According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, today’s consumers utilize more than 5,000 chemical fragrances in some combination in diverse products ranging from candles and diffusers, to perfume, scented lotions, soaps and deodorants. But what is this thing called fragrance and how did it come to be?
Perfume in the Ancient World
Fragrance is a sweet smelling word with an equally redolent history, whose origins date back to the glorious days of ancient Egypt. The most highly prized perfumes of the ancient world came from the land of the Pharaohs who associated them with the gods and recognized their positive effects on health and well-being. The world leader in the creation of fragrance, Egypt also was allied with the international perfume trade.
Perfumes were usually applied as oil-based salves, many recipes of which are depicted in temples across Egypt. They made essential oils by soaking the plants in oil and then filtering it through a linen bag. This highly advanced civilization found uses for scent in everything ranging from religious and burial ceremonies and preparations to everyday attire. Hieroglyphics and pictographs in royal tombs tell the story of how fragrance, particularly lily, was associated with class status.
The Persians, Chinese, Greeks and Romans
Perfume was further refined by the Romans, the Persians and the Arabs. Modern knowledge of early scents comes from a tome on the subject of Arabian perfume recipes entitled: The Book of Perfu. Its author was Yakub al-Kindi, and it dates back to the 9th century. Islamic cultures contributed greatly to Western perfume development because they introduced new raw materials to the process. The art of perfumery existed in China too, but the scents were primarily incense-based.
It was during the heyday of the Greek and Roman civilizations that perfume was relegated to an art form. Massively produced and appreciated, its sweet smelling trail slowly spread throughout Europe and was mainly used in religious ceremonies. In 1190 in Paris, perfume was produced commercially, and its manufacture soon blossomed into a substantial industry.
The Chemistry of Modern Fragrance
Essential oils were the main ingredient of ancient fragrances, and even though they are just as important in today’s scented concoctions, modern preparation is much more sophisticated. Scented mixtures are combined with either ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol, or ethanol and water, which preserves, blends and stabilizes all the other ingredients to a certain degree and propels the scent molecules to disperse in the air around the wearer. For the most part, when any oil is combined with perfumer’s alcohol, it will generate a trail of scent, and an aura surrounding the fragrance that can be detected from farther away
In addition, each element in any fragrance is purposefully selected for its own particular weight. For example, citrus oils have molecules that are light, volatile and fade quickly, while sandalwood and amber are heavier base oils and don’t break up so easily. The concentration of the fragrance is determined by the perfume profile that is desired. True perfume contains up to 40% of the scent, while Eau de Parfum may have only up to 20% of the scent material, transforming the perfume into a fragrance that is lighter and more delicate.
If you’ve ever wondered what exactly the difference is between perfume, eau de cologne, eau fraiche and eau de toilette, read this fragrant guide to each.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are naturally occurring, unstable, aromatic compounds that are found in the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers, and other parts of blooming plants. The particles in these oils derive from distilling or extracting these different components. In the natural world, they are elusive and highly diverse, as their composition fluctuates from plant to plant, within botanical families, and from species to species. At room temperature, these amalgams comprised of small organic molecules can quickly transform from a solid to a liquid or gas state. All essential oils are powerhouses of fragrance, bestowing upon plants their captivating aromas and aiding in their pollination process.
The Benefits of Essential Oils
To date, there are more than 3,000 distinct compound varieties, and each type present in the oil will determine the ultimate aroma and the benefits it will offer. In addition, the physical and chemical properties that comprise these oils transport them swiftly through the air and directly into the olfactory sensors in the nose. They are vital to the practice of aromatherapy, beauty treatments, health-care practices and can be used for a wide range of emotional and physical wellness applications. They can be used singly or blended with others, depending on the desired result. Some popular essential oils are: geranium, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, patchouli, peppermint, rosemary, sandalwood and frankincense.
Unscented vs. Fragrance Free
Seeing these two labels on a household product can be more than a little confusing and are reminiscent of that old conundrum about the difference between a yam and a sweet potato. But words do matter, and fragrance free and unscented are not at all synonymous, as many might understandably think. Fragrance-free does mean that no oils or extracts were used to create a scent to the product, but unscented is a horse of another color. In unscented products, fragrances are typically added to mask certain smells of other ingredients.
In conclusion, down through the centuries, fragrance has been an elusive commodity that enhances all of our lives. Its ethereal nature and mysterious allure is a source of pleasure and fascination that becomes imprinted in the limbic systems of our brains where memories form. A life without perfume would be very dull (and not so sweet-smelling) indeed!
Closing thoughts about perfume: To attract men, I wear a perfume called ‘New Car Interior.’ ~ Rita Rudner
If you’re looking to include a unique fragrance in a personal care product line, a private label fragrance, candles, diffusers or any other commercial product, we have decades of experience with scent creation for companies and entrepreneurs in every industry. Contact our team today; we’re happy to answer any fragrance-related questions you might have.