Perfume is made from natural and synthetic substances for the purposes of making objects, people, and living spaces smell good. The process and art of making perfume dates back several thousand years to the Egyptians and earlier Mesopotamians. In fact, an ancient perfumery, complete with stills, mixing bowls, and bottles was discovered on Cyprus and is more than 4000 years old. The modern process of perfume production still has some similarities to the ancient process.
Fragrances are generally composed of aromatic substances and a solvent. Aromatic substances give the fragrance its distinctive smell while solvents are important in making the fragrance stronger or weaker and in carrying the fragrance to its intended user.
Oils extracted from plants are the most common source of fragrant compounds. Plants contain scents primarily to attract pollinators. Fragrant substances can be extracted from many parts of the plant. For example, cinnamon and sassafras scents come from the bark or root. Lavender, sage, violet, and citrus are examples of scents taken from the leaves. Flowers and blossoms are the largest sources of scents such as rose, jasmine, mimosa, orchid, and citrus. Resins are also an abundant source such as myrrh, balsam, pine, and fir. Scents like coriander, cocoa, and anise are extracted from plant seeds, and important perfume base scents of sandalwood, rosewood, cedar, and pine come from wood oils.
Animal sources of fragrant oils include ambergris from the sperm whale, beeswax and honey from the honeycomb of honey bees, hyraceum from the hyrax, civet from the mongoose family, and castoreum from the beaver. The always popular musk fragrance originally came from the musk deer, but due to expense and animal ethics musk is now made entirely synthetically.
Synthetic fragrances are chemically produced and are used extensively in less expensive perfumes. A sea breeze scent commonly comes from the synthetic called calone. A sweet, new-mown hay scent can be made by chemically modifying resins. Orchid scents can be more easily produced synthetically than by extracting them from orchids.
The process of making perfume starts with extracting the odorants from their sources. The most common extraction process is the use of solvents. Fragrances from wood, plant materials, and animal sources are usually dissolved by this process. Fragrances from some plants can be obtained by the distillation process. Fragrant materials can be heated until the compounds turn into a vapor and are then re-collected through condensation of the vapor. Aromatic oils of citrus fruits can be obtained by compression of the fruit peels.
The perfumer then has the job of blending the various oils and extracts to create the desired pleasant scent. Some compositions are referred to as a functional fragrance and are used to enhance products such as detergents, cleaning products, cosmetics, and shampoos. Other compositions become a fine fragrance and are sold directly to the public as a fine perfume.
There are a few health and environmental issues that need to be considered. For example, evidence from medical journals suggests that some fragrances can cause an asthmatic reaction in some people. Further, some fragrances have been shown to cause headaches, allergic reactions, skin irritations, and nausea. Environmental pollution from fragrance compounds is also a concern. Synthetic musk is used in large quantities in many products and has been discovered in lake sediments and in human tissues. These may pose health hazards when they enter the food chain. Lastly, the demand for fragrant compounds from a few woods and from deer musk has put those species in danger and has led to illegal trafficking.
Though fragrances and scents have a long human history, perfumes today are being used in more different ways than ever before. Research, development, and responsibility will continue to create pleasant and useful perfumes to improve everyone's lives.