It’s a matter of trust, buying a product. We trust that the company who developed and marketed this product has complied with government safety regulations. Do we trust our regulatory agencies? How much do we trust their efficacy to make consumer goods truly safe? After all, can we ever know for certain which ingredients comprise a product – be it tomato sauce from the supermarket, or a floor cleaner – unless we have made it ourselves? When we make perfume from scratch, we know, feel, and see the ingredients; we can test them on ourselves first for potentially adverse reactions. When we make our own perfume, we gain a few ounces of control over our bodies.
Most of the information in this essay comes from the book The Complete Book of Essential Oils &Aromatherapy, by Valerie Ann Worwood. According to Worwood (p 317), “…store perfumes are a cocktail of natural and chemical components.” We can infer from Worwood’s use of the word “chemical,” in juxtaposition to the word “natural” that she herself rejects chemicals. However, we know that anything from the natural world, be it water or air, is a chemical composition. Yet there are those of us with chemical sensitivities to commercially-manufactured soaps, body lotions, and fragrances. There are those whose skin breaks out and who develop headaches when walking through a department store fragrance section. One might have breathing problems when someone sprays air freshener nearby. It’s nearly impossible to control each environment we enter. Nevertheless, we can take small steps, and that is what drives some of us to eschew fragranced products altogether. Another alternative is to make our own fragrances.
Enter essential oils. Consumers find them most frequently at health food stores, in tiny colored-glass bottles. An essential oil is made from plant material and is, in effect, the essence of the plant. Their applications range from fragrance to skin care to food flavoring to health care. It takes an enormous amount of plant material to produce a a few ounces of oil. “Essential oils are extracted from certain varieties of trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, and flowers…Depending on the plant, the essential oil is stored in specialized oil or resin cells, glandular hairs, cells, or scales which have single or multi-cell pockets or tiny reservoirs…The oil is extracted from the plant by a variety of means…The most common method is steam distillation, although other…methods are solvent extraction [by application of chemical solvents], expression [to press the oil out of the plant material],” and a few other methods. (Worwood, Valerie Ann. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. p 6 Novato: New World Library, 1991. Print.)
For those with chemical sensitivities, the essential oil displays in health food stores offer a little refuge from the world. Scents can affect our mood in powerful ways. Sampling essential oil might invoke euphoria and calm, or clear our sinuses. For example, citrus oils such as orange blossom, lime and orange essential oils are known to possess mood-lifting properties (Worwood, p 402-403). They won’t cure your depression, but any little thing in combination with proper treatment can be helpful sometimes. There are hundreds of essential oils available for purchase, and they are used around the world in a range of applications from creating moods to preventing wound infection. Both tea tree oil and lavender oil possess anti-bacterial properties.
Knowledge of essential oils greatly enhances success in perfumery. Results vary depending upon one’s level of commitment. Ms. Worwood offers these instructions: “Perfumery may be as simple as using [an essential oil] mixed with alcohol…” (Worwood, Valerie Ann. The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy. p 320. Novato: New World Library, 1991. Print.) There exists a powerful appeal to rejecting commercial preparations in favor of do-it-yourself products. It can be as uncomplicated as buying a small bottle of orange essential oil and a bottle of vodka, combining them in appropriate proportion in a glass bottle, storing it away from light and heat and letting it mature for at least six weeks. The colored glass prevents light from breaking down the compounds in the oils and spoiling them. Conversely, it can be as complicated as keeping an exhaustive record of one’s experimentations and results. One can maintain a supply of hundreds of different essential oils, as well as vials and tiny funnels for pouring the finished product into the vials. One of the final steps Ms. Worwood describes is filtering the matured perfume. She recommends using a coffee filter. This can further complicate a perfume-making operation. Spillage occurs when filtering, and when transferring finished perfume from one container to another. One imagines the apothecary at work, hovering over tiny vials and funnels and beakers, experimenting endlessly with essential oil combinations. The perfumer begins to develop their craft.
A true understanding of perfumery moves us into the discussion of base notes, middle notes and top notes. These classifications refer to how long each fragrant component in a perfume remains on the skin before evaporating. Base notes, such as vetiver, sandalwood, vanilla, myrrh or cedarwood form the foundation of many perfumes, be they homemade or commercially-made. Base notes often come from tree bark, roots, or resin. They have powerful, muscular scents and remain on the skin longer than lighter middle and top notes. Middle notes can be powerful florals, such as rose, jasmine, neroli (orange blossom), carnation, and geranium, or herbal or spicy elements, such as thyme, lemongrass, cardamom, oregano, carrot, and basil. Top notes of perfume evaporate most quickly from the skin, but present most prominently at first smell. Top notes include light-smelling florals and citruses, essential oils which are produced from leaves, flower petals, flowering tops, and pressed citrus peel. Some top notes are basil, chamomile, lavender, orange, lime, lemon, and peppermint. Worwood lists hundreds of essential oils used in perfumery. The home perfumer can choose to combine any essential oils which smell good to them. The beauty of this process is that it is self-directed and self-controlled at every step. (Worwood, pp 317-326).
