The memory of my mum’s perfume lingers even after 20 years. The fragrance is sweet, but it can be overwhelming if too much is applied. When I was younger, I refused to separate from my mum. Since she had to carry me everywhere she went, it’s no surprise that her signature perfume was etched in my memory. The rich floral scent belongs to none other than Dior’s Poison, to which I associate comfort, security and motherly love with.
I don’t know about you but I’m drawn to certain people simply because of the scent they’re wearing. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, I tend to remember every detail: the location, the people I was with, what we talked about etcetera.
About 3 years ago, I went out with my newly acquainted university friends for a spontaneous dinner. When Amelia and I got to the tram stop to meet the rest of the gang, we greeted everyone who came and did a group hug. That was when I caught a whiff of cologne that made me question how this one guy could smell so darn good. From that day onwards, I longed to be around him just so I could smell his cologne.
I’m a fan of perfumes but I have no knowledge of its history. The Egyptians were the first to create them and perfumes were mainly used in religious ceremonies, burial preparations and daily wear. The Egyptian elites wear scents such as lily to signify their status within the society. The Persians, on the other hand, use perfume as a sign of political status. In 1190, perfumes were produced commercially in Paris which eventually developed into a huge industry.
The Egyptians used to mix ointment, balms and essential oils to create a desired scent. But now, the process is much more complicated. Desired scents are either mixed with ethanol or ethanol and water. True perfume may contain up to 40% of scent material while Eau de Parfum contains only up to 20% of scent material. The difference in concentration dictates the strength of the perfume:
- True perfume (40% scent material)
- Esprit de Parfum (30% scent material)
- Eau de Parfum (20% scent material)
- Eau de Toilette (<15% scent material)
The most common fragrance families are floral, chypre, oceanic, citrus, fruit and gourmand. Although essential oils of plants, animals and seaweed were used in the past (and in some modern all-natural perfume manufacturers), synthetic scents are more popular today. This is because some plants such as lily of the valley don’t produce oil naturally. It also allows perfumers to create unique scents (the scent of Calone has hints of ozone and metal) and reduce animal harvesting.
So far, I’ve touched on the history, the types of perfume as well as the common scent categories. But how are perfumes manufactured?
- Plants are harvested and hand-picked from around the world while animal products are obtained by extracting the fatty substances from the animal. Synthetic perfumes are created in the lab by perfume chemists.
There are 5 ways in which essential oils are extracted.
- Steam distillation: Steam is passed through plant material, turning oil into gas. It is then cooled and liquefied. Boiling plant substances is another way to extract oils.
- Solvent extraction: The flowers are placed in rotating tanks and benzene or a petroleum ether is poured over them. Once a waxy material is obtained, it is placed in ethyl alcohol. Heat is then used to evaporate the alcohol, leaving a higher concentration of perfume oil.
- Enfleurage: Flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease. These sheets are place between wooden frames so that the grease can absorb the flower’s fragrance.
- Maceration: Similar to enfleurage but instead of grease, warmed fats are used to soak up flower’s fragrance. The grease and fats are dissolved in alcohol to obtain the essential oils.
- Expression: The oldest and least complex method of extraction, the fruit or plant is manually or mechanically pressed until all the oil is squeezed out.
- After the perfume oils are collected, they are blended together according to formulas determined by the ‘nose’ (the expert in perfumery).
- Fine perfume is often aged for several months or years after it’s blended. The nose will test the perfume to ensure the correct scent is achieved.
The biological significance of perfume use and individual’s preference for specific scents aren’t clearly understood. