa Majeste La Rose, which is dominated by rose.)
Floral Bouquet: Containing the combination of several flowers in a scent.
Ambery: A large fragrance class featuring the scents of vanilla and animal scents together with flowers and woods. Can be enhanced by camphorous oils and incense resins, which bring to mind Victorian era imagery of the Middle East and Far East.
Woody: Fragrances that are dominated by woody scents, typically of sandalwood and cedar. Patchouli, with its camphoraceous smell, is commonly found in these perfumes.
Leather: A family of fragrances which features the scents of honey, tobacco, wood and wood tars in its middle or base notes and a scent that alludes to leather.
Chypre: Meaning Cyprus in French, this includes fragrances built on a similar accord consisting of bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli, and labdanum. This family of fragrances is named after a perfume by François Coty.
Fougère: Meaning Fern in French, built on a base of lavender, coumarin and oakmoss. Houbigant's Fougère Royale pioneered the use of this base. Many men's fragrances belong to this family of fragrances, which is characterized by its sharp herbaceous and woody scent.
Since 1945, due to great advances in the technology of perfume creation (i.e., compound design and synthesis) as well as the natural development of styles and tastes; new categories have emerged to describe modern scents:
Bright Floral: combining the traditional Single Floral & Floral Bouquet categories.
Green: a lighter and more modern interpretation of the Chypre type.
Oceanic/Ozone: the newest category in perfume history, appearing in 1991 with Christian Dior's Dune. A very clean, modern smell leading to many of the modern androgynous perfumes.
Citrus or Fruity: An old fragrance family that until recently consisted mainly of "freshening" eau de colognes due to the low tenacity of citrus scents. Development of newer fragrance compounds has allowed for the creation of primarily citrus fragrances.
Gourmand: scents with "edible" or "dessert"-like qualities. These often contain notes like vanilla and tonka bean, as well as synthetic components designed to resemble food flavors. An example is Thierry Mugler's Angel.
The Fragrance wheel is a relatively new classification method that is widely used in retail and in the fragrance industry. The method was created in 1983 by Michael Edwards, a consultant in the perfume industry, who designed his own scheme of fragrance classification after being inspired by a fragrance seminar by Firmenich. The new scheme was created in order to simplify fragrance classification and naming scheme, as well as to show the relationships between each individual classes.
The five standard families consist of Floral, Oriental, Woody,Fougère, and Fresh, with the former four families being more "classic" while the latter consisting of newer bright and clean smelling citrus and oceanic fragrances that have arrived due to improvements in fragrance technology. With the exception of the Fougère family, each the families are in turn divided into three sub-groups and arranged around a wheel:
2. Soft Floral
3. Floral Oriental
1. Soft Oriental
3. Woody Oriental
2. Mossy Woods
3. Dry Woods
The Fougère family is placed at the center of this wheel since they are large family of scents that usually contain fragrance elements from each of the other four families.
In this classification scheme, Chanel No.5, which is traditionally classified as a "Floral Aldehyde" would be located under Soft Floral sub-group, and "Amber" scents would be placed within the Oriental group. As a class, Chypres is more difficult to place since they would located under parts of the Oriental and Woody families. For instance, Guerlain Mitsuoko, which is classically identified as a chypre will be placed under Mossy Woods, but Hermès Rouge, a chypre with more floral character, would be placed under Floral Oriental.
Perfume is described in a musical metaphor as having three 'notes', making the harmonious chord of the scent. The notes unfold over time, with the immediate impression of the top note leading to the deeper middle notes, and the base notes gradually appearing as the final stage. These notes are created carefully with knowledge of the evaporation process of the perfume.
Top notes: The scents that are perceived immediately on application of a perfume. Top notes consist of small, light molecules that evaporate quickly: they form a person's initial impression of a perfume and thus are very important in the selling of a perfume. The scents of this note class are usually described as "fresh," "assertive" or "sharp." The compounds that contribute to top notes are strong in scent, very volatile, and evaporate quickly. Citrus and ginger scents are common top notes. Also called the head notes.
Middle notes: The scent of a perfume that emerges after the top notes dissipate. The middle note compounds form the "heart" or main body of a perfume and act to mask the often unpleasant initial impression of base notes, which become more pleasant with time. Not surprisingly, the scent of middle note compounds is usually more mellow and "rounded." Scents from this note class appear anywhere from two minutes to one hour after the application of a perfume. Lavender and rose scents are typical middle notes. Also called the heart notes.
Base notes: The scent of a perfume that appears after the departure of the middle notes. The base and middle notes together are the main theme of a perfume. Base notes bring depth and solidity to a perfume. Compounds of this class are often the fixatives used to hold and boost the strength of the lighter top and middle notes. Consisting of large, heavy molecules that evaporate slowly, compounds of this class of scents are typically rich and "deep" and are usually not perceived until 30 minutes after the application of the perfume or during the period of perfume dry-down. Some base notes can still be detectable in excess of twenty-four hours after application, particularly the animalic notes.
History of perfume and perfumery
Egyptian scene depicting the preparation of Lily perfumeThe word perfume used today derives from the Latin "per fume", meaning through smoke. Perfumery, or the art of making perfumes, began in ancient Egypt but was developed and further refined by the Romans and the Arabs. Although perfume and perfumery also existed in East Asia, much of its fragrances are incense based.
The world's first chemist is considered to be a person named Tapputi, a perfume maker who was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet from the second millennium BC in Mesopotamia.
Recently, archaeologists have uncovered what is believed to be the world's oldest perfumes in Pyrgos, Cyprus. The perfumes date back more than 4,000 years. The perfumes where discovered in an ancient perfumery factory. At least 60 distilling stills, mixing bowls, funnels and perfume bottles were found in the 43,000 square foot factory.
The Iranian doctor and chemist Avicenna introduced the process of extracting oils from flowers by means of distillation, (the procedure most commonly used today). He first experimented with the rose. Until his discovery, liquid perfumes were mixtures of oil and crushed herbs, or petals which made a strong blend. Rose water was more delicate, and immediately became popular. Both of the raw ingredients and distillation technology significantly influenced western perfumery and scientific developments, particularly chemistry.
Knowledge of perfumery came to Europe as early as the 14th century due partially to Arabic influences and knowledge. But it was the Hungarians who ultimately introduced the first modern perfume. The first modern perfume, made of scented oils blended in an alcohol solution, was made in 1370 at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary and was known throughout Europe as Hungary Water. The art of perfumery prospered in Renaissance Italy, and in the 16th century, Italian refinements were taken to France by Catherine de Medicis personal perfumer, Rene le Florentin. His laboratory was connected with her apartments by a secret passageway, so that no formulas could be stolen en route. France quickly became the European center of perfume and cosmetic manufacture. Cultivation of flowers for their perfume essence, which had begun in the 14th century, grew into a major industry in the south of France. During the Renaissance period, perfumes were used primarily by royalty and the wealthy to mask body odors resulting from the sanitary practices of the day. Partly due to this patronage, the western perfumery industry was created. By the 18th century, aromatic plants were being grown in the Grasse region of France to provide the growing perfume industry with raw materials. Even today, France remains the centre of the European perfume design and trade.
Some perfume ingredients can cause health problems. Evidence in peer-reviewed journals shows that some fragrances can cause asthmatic reactions even when the participants could not actually smell the fragrances . Many fragrance ingredients can cause allergic skin reactions. There is scientific evidence that some common ingredients, like certain synthetic musks, can disrupt the balance of hormones in the human body (endocrine disruption) ,  and even cause cancer (especially in the case of the ubiquitous synthetic polycyclic molecules, assigned to the musk odor group).  Some research of aromatics have shown that they contain compounds that cause skin irritation, however many of the studies, such as IFRA's research claiming that opoponax is too dangerous to be used in perfumery, are still incomplete and may lead to faulty conclusions. It is also true that sometimes inhalation alone can cause skin irritation. Much remains to be learned about the effects of fragrance on human health and the environment.
