Parfumerie the Natural Way

Making a “natural” perfume is easy: simply combine essential oils with a carrier oil in a glass container, shake, and you’re done, right?

Well, sort of. There are some challenges: figuring out which scents work together, how much of each to use, and how to give your perfectly-blended perfume staying power. The following are some perfume-making basics I’ve learned, sometimes the hard way, as I’ve blended, stirred, sniffed and blended again in the apothecary lab (okay, my kitchen):

Choose Your Oils
Use the scents you love, and stick with a small number – from a single note up to four, plus a fixative. Test combinations by dispensing a drop of each oil into your bottle, onto a cotton ball or makeup remover pad, or try out in a diffuser first.

Here’s a variety of essential oils suitable for making a fresh springtime or summer scent: (top, middle and base notes are indicated – see Get Blending, below)

Citrus: bergamot (t) • lemon (t) • lime (t) • mandarin (t) • sweet orange (t) • tangerine (t) • verbena (t)
Floral: geranium (m) • jasmine (m) • lavender (m) • neroli (m) • rose (m) • rosewood (m) • ylang ylang (m)*
Herbaceous: chamomile (m) • clary sage (m) • petitgrain (t-m) • rosemary (m)
Earthy/Woodsy: cedarwood (b) • cypress (m) • lemongrass (t-m) • patchouli (b) • sandalwood (b) • vetiver (b)
Refreshing: ginger (m-b) • grapefruit (t) • peppermint (t) • spearmint (t)

* I hate ylang ylang with a passion, so you’ll never see it in any of my formulations!

How Much?
If you don’t have a recipe, experiment, and be prepared for some failures* before you settle on the perfume you want. For a 5 mL bottle, I use a total of about 40 to 60 drops essential oils (taking up about ¼ of the bottle) diluted in a carrier oil. Start with a minimum number of drops per oil, keeping in mind that the mixture develops over hours and days, and strong-smelling oils tend to get stronger. Citrus oils are the most volatile, so use up to twice as much relative to your other ingredients. Don’t forget to record the amount of each oil used, including any adjustments, so that you have a final recipe that can be reproduced at the end of your labours – and the end of your bottle!

* Use up not-quite-perfect rejects in a diffuser, make into a foaming hand soap, add to bathwater, sprinkle on bedlinens, etc.

As you work, don’t forget to write down your formula!

Get Blending
Try to include top, middle and base notes so that you have a balanced formula that performs well and gives each scent element its fair due.

The “note” is the role each oil plays within a blend. Top notes (citrus, mints, delicate florals, soft herbals) provide an initial burst of fragrance which fades first, so you can usually use more of these compared to middle and bottom notes. Top notes give way to middle notes (more intense florals and herbs such as lavender, rose and jasmine); these are the heart of the fragrance. The anchoring bottom notes (rich, woodsy, earthy or resinous) support the others, add depth and are the longest-lasting components. Generally, the richer and stronger the smell of an oil, the more likely it is to be a middle or base note.

Set It So You Won’t Forget It
For a fragrance to last longer once applied, it’s important to include a fixative, an essential oil that is usually also a base note. Keep in mind that an essential oil perfume is never going to have the punch and staying power of a commercial perfume which contains a host of synthetic chemicals. Natural fragrances tend to be more subdued and wear close to the skin, which means you won’t give yourself a headache or knock over a room – a very good thing for you and everyone around you!

Some of the fixatives listed below, which are on the lighter side and suitable for spring and summer perfumes, can be harder to find in stores. You’ll probably have to buy them online, but they’re a worthwhile investment; I’ve found they make all the difference in the longevity of my blends. Since they’re less familiar than, say, lavender or peppermint, I’ve included their scent profiles for quick reference. How much to use? 5 to 8 drops of a fixative in your blend ought to be enough, especially if you’re using other base notes.

Benzoin (Styrax benzoin): (b) Warm, sweet, soft, vanilla-like, powdery • Possibly the most effective of the fixatives listed here, benzoin blends well with black pepper, copaiba balsam, coriander, cypress, frankincense, ginger, jasmine, juniper, lemon, myrrh, rose, sandalwood • Caution: Too much benzoin can lend a medicinal smell, so don’t go overboard. Also, it’s a sticky resin that may be difficult to dispense from the bottle.

Cistus (Cistus ladaniferus): (b) Sweet, woody, warm, resinous, with evergreen notes • Blends well with bergamot, chamomile, clary sage, cypress, frankincense, juniper, lavender, oakmoss, patchouli, pine, sandalwood, vetiver

Copaiba Balsam (Copaifera officinalis): (b) Mild, sweet, balsamic, vanilla-like • Blends well with cedarwood, citrus, clary sage, jasmine, rose, vanilla, ylang ylang

Frankincense, aka olibanum, boswellia (Boswellia carterii): (b) Woodsy, earthy, balsamic, spicy-sweet with slight lemony note • Blends well with bergamot, black pepper, cinnamon, cypress, geranium, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, mandarin, neroli, orange, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, sandalwood, vetiver, ylang ylang

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha): (b) Warm, earthy, balsamic, resinous, dry, sometimes bitter • Blends well with bergamot, chamomile, clove, cypress, lemon eucalyptus, frankincense, geranium, grapefruit, jasmine, juniper, lavender, lemon, neroli, palmarosa, patchouli, pine, rose, rosemary, sandalwood, tea tree, vetiver, ylang ylang

