The Story Of Perfume
Welcome to the magical world of perfume!!
Looking at perfume - the history of perfume, the philosophy behind perfume, the chemistry behind perfume, the health issues associated with synthetic perfume and the benefits of using natural perfumes
Perfume is magic worked by science. its job is to capture the moments…first love, mum getting ready to go to the theatre, fantasies, books, places we’ve been to…or as some say - a fragrance has the power to inspire the memories of the future.
Smell can really take us back in time – Lavender might take you outside, lavender fields, nature, beauty, a house you lived in, or it might take you to your grandmother, her old clothes, moth balls…so in a way, smell is like a time machine, it takes us somewhere else.
It is also very strongly related to our other senses – our sense of taste, things that appeal to your mouth, appeal to your nose. Also, the visual aspect – the packaging a lot of the time plays a more important role than the fragrance itself.
Smell also touches on our animal instinct. It’s a way to show our feathers, to be noticed so it’s not by chance that some fragrances draw on animal scents from nature.
Fragrance is viewed by some as a type of art or even a type of religion. Patrick Suskind who wrote the book perfume said - ‘odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearance, emotions of will’…
The history of perfume -
The world's first recorded chemist is a woman called Tapputi, a perfume maker who was mentioned in a cuneiform tablet from 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia. She used to soak flowers with oil, then filtered and repeated the process a few times – that’s now called cold oil infusion.
From this same era, the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the legendary king of Ur in Mesopotamia burning incense of cedarwood and myrrh to put the gods and goddesses into a pleasant mood.
But the most famous ancient perfume makers were the ancient Egyptians.
The Egyptians took pride in smelling good and being clean. They thought that smelling badly was impure, and therefore invented many different perfumes. It is said that at parties women wore perfume cones on their heads. As the evening progressed the fat would melt and dribble over the hair and clothes to make them smell nice...
Perfumes were made from lily, myrrh, cinnamon and other plants mixed with oil, animal fat or sweet wine.
(perfume jar from Tutankhamun’s tomb -the larger the jar with perfume, the richer the person was).
The Persian chemist Ibn Sina who lived about a 1000 years ago introduced the process of extracting aroma from flowers by distillation, the procedure most commonly used today to produce essential oils and floral waters. He first experimented with rose. Until his discovery, liquid perfumes were usually mixtures of oil and crushed herbs or petals.
He worked out how to make rose water which was more delicate, and immediately became popular.
The funny thing though is that the oil (so that would be rose essential oil) which was produced in the process of making floral water was considered ‘impurity’! and people used to carefully remove the oil before the rose water was used.
Eventually and luckily, people started looking at that ‘impurity’ and realized that that was the very source, the ‘essence’ of the aroma of the water. So they started using the oils and calling them ‘essential oils’.
In distillation, steam is passed through plant material held in a still and the essential oil turns to gas. This gas is then passes through tubes, cooled, and liquified.
Moving on, perfumes spread to Europe when 13th century Crusaders brought back samples from Palestine to Europe.
Hungarians produced a perfume made of scented oils (rosemary, lemon peel, mint, rose and water) blended in alcohol at the command of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, best known as Hungary Water.
Making perfumes also arrived to Italy, and in the 16th century, Italian ideas were taken to France by Catherine de Medici's personal perfumer, Rene the Florentine.
His laboratory was connected with her apartments by a secret passageway, so that no formulas could be stolen. Thanks to Rene, France quickly became one of the European centers of perfume.
This is also the time when the commercial production of distilled essential oils started.
(Catherine De Medici – Queen of France)
So perfume came into widespread use among the monarchy. France's King Louis the 14th used it so much that he was called the "perfume king." Louis took the trend of perfumery to new heights, by commissioning his perfumer to create a new scent for each day of the week.
It was at this time that Grasse, a region of southern France where many flowering plant varieties grow, became a leading producer of perfumes.
Interesting to note though that today – the largest scent retail space in the world is Macy’s in New York! Not France..