The perfume industry is not regulated for safety by the FDA in the US. Protection of trade secrets prevents the listing of ingredients that might or might not be hazardous in perfumes. Rather perfume ingredients are tested to the extent that they are Generally recognized as safe (GRAS). In Europe, the mandatory listing of any of a number of chemicals thought to be hazardous has just begun, but this in itself can be misleading, since, for instance, linalool, which must be listed as hazardous for causing skin irritation, actually causes skin irritation only when it degrades to peroxides, and the use of antioxidants in perfumes could prevent this. European versions of some old favorite perfumes, like chypres, which require the use of oakmoss extract, are being reformulated because of these new regulations.
In some cases, an excessive use of perfumes may cause allergic reactions of the skin. For instance, acetophenone, ethyl acetate and acetone while present in many perfumes, are also known or potential respiratory allergens. Persons with multiple chemical sensitivity or respiratory diseases such as asthma may be responsive to even low levels of perfumes.
Perfume composed only of natural materials can be more expensive due to the cost of some of these materials.
Some natural aromatics contain allergens or even carcinogenic compounds.
The use of some natural materials, like sandalwood or musk, can lead to species endangerment and illegal trafficking.
Natural ingredients vary by the times and locations where they are harvested.
Natural ingredients have aromas that are highly complex and are difficult or have been impossible to obtain through modern-day synthetics.
The production of synthetic materials may contribute to environmental problems, since their production involve known carcinogens such as aromatic hydrocarbons.
Use of synthetic aromatics can make some perfumes available at widely-affordable prices. However, synthetic aromatics as a group are not necessarily cheaper than natural aromatics.
The excessive use of some synthetic materials like nitro-musks and macrocyclic musks has led to pollution problems, such as with the Great Lakes.
There are many newly-created synthetic aromas that bear no olfactory relationship to any natural material.
Synthetic aromatics are more consistent than natural aromatics.
Musk was traditionally taken from the male musk deer Moschus moschiferus. This requires the killing of the animal in the process. Although the musk pod is produced only by a young male deer, musk hunters usually did not discriminate between the age and sex of the deers. Due to the high demand of musk and indiscriminate hunting, populations were severely depleted. As a result, the deer is now protected by law and international trade of musk from Moschus moschiferus is prohibited:
“ Musk deer are protected under national legislation in many countries where they are found. The musk deer populations of Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan are included in Appendix I of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This means that these musk deer and their derivatives are banned from international commercial trade.”
Due to the rarity and high price of natural musk, as well as for legal and ethical reasons, it is the policy of many perfume companies to use synthetic musk instead. Numerous synthetic musks of high quality are readily available and approved safe by IFRA. However, many synthetic musks have been found in human fat, mother's milk, and the bottom of the Great Lakes.
Fragrance compounds in perfumes will degrade or break down if improperly stored in the presence of:
Extraneous organic materials
Proper preservation of perfumes involve keeping them away from sources of heat and storing them where they will not be exposed to light. An opened bottle will keep its aroma intact for up to a year, as long as it is full or nearly so, but as the level goes down, the presence of oxygen in the air that is contained in the bottle will alter the perfume's smell character, eventually distorting them.
Perfumes are best preserved when kept in light-tight aluminium bottles or in their original packaging when not in use, and refrigerated at a relatively low temperatures between 3-7 degrees Celsius. Although it is difficult to completely remove oxygen from the headspace of a stored flask of fragrance, opting for spray dispensers instead of rollers and "open" bottles will minimize oxygen exposure. Sprays also have the advantage of isolating fragrance inside a bottle and preventing it from mixing with dust, skin, and detritus, which will degrade and alter the quality of a perfume.