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.
I really enjoyed reading this and I greatly admire your passion. 🙂 Wishing you all the best in your efforts as an artisanal perfumer.
Thank you for taking the time to comment! I’m glad you enjoyed this post.
Do you have any experiences with ordering perfume from overseas and having it sent?
Hi Gus, not much as I make my own! However, many years ago I ordered my husband’s signature fragrance not available in Australia via an online fragrance store. It took well over 3 months to arrive and I remember being puzzled as to why they had sent it by sea! I had also ordered a fragrance for myself with that order and my bottle had basically leaked half of its contents, so it’s a good thing it had come by sea and not air!
Other than that experience, I have only ever ordered a few 1ml samples from some online stores and some 2ml minis from Aftelier Perfumes that came by courier (a little pricey). I am not sure if customs do regular checks and charge tax/duty on perfume purchases, so that would be something to check and be mindful of as well.
Sorry I can’t offer any more information on the matter. I was put off buying perfume from overseas by that one bad experience many years ago.
There are a number of lovely natural perfumers in Australia that are worth trying, however, if natural is not your thing, mecca cosmetica stock a nice range of international niche perfumes.
You could also try contacting the crew at Australian Perfume Junkies, they may perhaps have experience with purchasing perfume from overseas.
Thank you for writing up your experiences. What a minefield it is and I wish you all the best with finding a viable solution. Wish I could go for a jaunt to Tassie and select a few of your scents to bring back.
I’ve ordered samples from OS via Illuminated Perfumes and received them air-mail. While it wasn’t a lot of perfume, perhaps 3 or 4 ml altogether, it was still able to be sent air-mail. Is there an Australian Botanical Perfumers association or group or …? where we could gather and share info?
Blessings and keep on writing 🙂 and hope the moooove was smooooth.
Hi there, yes the post told me that it is ok to send very small volumes of perfume that contain alcohol – so samples are ok to post.
Australia Post have a document around posting dangerous goods. If I remember correctly the volume of alcohol within the product has to be below 70%. Most alcohol based perfumes are above this and so can only be sent by road within Australia and not overseas. I ended up making perfume oil and an oil/alcohol combination to keep the alcohol very low so that the perfumes can be posted.
Each country also has their own regulations which may differ from ours, this adds an extra dimension to the whole thing! You may be able to post your perfume out of Australia if it is within our alcohol limits but it may be seized at the destination country customs. I’ve had parcels with samples from overseas perfumers opened and checked at our customs here in Australia – they include a note in the parcel to let you know they have done this and whether they have removed any items or not.
What a wonderful, informative article! I noticed on the picture that your ,,spritzers,, are so wonderfully clear and are not cloudy at all.. how do you achieve such clarity? And your oil based roll on is so clear also.. unfortunately, I get cloudy results when I introduce Benzoin or Balsam Peru to Jojoba; I was wondering if there is a way to remedy this… Thank you, jane
Hi Jane, thanks for your lovely comment. I filter all my perfumes through a funnel lined with filter paper. Sometimes I have to filter a couple of times depending on the aromatics I have used. It can take a bit of time for an oil based perfume to filter and sometimes I have to change the filter paper through the process. Some people that make alcohol based perfume will use bentonite clay and pop the perfume in the fridge for a day before filtering – although I have heard that the clay can make the perfume weaker. I have not tried the clay method as I am happy with just using filter paper. Hope this will work for your jojoba based perfume. Kerry
Truly enjoyed this post and later read couple of your writing. Well done !
As perfume lover these days I say (Benzyl ) considered as natural alchol so why you dont use it instead of ethy alch.Does it make any diffrent using grape alch or ethy alch at the end result ?
I read on ur blog that u use perfume oil from all around the word and I was wondering if only france perfume oils are the best or are there any other countries to produce top quality perfume oil like oman or india or top company in china ?
tx for sharing
Hi and thanks for your comment. Yes benzyl alcohol does occur naturally in many plants, however, it can also be manufactured synthetically by mixing benzyl chloride and sodium hydroxide. Benzyl alcohol can be used as a general solvent for paints and inks and is also used as a preservative in the health industry in intravenous medications and topical drugs. It is also widely used in cosmetics as a preservative and pH adjuster. It is a colourless liquid and is often called an “aromatic” alcohol as it has a mild pleasant scent – as such, it can be used as a component of synthetic fragrances, not as the entire carrier. The synthetic version has been known to cause skin irritation and can be toxic to the liver and central nervous system. I am unsure about the natural version (presumably it would be similar).
Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is produced by the fermentation of sugar by yeasts. The chief raw ingredients to produce ethyl alcohol can be from sugar crops such as beets and sugar cane, from grain crops such as wheat and corn or from fruit such as grapes. Here in Australia, there are two local companies that manufacture ethanol products: one uses grapes, the other sugar cane. I have currently chosen to go with the grape alcohol for no particular reason. Any neutral 190-proof ethanol is ok for perfume making as they have a neutral odour that will not interfere with the aromatic material that you add.
