Fragrances today are mostly a fusion of ingredients taken from nature – or inspired by nature – together with the synthetics (man-made ingredients) that are used to make them last longer, ‘carry further’, or stay ‘true’, when worn on the skin. Perfumes are made of thousands of ingredients. Below is a description of some of the ingredients used. Check back with us time to time since we will be adding descriptions of more ingredients.
- Aloe vera
Many windowsills boast an aloe vera plant, so useful for treating burns (including sunburn) – but outside this cosmetic use, this perennial succulent plant is also – very occasionally – used as a note in perfumery: green, ‘vegetal’, fresh and aquatic.
Anise, aniseed – same thing: an annual herb (parsley family, FYI), which grows in the eastern Mediterranean region and south-west Asia, and has a strong licorice/fennel/tarragon flavour, often enjoyed in alcoholic drinks or sweeties (the famous aniseed balls of your granny’s childhood…) It’s sweet and very aromatic, and really very popular in perfumery as a result: the most celebrated example is Guerlain’s gorgeous, iconic L’Heure Bleu. (Not to be confused with Star anise – although the key component of the essential oil, ‘anethole’, is actually found in both.)
Does beeswax smell? Yes, it does: it’s honeyed, musky, softly sweet and intimate, sometimes with hints of pollen. Natural perfumers – whose palette of ingredients is limited – love it, as it delivers an ‘animalic’ quality yet is cruelty-free, generally harvested from hives that have matured over five years or so, carefully harvested by hand and then extracted using solvents. Beeswax also works brilliantly as a fixative, helping to anchor will-o’-the-wisp, volatile notes.
- Bitter orange
Sometimes bitter orange is referred to ‘bigarade’ – but many of us know it best as the too-sour-to-suck-on Seville orange, used for making marmalade. The bitter orange tree is actually incredibly versatile, in perfumery: most neroli/orange blossom and petitgrain extracts come from this single tree, giving their soft/sweet/fresh qualities to countless delicious perfumes. But bitter orange is a fragrance note in its own right, widely used ineau de Colognes and chypre fragrances, as well as adding a whoosh of freshness to florals.
Several names for this: Curry Plant, Herb of St. John, Immortelle (which you might know from the L’Occitane skincare range) – and botanically,Helichrysum augustifolium. All refer to small herb, which somehow manages to thrive in the most inhospitable, rocky, sun-baked zones in southern Europe. Amazingly, this grey-leafed toughie gives off a lovely, almost straw-like sweet scent, with hints of honey, tea, rose and chamomile – giving a flowery sweetness to perfumes…
Can a fragrance really smell of water? Issey Miyake would like us to think so: his iconic L’Eau d’Issey was created to conjure up the purity and clarity of water. (It was one of the first ‘juices’, or perfumes, to be almost as clear as fresh water in colour, too.) Mostly, ‘water’ in fragrance ingredient terms has come to mean an oceanic, salty/seawater vibe – which is actually recreated through the use of a complicated blend of synthetics. The idea is that ‘watery’ fragrances should actually should smell ‘breezy’, ‘outdoorsy’, like the mist that’s in the air when we take a walk on a beach with the surf crashing against the sand. (Because of course if you simply filled a bottle with water, you’d end up with something with no more of a scent than Perrier or Evian.)
Bracing, uplifting and almost nose-tinglingly spicy, ginger pairs beautifully with vanilla, woody notes and citrus, as well as white flowers like jasmine and neroli. This spice is used quite widely in perfumery – as well as a wide range of foods and medicines, too, produced everywhere from South America to Malaysia, the Caribbean, Japan and Africa.
Many of us are familiar with the beige-skinned, yellow-fleshed fresh spice, which adds pungency to cooking – as the Romans, who first imported it, discovered. Those same roots we love to spice up our food with – rhizomes, to use the perfume world’s word for them – can be steam-distilled to produce this useful scented oil.
We’re generally not so familiar with the flowers – which aren’t any help to perfumers at all – but aren’t they gorgeous? (Interior decorators, as well as perfumers, also love ginger – for the sheer architecture of the plants.)
Do you remember the smell of your school pencil case? That’s really the smell of cedar, which is of course also the wood used for pencils. Of course it smells woody, but that’s just too simple: it also has a freshness, with hints of resin. If you’ve ever walked in an evergreen forest, cedar will transport you back there, too. It’s mostly the foliage (from trees grown in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, or Virginia in the USA) that is steam-distilled to produce the intense oil, which is also used in aromatherapy for calming and balancing. Sometimes, the roots and the wood of this slow-growing tree are used, putting some environmental question marks over its use today. Partly for that reason, there are now quite a few cedar-like synthetic notes used to give depth and a ‘grounding’ quality across some women’s fragrances – and many men’s.