The Wonderful World of Fragrance
Fragrance is amazing, it has the power to evoke memories and emotions with one simple inhalation. Smells envelop us, circle around us, enter our bodies and emanate from us. We live in a world where we are constantly surrounded by scent. But it’s not a new phenomenon, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics illustrate that perfume played a part in life dating back as far as between 3500 and 3000 BC. It’s well documented about Cleopatra’s elaborate use of fragrance. When meeting Mark Anthony, her arrival was announced by clouds of fragrance before she came into view. Greece are credited with the art of making the first liquid perfume, although it was quite different from perfume as we know it today. They didn’t contain any alcohol and tended to be a mixture of fragrant powders and oils. However, it was Arabia who linked the past and present of the perfume industry. They created the process of extracting oils from flowers, for example rose oil.
Fragrance really came into its own when Louis XIV took the throne in the 18th Century. He demanded a different fragrance each day! At this point perfume was a substitute for soap and water! I’m glad I wasn’t around then, I don’t think my nose could take it! Napoleon was another lover of scent and it’s been reported that he would get through sixty bottles of double extract of jasmine a month! His first wife Josephine favoured musk which was even stronger and it was reported that this fragrance lingered in her boudoir sixty years after her death! Wow, that must have been strong stuff! In early America the first scents were colognes and scented waters and at the turn of the 20th Century perfumes were single flower fragrances, for example rose, violet, lily of the valley. Floral bouquets were introduced towards the end of the first decade and after this fragrances continued to develop in complexity, including the introduction of many synthetic notes which were made in laboratories. Fragrances today are crafted by well-trained perfumers often referred to as ‘Noses’. In the past twenty years the use of technology has increased in the development of perfumes to find the best odour molecules that will activate the desired smell. Fragrance is both an art and a science.
Let’s go back to basics - How do we smell?
Without knowing it we smell a wide variety of odours throughout the day and night. Breathing in and out as we go about our daily lives, a myriad of chemical molecules interact subliminally with our odour receptors. It’s only when an odour is pleasing to us, or irritates, triggers a warning or jogs a memory that we take notice.
When we breath in through our nose air swirls up through the nostrils to a ‘sheet’ the size of a small postage stamp. This contains millions of receptor cells. It’s called the olfactory epithelium. Each of these receptor cells has minute filaments which stick out beyond the surface and contain proteins. They grasp the fragrance molecules as they float up our noses. A process then takes place whereby these sensory cells are stimulated. An electrical activity takes place to send messages to the olfactory bulb in the brain which determines the smell. As we get older our sense of smell diminishes, just like our eyesight and hearing. The number of receptor cells and olfactory bulb nerve cells decrease.
Why use fragrance? Here are some of the benefits:
Nowadays it is more than a fashion accessory and depending on the type we choose they can be increasingly used to enhance our daily lives:
- Elevate mood and positivity
- Promote relaxation
- Reduce stress
- Enhance self-image
- Retrieve memories
- Improve concentration
Personally I have about six different perfumes on the go throughout the year. I will make a choice on which one to wear based on how I’m feeling that day, what time of year it is, what I’m doing that day and I’ll wear some kind of scent pretty much every day. I don’t keep fragrance for ‘best’. Best should be every day. We are worth that!
Fragrance and emotions
Our sense of smell is often referred to as our most primitive sense. As we have evolved we no longer need to spend so much time on survival which has made way for us to notice and enjoy the great outdoors – nature, flowers, plants, woods, herbs etc. The reason that fragrances stimulate our feelings is that our brains have been designed so that emotions and the sense of smell anatomically overlap.
Many of us have experienced that unexpected hit of nostalgia on smelling a particular scent. The memories of fragrance are generally associated with closeness or social events and are linked to the emotions we felt the first time we experienced it. In no time at all we can be teleported back to another moment in time – our nan’s house where her favourite soap filled the air, our mums kitchen with the smell of cake baking in the oven, a warm embrace with an old friend, an old book that we loved to read. Now this may sound bizarre but every time I smell tinsel (who knew it actually had a smell!) it instantly transports me back to me childhood Christmases. Such a wonderful memory. So every Christmas you’ll catch me sniffing any tinsel I can find!
What’s the basic construction of fragrance?
Have you heard of fragrance notes?
No musical notes involved here! But you may have noticed that if you smell fragrance as soon as you spray it on your skin it can smell quite different to smelling it once it’s been on your skin for several hours. This is because fragrances are complex, they are not a fixed object, they develop over time.
There are two types of main fragrance constructions. The first is a classic horizontal formula (as described above). This is where the fragrance evolves as it warms and develops on your skin. The fragrance ‘notes’ – the top, middle and bottom ingredient notes are all separate. But as they merge and mix together the true scent appears. Many perfumes follow this transition from top note to middle (heart) note and then to bottom (base) note.
