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!

The Fragrance of Fog

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI adore fog.

Dewy droplets veiling the ghostly shapes of an urban landscape. Drowsy summer meadows waking to a rising mist. Coverlets of cloud over a slow-running river. Dark roads wrapped in a silent shroud.

I love fog’s various names – dew, wisp, brume, murk, vapour, miasma, mist, smoke – and its colours and textures – pearly grey, cotton-white, a bank of slate or a silvery shimmer. I relish the sight of a glassy lake kissed by early-morning swirls, and – although it can be rather perilous – driving in a dense fog. I love how it softens the view and blankets sound and makes me feel as if I’m the only living thing around.

It’s deeply primal, this damp, ephemeral stuff, and whenever it appears, my imagination rises with it in a shiver. Recently, I stepped out the door on a quiet December evening to find the night completely “socked in” by a thick blanket which hung like a pall for miles around. I stood for a while breathing it in, letting the chill air sting my nostrils and enter my lungs in a cool flood. Suddenly, I became aware that this fog had its own peculiar scent.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI inhaled some more, testing the mist on my tongue, trying to parse out its components, and quickly realized that not all of them were what we’d typically call smells or aromas. There was dampness, of course: the scent of rain. There was also an organic hint of earth and evergreen, probably due to the grass and pines growing nearby. And an elusive, moist sharpness that I could only describe as a cool pungency – something along the lines of peppermint. There and then, I resolved to try to capture these atmospheric elements – and the magic of that foggy night – in a perfume.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the past few months, I’ve been attempting to formulate a series of natural perfumes for my shop, blending essential and fragrance oils with a carrier such as fractionated coconut oil. I know what I want the perfumes to be (I’ve even got labels for the bottles ready to go), but the process isn’t as easy as one might think: top, middle and base notes must be mixed in the correct proportions so that they work together and unfold over time in a pleasing, wearable “story”. They must be strong enough to last, yet not so overpowering as to clear a room or give the wearer – or anyone else – a headache. And, in keeping with the theme of my shop, they need to invoke nature: wood, water, flowers, herbs … and, now, fog.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI already had some ideas as to what should go into this misty blend, but I’ve also researched what other people’s interpretations are. (Not to steal their ideas, natch, but just to get a general idea!) I’ve found some products which claim to invoke a London fog or the heathery mist on a Scottish moor, containing such elements as bergamot or Earl Grey tea, ylang-ylang, birch, and even ozone, leather and smoke. I do wish the internet had Smell-o-vision! So far I haven’t quite settled on my own perfect combination, but I’m getting close.

If you could describe mist or fog in a few words – what it looks, feels, tastes or smells like – what would they be?

That’s my last post for 2016. The past six months have been a blast! See you in January, when my theme will be Things that are white. Have a wonderful, safe, healthy and happy New Year!