(King Louis the 14th )
But basically from 4000 years ago until about 1887, anyone who wanted to make nice smelling stuff had to work with plants or some fragrances that came from animal material – for example - Ambergris from sperm whale (it’s something some whales excrete from their digestive system).
and musk from musk deer –
Musk deers are shy animals from the Himalayas. They don’t grow antlers. Mature males produce musk, which is stored in a hairy pouch gland just the size of a golf ball in front of the genitals. Musk actually means testicle in Sanskrit. To use musk in perfumery, the dried gland is chopped into small pieces and left in high-strength alcohol to mature for months.
It was and still is one of the most expensive animal products in the world but its use is restricted as the animal is endangered, although in some places this animal is farmed specifically for this use but it’s very much in limited use. These days musk smell is made synthetically in labs.
Most of these animal materials are really revolting to most people, but when they get diluted they have a really nice smell. Ambergris smells very sweet, while musk has a rich, intense smell, but it does pose many ethical questions, especially when in France for example, the use of musk or other animal materials in perfumes is not restricted.
So basically for 4000 years it was all about working with natural ingredients.
Chemistry rises -
Then chemistry took a giant leap forward and synthetic ingredients were explored.
Chemists worked out how to separate the natural fragrances into their different ingredients –for example, in the case of rose, they were able to establish that beta damascenone which creates the smell in rose (it’s part of 149 different ingredients) is a combination of 13 atoms of carbon, 18 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen, all stuck together in a particular way.
So off the chemists went to try and source these atoms. And guess where they found them – petrochemicals – so from petroleum (which have lots of health issues associated with them). Petrochemicals are a very cheap compound that has carbon and hydrogen. So they got 2. They then got oxygen from the air….cooked up all 3 ingredients to make them stick together in the right way and the result – rose smell! (synthetic beta damascenone). Same stuff as the natural stuff, just sourced differently.
But the main difference is the price – for $200 you get a kilo of synthetic beta damascenone, while for the same money you get less than a teaspoon of pure rose essential oil, and the beta damascenone is only 1% of that spoon of the essential oil.
Also, if you make the synthetic stuff in the lab – you have the same conditions, no storms, no hurricanes, nothing that might destroy your crop. So really, why would perfume makers use essential oils when the synthetic version is much much cheaper, more reliable and they don’t even have to label its source or label it at all...
So what’s the big deal you might say? Some might even say it’s good for the environment, as we’re not taking so much land to grow all these crops for essential oils and other extracts.
But let’s think about this - in nature, you can never get a really big hit of beta damascenone.
With the synthetic stuff you get a real hit. There may be nothing wrong with inhaling beta damascenone at maybe 50 times the natural proportion, but smell is a very potent thing. Something that’s harmless at 1% may not be so harmless at a higher concentration. But we don’t know that.
Another thing is that in the essential oil, beta damascenone is 1 of about 149 ingredients. That’s not the case in the synthetic version. Scientists are still investigating some of those other ingredients to see how they all work together. They do know that some of them act as antioxidants, so again, are we harming ourselves by not having those companion ingredients? Maybe there’s no problem, but the truth is that because this is all still pretty new stuff, humans are the lab rats here.
Perfume, art and fashion
In addition to perfume making and how it progressed with chemistry, so did the art of the perfume bottle. Perfume bottles were often as elaborate and exotic as the perfumes they contained. The crafting of perfume bottles in Europe reached its peak in Venice in the 18th century, when glass containers assumed the shape of small animals or had scenes painted on them.
These days, the fancy perfume bottle can cost much more than the liquid (or the juice as it’s called in the industry) inside it!
Also, in the 20th Century, came the concept of fashion and fragrance - Ernest Beaux created Chanel No. 5 for Coco Chanel in 1921. Chanel believed women should wear perfume whenever they hoped to be kissed. Today Chanel No.5 sells a bottle every 30 seconds. Yves Saint Laurent (Opium), Giorgio Armani and many more. So trying to make yourself more desirable, more attractive by your smell and linking it with fashion (as a way of marketing – so something to be changed regularly, a must have accessory).
