How Perfume Works Explained

  • By: Ash Iris
  • Time to read: 3 min.

There are presumptions about who originally formulated the first perfumes. 

The ancient Egyptians are often accredited for their millennia-long practice of perfumery. But the Arabs are the ones who most likely coined history’s first mixtures with the development of distillation. Their distillation process helped widely manufacture some of the first oil fragrance mixtures thousands of years ago. 

But what is perfume? What are its components down to a molecular level? 

Perfumes are created with concentrated oils in an ethanol/water solvent. That solvent evaporates into vapor molecules when sprayed, creating an aroma that triggers our Olfactory Receptors. Those receptors are close to our amygdala, the motherboard of self-expression and emotions, thus why smells can be integral to memories.

What is perfume?

Aromatic essences cause micro-fickle components that trigger the Olfactory Receptors in your nose, which are detected in strikingly small absorptions. The Olfactory Receptors are only two synapses away from the amygdala that rules our self-expression and emotions. 

The smell of perfume by the waft of a bottle to a person strolling by, vaporized scent compounds in the gas phase trigger your nose receptors.  

Defusing themselves, they penetrate the air, directly targeting the warmth surrounding your nostrils. 

Your nose can smell the odor of those molecules as small as .01 micrograms (millionth of a gram) from 200 feet away.

But what really is perfume? What is it made up of?

Perfume is a blend of concentrated oils in an ethanol/water solvent. The ethanol/water blend evaporates from the fragrance droplets within seconds of being finely misted out of the perfume bottle. Once the disbursement of your chosen scent projects itself into the air, the compounds evaporate into a vapor of perfume molecules. 

Droplet’s vs. Vapor; What’s the Difference?

Droplets are the beads of perfume. You smell it directly after spritzing the fragrance. 

Vapor is the aroma you smell from across the room. This could be from someone who’s just applied a fragrance or a highly concentrated scent. 

The transition between ‘Droplets’ to ‘Aroma’ is based upon the ethanol/water ratio to oil concentration. 

Fragrance Composition

Engineering a perfume formulation at a basic level always has to have a composition level of Top, Middle, and Bottom Notes. 

Top notes evaporate at the highest rate, only lingering for the first 15 minutes. Their prominence and main purpose is to create a transitional gradient into the heavier notes. Lighter fragrances sit at the top. We usually see white florals like camomiles or pansies at the top because of their transience. 

On occasion, we see perfumeries such as Phlur’s Missing Person Eau De Parfum, adding ‘Skin Musk’ as a top note. Or Oscar de la Renta’s Volupté Tendre with Ice as one of the top notes. 

Middle notes, otherwise known as ‘Heart Notes,’ give more clarity on the direction of the scent. Its smoke screen is lifted at the three to five-hour mark, revealing the deeper moods. If the perfume is aiming for florals, citrus, or sensual scents, this is where the most notable notes are placed. These are the scents you will most remember. 

An exciting release from niche brand Navitus Perfumes brought to the market Siesta Drive, containing more average middle notes of Juniper, Lemon, and Geranium. But, slipped in is a Mascarpone Cheese scent. Reviewers categorize the fragrance as a “gourmet lemon cheesecake.”

Finally, ending on the base notes. 

Mosses, Resins, and Musks typically are formulated here. They sneakily replace the middle tones after the four to five-hour mark. These fixatives boost, hold and strengthen the lightest to deepest odors.  

Mahogany, Suede, and Dark Chocolate are some of the more unique scents used in deeper, sensual fragrances. Spices like Curry, Allspice, and Crushed Black Peppers are featured in many fragrances to give more earthy warmth. 

Final Word

The science behind fragrances is this. 

They’re designed to appeal to your emotions and invoke memories of the past or create new ones for the future. Scents are a powerful tool for evoking nostalgia, which can be incredibly motivating when making purchasing decisions.