What is Natural Perfume?
Posted on February 25 2021
Photo Credit: Kari Shea, Unsplash
I will start with the obvious. When it comes to ingredients, natural botanical perfume is quite different from synthetic perfume. Natural perfume is derived from 100% natural botanical ingredients. These ingredients include wildcrafted and organic essential oils, CO2 extracts, absolutes and naturally derived isolates. To put it more simply, natural perfume is formulated with aromatics distilled or extracted from plants, flowers, spices and resins. In contrast, synthetic perfumes - those that make up more than 95% of what is on the market today – include ingredients based on aromas that do not exist in nature or may be created to be nature-identical using aroma chemicals that are lab created.
My own personal feelings? I do not have anything against non-natural perfumes, I just choose not to work with synthetic materials as I feel they fall short of my standard of drawing upon the richness and beauty that exists in the natural world. The art of perfumery – just like any other artform – has different genres contained within the industry. Two of these primary genres are mainstream perfumery (e.g., large corporate-run perfume houses) and indie perfumery (small independent perfumers or small companies who hire an outside perfumer). Within both of the genres I just mentioned there are further sub-genres. This is where I would classify myself as an indie natural perfumer. Just as in music or the visual arts, different tastes point people toward an affinity for different genres and the same is true in perfumery.
Beyond the clear differences in the palette of ingredients as well as my personal preference for natural and botanical ingredients over synthetics, there is more you should know about natural perfume before you decide to try it. Not surprisingly, there is quite an array of misconceptions when it comes to natural perfume and perfume in general.
Here are some of the most common myths about natural perfumes:
Myth #1 - Natural perfume is unsophisticated
When I talk to people about natural perfume they share with me that they are reluctant to try it because they assume it is boring and uninspired fragrance with a heavy focus on ingredients like patchouli, lavender, rosemary or peppermint. Quite the contrary! I have over 300 botanicals I work with including rare and unique floral absolutes such as the gardenia absolute used in Gardenia 'Ono. My goal as an indie natural perfumer is first and foremost to create sophisticated and unique perfumes. You may not necessarily find something that smells like the offerings available at the perfume counter inside a Nordstrom, but you might find something incredibly special that is unlike anything you have experienced before. Plus, you will not smell like everyone you know who bought the same mass-produced perfume that launched last season.
Myth #2 - Perfume is not good if it does not last all day
Often what people mean when they say this is that they believe perfume should smell exactly the same from first spritz until the end of the day. However, what they do not realize is that the reason they think this is because mainstream perfumes contain significant amounts of synthetic fixatives and fillers that cause the scent to linger for 12 hours or longer.
100% all-natural perfume formulated with botanical and other naturally derived ingredients evolves throughout the day. High-quality natural botanical perfume is designed using the French perfume method which is based on top, heart and base notes (notes are classified into these categories based on their rate of evaporation; top notes being the most fleeting and short-lived, heart notes that linger for up to a couple of hours, base notes can last for several hours). This complex composition is what lends interest and sophistication to a perfume. This evolution is what gives the perfume its appeal and character as you experience the scent progress while you wear it.
Myth #3 – Natural perfume is too expensive
Natural perfume can be more expensive than synthetic perfume, but this is not always the case. The reason natural perfume can be more expensive is because natural perfumes contain rare and difficult to extract raw materials that are often costly due to their low yields and the labor required to grow, harvest and extract them. For example, 60 roses are required to produce ONE drop of rose oil! The cost of one ounce of rose oil can be more than $500, while other rarities can be upwards of $1,000 or more per ounce. However, it is important to point out that many luxury perfumes that are made from primarily synthetic ingredients can be expensive as well. Do not be fooled…there is a good chance that the price of a mainstream perfume is more a function of the brand name than the actual rarity of the perfume or the ingredients in the perfume.
Myth #4 – The clean perfume I bought from a beauty retailer is the same thing as natural perfume
This is one of the most common misconceptions I hear from people. The “clean” trend is taking hold in the beauty and perfume world and unfortunately, it can be confusing and misleading. “Clean beauty” is a marketing term with no independent organization governing the standards that define “clean”. Clean simply means that a company has decided to self-regulate their products by excluding some ingredients considered by the company to be harmful, but it does not mean that the ingredients they choose to include are natural. In fact, most “clean” products are comprised of synthetic materials with little to no natural ingredients. The enthusiasm for “clean” is leveraged by some companies through marketing messaging as a way to create the perception of being more eco-friendly, safe or natural - even when they are not. So how do you know if your “clean” perfume is natural? One easy way to tell is based on the color of the perfume. If it is transparent then it is likely not natural as truly natural ingredients carry their own natural colors and hues. Imagine that! Another way to determine if a perfume is natural is based on the ingredients that are listed on the packaging and on the brand’s website. If you dig a bit deeper, brands that claim to be clean will indicate that their ingredients are actually not 100% natural and instead are a mix of aroma chemicals that are listed as “safe-synthetics” with natural materials comprising only a small portion of the perfume formulation. Lastly, just as "clean" doesn't necessarily equate to natural, natural doesn't necessarily equate to safer and synthetic doesn't equate to more harmful. The short answer is that there is no short answer. Some individuals may find that certain ingredients (natural and/or synthetic) are irritating to their skin, while others may not. If you are concerned about the safety of ingredients in a perfume the best thing to do is conduct an allergy test to see if the perfume causes you an adverse reaction as different ingredients can impact individuals differently.
Myth #5 – Natural botanical perfume is the same thing as aromatherapy
Natural perfume and aromatherapy are not one and the same. Aromatherapy is based on leveraging one or perhaps a few essential oil blends specifically for therapeutic purposes. In contrast, at its most basic level, natural botanical perfumery – as with any form of perfumery be it synthetic or natural – is an artform focusing on the creation of a beautiful perfume and scent profile to be enjoyed by the perfume wearer. Another way to think about it is the difference between form vs. function with perfumery leaning towards the side of form and aromatherapy leaning towards function. While natural botanical perfumery does include the use of some essential oils that are also used in aromatherapy, the palette of ingredients utilized is much larger than what is used in aromatherapy. The natural perfumer’s palette includes not only essential oils but also CO2 extracts, absolutes, resins, tinctures, enfleurage oils and other naturally derived ingredients.