The issues with synthetic perfumes -
A 2016 study found that about 35% of people experience health problems when exposed to fragrance – things like asthma, headaches, allergic skin reactions or nausea (as smell molecules can get absorbed through our skin to our bloodstream and lungs).
There is a great book by Kate Grenville called the case against Fragrance.
She talks a lot about the symptoms people get (including herself) from synthetic fragrances.
There is a famous court case from the US that she talks about where a lady took her workplace to court as they refused to reduce the synthetic fragrance at her workplace – a thing that caused her lots of health issues.
She was awarded $100,000 compensation and since then many places in the US and Canada have ‘low scent’ or ‘fragrance free’ policies. Unfortunately, that’s still not the case in Australia. But Fragrance can truly cause lots of health issues to people.
Migraines is a big one. The occurrence of migraines has increased by about a third in the past 10 years, according to some studies. A study from 2001 found that ‘nose sinus involvement’ in headache could be more important than was generally realized.
In another study with over a thousand migraine sufferers, 43% of the patients named ‘perfume’ as one of the things that triggered their headaches.
Other health issues with fragrance include Asthma – a study noted that many patients complained that some odors worsen their asthma. Perfume and cologne are two of the most frequently mentioned offenders.
Other symptoms are skin allergies like atopic dermatitis and fragrance and some chemicals that are common in fragrance like benzophenone (absorber in fragrance) are high on the list of causes for allergies.
A recent survey of fragrance allergy named 52 chemicals and 28 essential oils – (yes, essential oils can also cause allergies and other reactions if not used in the right percentage) so these chemicals and oils have been listed as ‘established contact allergens in humans’.
But here’s another massive issue with fragrance - even if you could pin down the specific ingredient you’re allergic to, it probably won’t help you, as fragrance ingredients are usually not listed because fragrance is considered a trade secret, so no need to list what’s under ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’.
But there are 3999 ingredients or as the international fragrance association calls it – the palette from which manufacturers usually choose from.
Only 181 of those chemicals are subject to some form of regulation (that’s 6%) and the scary thing is that one of the main sources of information about those chemicals are the tests funded by the International fragrance association – the people that make and sell the products. Interestingly, the original Chanel No. 5 perfume contained ingredients that have been banned…so they had to change the formula.
It’s quite unbelievable these days, with the extent of government safety regulations. I mean, it’s all about safety these days…yet for some reason, when it comes to fragrance, this safety hysteria some may say, hasn’t arrived…
We can be exposed to untested chemicals, often ingredients we don’t even know about as they might not be labelled.
Carcinogenicity - there is scientific evidence that nitro-musks such as Musk xylene (synthetic musk) can cause cancer.
Other examples - Limonene, Alpha pinene and beta pinene – these are all common ingredients in fragrances. They are called Terpenes (made of hydrogen and carbon) and they often smell nice, and generally don’t cause any major problems. But they have a big problem – when they come in contact with air, they go through a chemical reaction that results in Formaldehyde – a known human carcinogenic.
Breastfeeding and perfume – many studies confirmed that breastmilk commonly contains synthetic musks. It was found that women with a high use of perfume during pregnancy had elevated milk concentrations of synthetic musks. So what is the problem with these musks – they potentially can cause cancer as mentioned before and are Hormone disruptors. Musks can disrupt the balance of hormones in the body. Hormones pretty much run the show in our body. Hormones affects brain development in unborn children, it’s connected to our immunity, to how tired we are, how tall we are etc. Synthetic musks can mimic thyroid hormones, and Oestrognen (Oestrogen is closely linked with breast cancer for example)
And again, the main issue is that due to trade secrets, companies rarely give the full listing of ingredients so we don’t really know what goes in it until we test it in the lab.
And the last ‘negative’ thing I want to touch on is Olfactory fatigue.
When you smell something, it’s because little bits of it have just gone up your nose. Those bits – molecules of smell chemicals – lock on to the ends of neurons – nerve receptors.
These are in turn connected to the brain through bone that really looks like a grid, a net at the top of the nose.
Just on the other side of that grid is the brain’s olfactory bulb. Its job is to gather those smell signals and send them to other parts of the brain to be interpreted (it has 800 million nerve endings to detect smells as I mentioned before).
