According to archaeological finds, perfume has been around for at least 4000 years. The word perfume comes from the Latin per fumum, which means “through smoke” as initially aromatics and incense were burnt for gods and other religious ceremonies.
Perfume as we know it, is a mixture of an aromatic component that can be from natural sources, for example, essential oils or from synthetic sources such as aroma chemicals. This aromatic component is then combined with a solvent/carrier. The solvent/carrier is used to dilute the aromatic component – almost all aromatic material (synthetic or natural) are inappropriate to be worn undiluted on the skin due to their potency and potential to cause skin irritation or allergy. The solvent also assists in dissolving any aromatic material that is thick and resinous, allowing them to be usable.
The most common solvent/carrier utilised in perfumery these days is 190-proof ethyl alcohol. This has not always been the case, with fragrant oils and balms being among the first recorded perfumes for the body.
Is one better than the other? I would probably say no. It comes down to a personal preference, particularly with how you like to apply your perfume. Since the advent of low cost synthetics, perfume has become available to everyone, not just the wealthy. We are all familiar with the mass marketed overpowering perfumes that can be smelt out on the street as we pass an open door of a department store – these are all in an alcohol base and so we have come to associate perfume with alcohol and spritzing perfume.
Oil Based Perfume – While any oil can be used, they are generally chosen according to a low odour profile. Some oils have quite a strong odour and so are not used as a carrier. Perfumes are about the skilful blending of the aromatic component and so you don’t want this to be overpowered by a strong smelling carrier oil. Typically jojoba or fractionated coconut oil is chosen as the carrier for natural perfumes. One of the key advantages of an oil based perfume is that they are non drying to the skin and so are often preferred by those with dry skin. Dry skin has a hard time holding down scent and so the oil base not only moisturises the skin but assists in helping retain the scent on the skin for longer. Oil based perfumes are commonly known as ‘skin scents’ – the wearers body temperature gradually warms the oils and the odour begins to deepen to be experienced by the wearer and only those close to the wearer. As such, they make a great alternative for those who don’t want to leave a comet tail of odour behind – causing everyone to gag in their path! Oil based perfumes are sold in small bottles as they contain high fragrance concentrates (typically 20%) and are generally dabbed or rolled on versus spraying. Perhaps one of the down sides of oil based perfumes are that the oil can dull the fresh, lighter top notes – giving the overall odour of the perfume a “denser” feel.
Alcohol Based Perfume – these are the type of perfumes we are all well acquainted with courtesy of the department stores. They are generally delivered via spray and because alcohol evaporates quite fast when it meets your body heat, they give the impression that they are much stronger than they actually are. In fact, most of the perfumes sold commercially are at eau de toilette strength (typically around 10% aromatics) or eau de cologne (typically around 5% aromatics). Hence, these fragrances are sold in bigger bottles and appear to give you more bang for your buck. These department store perfumes also have synthetic fixatives added to assist with holding the scent onto your skin. One of the key characteristics that makes alcohol based perfumes appealing is the initial fragrance “hit” and the “lift” that it gives to those volatile top notes.
The advantage of alcohol also lies in its ability to quite easily dissolve heavy, resinous botanicals. This is why a lot of natural perfumers will choose to use alcohol as the carrier for their perfumes. It also allows the natural perfumer to make tinctures and then use these tinctures as a base for their perfumes, creating unique perfumes that no one else will be able to replicate.
In summary: The key differences lie in application — do you like to spray or dab? — and in perceived potency – do you like the fragrance to “hit” you in the face or do you like the slow reveal? After much experimentation I don’t feel that the carrier actually contributes too much to the longevity of a perfume (although many believe that oil based perfumes last a lot longer). I find that the oil versions tend to last a tad longer but not considerably so. Natural perfumes by their very nature will never last as long as a mass marketed commercial perfume containing synthetic fixatives. For natural perfumes, the longevity of the perfume has more to do with: a) the volatility of the natural materials used b) whether the botanicals chosen have their own natural fixative qualities c) the structure of the base, middle and top notes and d) the proportion of fragrance material to carrier.