Peru Balsam, aka Balsam of Peru (Myroxylon pereira): (b) Soft, sweet, balsamic, mainly resinous with floral and vanilla undertones • Blends well with black pepper, ginger, jasmine, lavender, patchouli, petitgrain, rose, sandalwood, ylang ylang

Sandalwood (Santalum album or S. spicatum): (b) Mild, soft, woody, dry, sweet, somewhat balsamic • Blends well with benzoin, black pepper, chamomile, cistus, clary sage, clove, geranium, grapefruit, frankincense, jasmine, lavender, lemon, mandarin, myrrh, neroli, oakmoss, orange, palmarosa, patchouli, rose, rosewood, vetiver, ylang ylang

Happy blending!

Smells Like Spring

Over the next few weeks – the season of April showers and May flowers – I’ll be sharing my adventures in making natural perfumes and other springtime-scented goodies for the home and body. My theme for this month, then, is Making Scents of Spring. First up: DIY essential oil roll-on perfumes.

The novel The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George was a light and airy balm to my winter-weary spirits. The France of books and screen always gives me a much-needed boost, whether it be the Provençal countryside with its warm azure skies, lavender fields and cedars, or the cafés, boulangeries and rain-washed pavements of the City of Light. Charmant! After reading Bookshop, I was inspired to get out my box of essential oils to create three new seasonal fragrances, each of them incorporating some form of citrus to brighten and invigorate. Look for my recipes at the end of this post.

But before we go on, I’d like to offer an alternate title for this article: Natural DIY Perfumes – Debunking the Online Myth. Most recipes tell you to add a scant few drops of your favourite essential oils to a lot of carrier oil (usually 10 mL), et voilà! You have your own bespoke perfume. Well, oui et non. Yes, the result will be a lovely blend that smells great in the bottle, but it’ll likely be a transitory whiff that simply won’t offer staying power on the skin. After plenty of research, trial and error, what I’ve found is that a perfume that is actually noticeable and long-lasting requires a fair amount of essential oil and a fixative to help those volatile oils from evaporating dans un instant.

My next post will list a variety of essential oils perfect for creating your own light and refreshing personal blend, as well as information on fixatives – the most effective of which are less well known and harder to find. But first…

What You Need to Make Your Own Natural Perfume:

  • a few favourite essential oils, including one fixative
  • a stable carrier oil such as fractionated coconut (my favourite), apricot kernel or jojoba
  • glass bottle – I like to use 5 mL vials with rollerball tops for ease of application
  • small funnel and reusable glass eyedroppers (pipettes) for no-mess dispensing (optional)

How To:

Add essential oils drop by drop to the empty perfume bottle, sniffing as you work • Top up with carrier oil, making sure to leave enough room for the rollerball, which you will insert once you’re satisfied with the blend • Cover the bottle top tightly with plastic wrap and an elastic band, shake thoroughly, and let sit for at least 24 hours to allow the blend to develop • Shake and test periodically, adding more essential oil if necessary (I wear mine after each addition to see how it performs) • Push in the rollerball insert securely and close with the cap • Shake well before each use, and apply sparingly to pulse points.

Here are the scents I came up with for my (imaginary) trip to springtime France. The numbers are the drops needed for each essential oil. Top, middle, base and fixative notes are also indicated.

Fleurs de Provence essential oil perfume (5 mL)

A lemon-drop sun and fields of fragrant mauve stretching to a horizon of saturated blue. Sweet citrus and warm cedar round out the sharp hit of lavender in this decidedly feminine scent. The resinous evergreen notes of cistus (Cistus ladaniferus) work particularly well with the perfume’s other bright elements.

35 lemon (t) • 5 lavender (m) • 5 cedarwood (b) • 5 cistus (f) • fractionated coconut oil or carrier oil of your choice

Rain on the Pavement essential oil perfume (5 mL)

If you enjoy sipping café au lait and nibbling orange brioche whilst admiring the reflected lights of la tour Eiffel in the rainwashed street, this crisp and slightly spicy fragrance is for you. Bonus: it’s unisex! 

20 bergamot FCF* (t) • 2 clove (m) • 10 sandalwood (b) • 5 cistus (f) • fractionated coconut oil or carrier oil of your choice

* furocoumarin-free, which means the phytochemicals which cause skin to become photosensitive have been removed; sometimes labelled bergapten-free

Springtime in Paris essential oil perfume (5 mL)

This perfume is my favourite of the three: fresh and floral, with a subtle je ne sais quoi lent by the sandalwood. I use 5% rose and 20% frankincense in jojoba oil as affordable alternatives to the pure oils.

20 sweet orange (t) • 20 rose (m) • 15 sandalwood (b) • 5 frankincense (f) • fractionated coconut oil or carrier oil of your choice

Notes & Cautions:

• Never ingest essential oils • Do not apply undiluted to the skin • Do a patch test first • Avoid using if pregnant • Some essential oils, especially citrus, can cause skin to become photo-sensitive, so keep perfumed skin out of the sun • Test to make sure the bottle doesn’t leak before carrying in your handbag • Keep perfume and essential oils away from heat and direct sunlight.