With regards to the perfume oil – I interpret “perfume oil” as a ready made perfume, something that a company has made to be used as a perfume not an ingredient. It is the essential oils, CO2 extracts and absolutes that I purchase and use as the ingredients to make my perfumes. I use reputable suppliers in the US, UK and Australia. These suppliers source the ingredients from around the world from the farmers and distillers. So for instance, I can have frankincense that comes from Oman, osmanthus from China, rose from Bulgaria, lavender from either France or Australia etc etc. Yes there will be some countries renowned for the quality of their aromatic ingredients, for instance Sandalwood from India, however, I choose Australian Sandalwood for sustainability reasons and to support my country!
Hi Kerry. Just read your article, very informative! You sound very knowledgeable and enjoy reading your responses as well. Feel like Ive learned a lot from just this article haha! I was wondering if there are any alternatives to using alcohol (and not oil based bc I like to spritz not roll)? I find I cannot wear a lot of my fave perfumes any more bc they irritate my skin so wanted to have a go at doing some of my own but dont want to use the alcohol as it may dry/irritate my skin. Thanks in advance!
Hi Renee, thanks for your comment. Fractionated coconut oil will disperse through an atomiser, however, it won’t be a fine mist like alcohol produces. To overcome this issue, I find that using some alcohol with the fractionated coconut oil helps to make a fine mist whilst remaining mostly an oil based product to minimise the drying effects of alcohol. My eau de parfum perfumes are: 15% fragrance concentrate (ie, essential oils, absolutes), 55% fractionated coconut oil, 30% alcohol.
Try the fractionated coconut oil first and see how happy you are with how it comes out through your atomiser. If you are not happy with it, gradually add small amounts of alcohol, starting at 5% and work your way up until you are happy with the spray. Hopefully that way you will be able to achieve a reasonable compromise between mist and minimal alcohol.
As for other carriers that might work, I am unsure as I have not used others.
I know that CB I Hate Perfume makes water based spray perfumes, however, I am not familiar with the other ingredients he uses to emulsify the essential oils and water together. Hope this is helpful and that you find an appropriate solution for your purposes.
A lot of the time it’s the synthetics that irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory system rather than the alcohol base.
Thank you I find this article very informative. I’ve also found it tricky to post my perfumes, so to pass through the loophole of Australia Post I made my spray perfumes in a vodka base, as food grade alcohol isn’t classified as grade 3 flammable. The only trouble with using vodka as a base it that the essential oils won’t blend with the vodka the way they blend in perfumers alcohol, so the bottles need a shake before sprayed, and the scent won’t last as long on the skin. I find it a challenge to be pinned between customer demands and legal regulations. Interesting how synthetic compounds aren’t the ones to be illegal considering their health hazards.
Hi Carmen, thanks for your comment! Yes the trouble with food grade alcohol is the water content – that is why the essential oils will not blend completely. Also, my understanding is you cannot on sell food grade alcohol – permits are required. It is ok to make personal perfume from vodka, but you cannot sell a perfume made from vodka. Not only is it a taxation issue from the ATO perspective, it is also from a legal perspective – you are basically selling a food product that you have tampered with (that is added essential oils) – if someone was to actually consume it because you have labelled on the ingredient list vodka and they become unwell because of the essential oils, there could be a case for legal action against you. My suggestion is to talk to the ATO for clarification – they are very helpful. Ask to be put through to the section that deals with alcohol permits.
Alternatively, if you swap to making perfume from perfumers alcohol, you can check with Australia Post regarding postage. Under a certain size bottle they are usually happy to post within Australia as long as it is marked dangerous goods and clearly marked for road transportation only: they have the stickers for this. (The perfume company OneSeed make alcohol based perfume and ship all their perfume by road – it just takes longer to get to the customer). You can either check out the Dangerous Goods section on the Australia Post website and ring Australia Post directly and ask to speak to someone around posting dangerous goods. Some local post offices are unaware of the policies around dangerous goods and so have a blanket refusal to accept perfume for postage. Once you have spoken to a dangerous goods representative within Australia Post and read their policies, you may then need to show these policies to your local post office before they will accept your perfume for posting. For international postage you will need to find a carrier that will take dangerous goods (perhaps FedEx – but they charge a lot for this).
To completely avoid the whole shipping headache, if you (and your customers) don’t mind the cloudy look of your perfume and are happy to shake prior to application, perhaps you could use perfumers alcohol and add distilled water to get the concentration of alcohol down for safe shipping by air. This will essentially be similar to your vodka based perfume, only instead you are using the approved perfumers alcohol for sale. Or perhaps you could get a permit for un-denatured alcohol (if you want completely natural) and once again dilute down with distilled water to make shipping by air possible (just remember to check with Australia Post the concentration of alcohol that can be safely shipped by air). This is basically what I did, except I used fractionated coconut oil instead of distilled water to avoid the cloudy end product issues. Also, I am not sure of the shelf life of perfume made with a large quantity of distilled water – you may need to add a preservative.
Hope this all makes sense. It is best that you talk to the ATO and Australia Post directly as you can talk specifics about your needs and requirements and what you may need to adjust in order to ensure what you are doing is safe and legal.
I am initiating my business step by step. I am creating Mists, oil based perfumes and alcohol based perfumes.