Choice of carrier also comes down to practicalities. Alcohol comes in varying “proofs” (defined as twice the alcohol content by volume). What is required for perfumery is a high proof of at least 190 (that is 95%) neutral alcohol, otherwise the alcohol odour will overwhelm the aromatic compounds (just like strong oils will). Finding alcohol to use for perfume making in Australia is a little tricky. Easily obtainable is denatured alcohol, known as Ethanol 95PGF4. This denatured alcohol is the one that is widely used across all topical applications in Australia (perfumes, skin toners, shampoo, body washes etc). The government allows this type of alcohol to be freely bought and sold in Australia as it has been denatured with tert-Butyl alcohol – this makes it completely unpalatable to drink and so prevents people from purchasing pure alcohol for consumption. The 95 denotes 95% ethanol, the PG denotes perfumers grade (low odour) and the F4 indicates the additive to make it unpalatable to drink. This is at 0.25%, with the remaining 4.75% being water. Natural perfumers will generally not use denatured alcohol claiming it to not be natural. In Australia, to procure non-denatured pure ethyl alcohol I need to have a chemical supply company agree to be my supplier. I then need to gain permission and a subsequent permit from the Australian Taxation Office in order to purchase from the nominated chemical supply company. I have sourced a company that is willing to assist me with an application for neutral grape alcohol but the minimum order is 20 Litres. I haven’t proceeded with an application as yet because this brings me to the next practicality snag – postage.
It is against the law to post alcohol based perfume in the mail. Most people probably don’t actually know this. I know I didn’t. This is because perfume is a class 3 dangerous and prohibited good due to the high alcohol content. Research into this topic has proven to be a mine field of contradictory information. To add to the confusion, each country probably has its own restrictions and laws. For Australia, when you send a parcel you have to sign the aviation security and dangerous goods declaration – so, if you sign this and post perfume you are breaking the law. Alcohol based perfume can be sent within Australia as long as it is by road, so if you’ve ever bought perfume and it was posted express, it went by air and is a big no no. There are also companies flouting the aviation security requirements by saying if you purchase a cosmetic with your perfume they will label it as a cosmetic on the parcel so as to go undetected and arrive to the customer faster. The whole area is very grey indeed. Some post office staff say it is ok to post, others say no. Some companies are responsible and will ship by road or specialist couriers, others just blatantly break the law. Still, to add to the confusion, why can people buy duty free perfume and then just toss it into their suitcase or even hand luggage if under 100mls? Is this simply because passenger luggage is kept well clear of potential ignition sources, whereas, if you post a bottle of perfume and don’t declare it as dangerous it is assumed safe and therefore can be placed next to a potential ignition source? Who knows! Not I, that’s for sure. So, this brings me to….
What does èrlithe use as a carrier/solvent? Èrlithe will initially have available perfume oils in roll-on bottles. These are at parfum strength, so the actual botanical aromatic component will be at roughly a 20% concentration. The carrier used is fractionated coconut oil, chosen because it is a clear, colourless, odourless oil that is light with a non-greasy feel and has an indefinite shelf life. Checking the MSDS (material safety data sheet) gives it the thumbs up to post by air. For those interested in purchasing these roll-ons, click here.
Knowing that some people are “spritzers” I have made 15ml spray bottle perfumes. These are predominantly oil based like the roll-ons, however, to assist with the spray delivery I have added alcohol (currently denatured until I get a permit for non-denatured). After reading Australia Posts pdf on dangerous goods, I kept the concentration of alcohol relatively low, thinking that this low concentration would be safe to post by air. However, this wikipedia entry on the flammability of alcohol confirms that alcohol based perfume can not go by air. From Australia Post I was told that anything with a flash point < 61 degrees celcius cannot go by air. The wikipedia article demonstrates that alcohol’s flashpoint is well below this no matter at what concentration it is used. These will be unavailable for sale online and will only be for sale in person at markets, or I will be happy to post by road within Australia to those customers who have enjoyed the roll-on version of a perfume and want the fragrance in a spray format.
I am moving house soon and once I am settled in my new home I am going to proceed with obtaining the pure natural alcohol. I personally love the oil based roll-ons, but I appreciate some folk will want the spray experience and so will make full alcohol versions of my fragrances. I also want to obtain the natural alcohol because I am looking forward to making my own unique tinctures and I am planning to learn the art of enfleurage for which I will need the alcohol. These alcohol based perfumes once made will be available for sale at markets here in Tasmania until I can find a reasonably priced safe and legal way to ship these products overseas. If any of my readers have any knowledge of shipping perfume then please feel free to leave a comment.