However, the second type of fragrance construction is a vertical formula. This is where it has been purposely created to remain the same from the first note to the last note so they do not have that transition through a series of notes. There are even some formulas that have one solid dominating note all the way through.
The important first impression when you initially spray the fragrance. Top notes are usually made of the most volatile ingredients. These are often fresh, citrusy, fruity and light. They quickly blend into the middle notes which is the second part of the fragrance
This is the heart of the fragrance and what classifies it into the right fragrance family i.e. floral, green, woody, chypre, spicy, oriental. Fragrance families are used to categorise fragrances. It usually takes between ten to twenty minutes for these heart notes to fully develop on the skin. They bring harmony and balance to the composition and they will often be flowery notes to provide the ‘bouquet’.
These are made up of the underlying tones of the fragrance and are responsible for its lasting qualities. These tend to be warmer less volatile components that are woody, musky notes. It’s important to say that perfumes should not break up into three stages. If it is well balanced the transition should be impeccable. A perfume that falls apart is badly constructed.
So this is why, when choosing a new fragrance, we should spray and leave it on the skin for a few minutes to allow the scent to develop before making a decision. Try not to test more than three fragrances at one time as this will overwhelm the nose. A little tip is to smell the inside of the elbow to neutralise the nose before smelling the next fragrance, as long as fragrance hasn’t been sprayed here before.
Why can perfume be expensive?
The combination of exceptional ‘noses’, the long development process and the price of the raw materials are all very costly. So much expertise is involved in creating fragrances. They are like works of art. I like to break down the cost of my fragrances as a daily use cost which makes it more justifiable and like I’ve said before fragrance should be enjoyed every day. A pleasure to wear.
How can I get the most out of my fragrance? What’s fragrance layering?
Do you feel like your scent disappears throughout the day? Most fragrances will need to be sprayed during the day and/or evening. They won’t last all day if only spritzed first thing in the morning. Usually the more expensive the ingredients, and the higher the perfume concentration, the longer the fragrance will last. But there are ways to give it some longevity.
It’s important to note that fragrance doesn’t like dry skin. It needs moisture molecules to hook onto in order to stay put. If our skin is dry and dehydrated it’s not going to last. Ensure that skin is moisturised before spritzing. This is where fragrance layering comes in. It’s when we use two or more fragrance forms together. Perhaps starting with a body wash or bath oil in the chosen scent, followed by the matching body lotion or cream and finishing with the perfume. This layering effect ensures the fragrance takes on a much softer character and stays around for longer. Ultimately this is a more economical way of wearing fragrance as, even though the initial outlay may be more, we will use less in the long run.
Where are the best places to spray fragrance?
Aim for pulse points (wrists, crook of the elbow, behind the knees, inside the ankles) But avoid the neck and chest as this can cause damage, pigmentation, blemishes and premature ageing. It is designed to be worn on the skin, to be warmed by the body and develop into a wonderful aroma. Don’t spray onto clothes as not only can this distort the scent but can damage the fabric too.
How should I store fragrance?
Although many fragrances come in the most beautiful bottles it’s best to keep them in their box and store in a cool dark place like a wardrobe or drawer. If kept in this way they will last six months to a year or even longer depending on the ingredients. My best advice is to use it little and often. Don’t save it for best. Spritz yourself every day. You will know if a perfume has gone off or spoiled as its colour will have dramatically changed and it will smell different.
What are the different fragrance strengths?
The concentration of a scent is determined by its ratio of base (pure fragrance) to the dilutant (alcohol and water). Incidentally, alcohol is needed in a fragrance for longevity on the skin. It’s not like dousing ourselves in fragrant vodka. It’s a different kind of alcohol. The higher the concentration of base the more lasting the fragrance will be on the skin. Parfum is the highest concentration and will only require two or three dabs onto the skin. Eau de Parfum is next and can be applied more but not too liberally. Think less is more. Eau de toilette contains less parfum which makes it light to wear but can still be long lasting. Eau de Cologne is very light and can be applied liberally and often. There are also lots of other concentrations on the market which tend to be quite subtle in strength, for example, body spray, body mist, aftershave, perfume veil. Long gone are the days of only being able to choose from perfume for women and after shave for me. Nowadays there is an abundant choice with tonnes that are suitable for everyone.
How much fragrance should I use?
This is completely personal and will depend on what strength of fragrance is being used. As a general rule no one should be able to smell your fragrance if they are more than an arm’s length away from you. We don’t want to overpower those around us. If anyone enters our personal ‘circle’ they should be able to smell it. As a side note, many people think their fragrance disappears because they can’t smell it. However, our noses become desensitised to the scent. It’s not gone away and other people can still smell it. So there’s no need to dowse ourselves in a bucket of perfume throughout the day.
Here are my all time favourite fragrances. They are personal to me (so may not float your boat). Some are old favourites that I've been wearing for over twenty five years and others are recent additions.