So let’s design a perfume. Let’s start with a simple combination, one with a universal appeal. Let’s try cedarwood, clary sage, and lemon. Worwood classifies certain notes, or scents, as “feminine” and certain notes as “masculine.” The above combination of essential oils is relatively uncostly and draws from both Worwood’s “feminine” and “masculine” lists. Therefore, on paper, this ought to prove a universally appealing fragrance. Of course, we don’t know on paper how this will smell. We’ve simply chosen cedarwood as a base note, clary sage as a middle note, and lemon as a top note, such as defined by Ms. Worwood.
Next let’s discuss ratio. For our purposes, we want as much control as possible over the amount of oil dispensed from the bottle. Choose essential oils bottled in bottles with orifice reducers, plastic inserts which do as they say, and make the mouth of the bottle smaller, allowing us to more precisely control how much oil we add to our mixture [i]. Deciding on proportion can be done with guidance from a book or an expert. Yet the most effective way to produce a desired result is to personalize the process and experiment. To create one ounce of perfume, use a high quality vodka, or 180 proof grain alcohol, or perfumer’s alcohol, if you don’t mind the expense. The idea is to use as odorless a base (alcohol being the base) as possible. The alcohol is the carrier. The alcohol binds the essential oils together. The alcoholic base also allows the application of the fragrant essential oils to remain on the skin for longer than essential oils alone. Ms. Worwood recommends a solution of 70-to-85 percent alcohol to 15-to-30 percent essential oil. Following these proportions, add ¼ oz of essential oil to ¾ oz alcohol. Transfer this solution to a colored glass vial and store it for up to six weeks in a cool, dark, dry place. Ms. Worwood suggests at least six weeks for the mixture to mature into perfume. Allowing it to mature longer gives even more time for the ingredients to meld. A longer maturation period creates a perfume with more depth. The hundreds of complex chemical compounds in the essential oils have time to express themselves more fully within a more mature perfume.
Filtration comes after the essential oil and alcohol solution have matured. Again, as with each step of the process, this is subject to the perfumer’s desire for experimentation. However, passing the mature perfume through a paper coffee filter, one does observe oil droplets collecting on the paper filter. One also might see a bit of sediment from the mixture. To this perfumer, the evidence of sediment and oils on the filter suggest that purification occurs from the filtration. One wants to end up with a clear, uncloudy product. It might have a slight color to it. This is natural.
Perfumes with one note, such as rose or jasmine can be made as well. One can keep records of the oils and proportions one uses, in order to refer to recreate a particularly well-liked fragrance. Keep in mind that perfumes made with essential oils are subject to slight changes in fragrance. Commercially-sold perfumes and body sprays, on the other hand, are manufactured to smell the same from one bottle to the next. Variations in the homemade product will exist because essential oils are made from plants which are subject to varying growing conditions. Where a commercial perfume smells the same year after year, a perfume made by hand varies in fragrance and quality. This has its own frustrations and rewards. It reminds one of the changeability of nature itself. Commercial perfume contains laboratory-synthesized aromas in order to conform to the quality control standards which are present in any type of manufacturing. Using essential oils involves handling the essences of flowers, fruit, grasses, herbs, woods and resins. It’s a way of touching the essence of nature.
Obviously, making one’s own perfume requires experimentation, and not just instruction. So why are essential oils and chemical sensitivity to fragrances important? From page 8 of the 2015 Health.com article A Smart Guide to Scary Chemicals: “…if you see ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’ on a label, it could contain phthalates. What’s the worry? Phthalates, which decrease testosterone and may also mimic estrogen, have been linked to increased breast cancer risk.” [ii] From the journal Talanta: “Phthalates are commonly found in perfumes mainly as carriers or solvents for synthetic musks.” [iii] From the Journal of Hazardous Materials: “It seems that phthalates mainly act as hormone sensitizers by disrupting or impairing…the normal physiological mechanisms [of the body], which would directly reflect in the dysfunctions of body system[s] – implicating [a] strong association between EDCs [endocrine disruptors] and human diseases.”[iv] Chemicals known or believed to disrupt the human endocrine system may increase or decrease production of certain hormones, interfere with hormone signalling, compete with essential nutrients, and bind to essential hormones, according to the Environmental Working Group. [v] Essential oils are not known to interfere with hormone activity in the human physiology. Make perfume from scratch, and bypass the commercial fragrances. It can be clean. We can have that. We can take that one thing into our hands and make a minute difference. What we do in our homes – the small things we do in our lives are political acts.
[i] (“Orifice Reducers For Dram Vials.” The Essential Oil Company. The Essential Oil Company, 2017. Web. 17 Aug. 2017.)
[ii] (Graves, Ginny. “A Smart Guide to Scary Chemicals.” Health, 29, no. 10, Time Inc., Dec. 2015, pp. 120-134. EBSCOhost.)
[iii] Sanchez-Prado, Lucia. “Multicomponent analytical methodology to control phthalates, synthetic musks, fragrance allergens and preservatives in perfumes.” Talanta, vol. 85, Issue 1, 15 July 2011, pp 370-379. Science Direct, Accessed 19 Aug. 2017.)
[iv] (Sailas, Benjamin. “Phthalates impact human health: Epidemiological evidences and plausible mechanism of action.” Journal of Hazardous Materials, vol. 340, 15 Oct. 2017, pp. 360–383. Science Direct, Accessed 19 Aug. 2017.)
[v] “Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors.” Environmental Working Group, 28 Oct. 2013, http://www.ewg.org/research/dirty-dozen-list-endocrine-disruptors.