At the moment I am selling among friends and colleagues but not doing any postal delivery yet. Found recently all the limitations of sending overseas a perfume on the Australia Post website. I am doing my research on the topic of posting dangerous goods, like perfume. I am not sure whether joining IFRA Asia Pacific would be of any help. Australia Post requires of you to have a Business Contract for them to transport the parcels separetly. Call 137678/1/4 for delivery other enquieries. Sendle is another option that claims to be cheaper than Australia post.
Your article is very comprehensive and I will keep it as a reference. Thanks
Thanks for your comment Ana and all the best with your business.
You’re welcome. I am also in conversations with Fedex. Yes, perfumes, no matter whether are mists, oils or alcohol based are classed Dangerous Goods, however, Fedex also supplies a lunk where yiu can see ea h country restrictions listed. Also they require of you an MSDS ( Material Safety Data Sheet) of the ingredients preparation.
I just started perfumery not long ago. I still havent bought perfumers alcohol as im still trialing my concentrate formulas and maturing each of them. There is another alternative for your carrier. Isopropyl Myristate. I use this to dilute my aromas and essential oils. You can, if you wish, use this as a carrier for your perfumes. Its natural and doesnt evaporate like perfumers alcohol. The other one is Propylene Glycol but not as good and wont dissolve some aromas that have fat modules.
Interesting discussion concerning postage on perfumes.
I have ordered many many fragrances from FragranceX in the US. Never ever had a problem with my fragrances not arriving. And very fast postage. Between 5 and 7 days. So the postage on dangerous goods is rather confusing.
If that is the case, and I want to sell my fragrances worldwide, how on earth do I achieve this? And I dont want to use IPM as a carrier if I want a professional finished product comparable with the big houses.
How do the big perfume houses send their shipments of Aqua Di Gio for eg to Australia, being a dangerous good? Mind you, they use ethyl alcohol at full strength. Not denatured. I am planning to succeed both here and abroad but after reading about the postage dilemma, I feel disheartened. How can Australians ever achieve international success and become a known fragrance brand if its so restricted? Thats why no famous perfume house comes from this country I noticed.Thats so frustrating!!
Hi Marie, thanks so much for your comment! Regarding carriers, my preference was to focus on natural materials, hence not wanting to use Isopropyl Myristate and Propylene Glycol.
In the past I had an issue with a perfume not arriving from FragranceX – took around 4 months and when it did arrive half the contents had leaked out! Perhaps they have improved!
For shipping perfume overseas it is possible to get an account with certain couriers/carriers that handle dangerous goods – that is how perfume can be shipped around the world by big companies. The snag is that it costs – so if you are only a very small business, no customer is going to want to pay the actual cost of shipping via one of these couriers. The cost comes down in shipping via these couriers if you ship over a certain quantity of product – so large companies like FragranceX would be a huge contract for a courier company. FragranceX likely pay a set fee, hence, they can offer free shipping – they absorb it in their operational costs. Also, if you supply perfume to stores overseas, sending in bulk via these couriers is not an issue either. It is simply the small business person that is hit the hardest – if you don’t have a certain number of customer orders each week, it is not economically viable for you to send alcohol based perfume via a courier overseas and Australia Post will not accept postage of perfume.
You are also unable to post alcohol perfume within Australia via plane – the only way to post is to ensure that it goes via road transport. Australia Post has a section on their website which talks about dangerous goods. If the alcohol content by volume is below a certain percentage (can’t remember amount now) you can post the product via Australia Post (which is why I opted to dilute with both alcohol and fractionated coconut oil in a perfume to keep the alcohol below a certain volume so it could be shipped via air). I’m sure some people don’t care about these things and simply don’t tell Australia Post what they are sending – but remember you do sign a declaration that you are not posting a dangerous good. I was actually in Australia Post one day when a customer was asking why a parcel had been returned to them rather than being shipped – turns out there was perfume in the parcel. So Australia Post does randomly check!
Initially you will be restricted with shipping, but if you are successful and able to grow your business, then yes you will be able to ship your product internationally by setting up an account with a courier. One Seed Organic Perfumes initially only sold within Australia and shipped via road with Australia Post but as they have grown they are now able to ship their perfume overseas. If you check out their website you will be able to see which courier they use.
Good luck with your perfume making!
Ive heard of some perfume being made with half alcohol and half carrier oil. How do you feel about this idea. It would make the formula more consistant with being able to apply it as a roll on or a spray. Ive also heard that some makers use a very good quality vodka as the perfume base. Questionable?
Hi Tod, sorry about the very late reply – I haven’t been manning this site, but thanks for your comment. When I sold perfume I did have the ingredients diluted in an alcohol and carrier oil base. The proportions were not 50/50 though but in a combination that worked well with the atomiser bottle I was using and also in a ratio that enabled me to ship my perfumes because I kept the alcohol content below regulations for shipping. If you read my replies to the above questions you will find that I address the use of vodka as well – not legal if you are selling the perfume (Australian laws) but ok for personal use, although you will most likely end up with a cloudy appearance because of the water content in the vodka.