This is the only place in the body where the brain is directly connected to the outside world (via that grid). Why is that? Because smelling fast used to be something that could save your life. In the jungle, where you can’t see much, you might have smelled the tiger before you saw him. Today, it’s the sniff test that warns us not to eat an oyster that’s been in the fridge a day too long.
It’s our nose that tells us to open the window when we’re painting a room.
It’s no accident that people whose health is fragile can become hypersensitive to smells. Hospitals discourage strongly scented flowers because sick people often don’t like them. People going through Chemotherapy generally want to avoid strong smells.
But Nature wants our sense of smell to stay alert. And it’s come with a clever trick. You know how when you walk into a house where there are 15 cats and the smell just about kills you? You wonder how people can live like that, and then after 10 minutes in the house you realise you yourself can’t smell it anymore. Neither can the people that live there. This is Olfactory fatigue!
It’s another leftover survival skill. If something has been around us for a while and hasn’t hurt us, chances are that it’s ok.
This is why, the more fragrance we’re exposed to, the less we smell it. So when you put on a perfume, after a while you can’t smell it anymore and you think it’s faded so you squirt yourself with more perfume. It’s not the smell that’s faded, it’s just that your smell receptors are tuning it out.
Why is that bad? It makes us overuse fragrance, and even if it’s natural ingredients – it’s still best not to overuse. There’s just too much fragrance all around us so there is a necessity for a fragrance to shout even louder to make itself heard in a way.
Natural Perfumery –
So after all the bad stuff, let’s move away from the chemistry and get to the natural stuff!
But just as a side note – this information that we spoke about is given to you in order to empower you to make more informed decisions – I do not by any way tell you that you shouldn’t be using synthetic perfumes.
We are surrounded with synthetic, mass produced ingredients everywhere, and the reality is that we can’t and probably don’t want to give up all of them. I’ll give you an example – for me, it’s very important I use natural ingredients for house cleaning and for laundry – as I think this is stuff we breath all the time. But I have to say that when it comes to shampoos, I go with low chemicals shampoos but I still don’t go for the totally natural shampoos as I find they don’t feel nice on my hair. So I’m not pretending to be totally against synthetic ingredients, but I think it’s important to give the information and allow you to make more informed choices.
But I should say something about essential oils – some of them are not so good. Pennyroyal, oakmoss and sassafras oils have been shown to be carcinogenic. And the international fragrance association lists about 20 essential oils that are either prohibited or restricted for use in fragrance. So contrary to common belief, not all essential oils are good for us.
And another note re essential oils – think about the reasons why a plant makes a smell – smells are a matter of life and death for something stuck in the ground.
Nice smells are a way to attract insects that will pollinate it, so it’s for reproduction. Nasty smells are a way to protect themselves and their seeds. Some can kill fungus and bacteria. So really, natural fragrances aren’t just a generous gift from nature to make our lives nicer, they’re powerful and sometimes harmful substances.
Essential oils are natural in the sense that they are made from plants. But they’re also unnatural in the sense that smelling is like having the scent of hundreds of roses for example up your nose rather than just one. So I just want you to be aware of that. Not to discourage as it’s much safer to use essential oils than synthetic fragrances, but not to overdo it.
Here at Be Better Balms, we handmake our very own Limited Edition Perfume Balm with our main ingredient being infused rose and jasmine flowers.
In line with our signature ‘seed to skin’ production process, we grow our own roses and jasmine on our property on the Mornington Peninsula. These lovely aromatic flowers are hand harvested at the optimal time to maximum potency.
The flowers are then dehydrated and infused in sweet almond oil for 6 weeks to extract all the lovely aroma from the flowers.
These infused floral oils are then combined with coconut oil cocoa butter, arnica oil, Candelilla wax and essential oils at suitable concentrations to create this simple, clean, green floral scent that is 100 percent natural. The balms are available here
This blog has been longer than usual as I really wanted to give you an insight into the world of perfume...knowledge is power and the more we know the better, healthier choices we all can make.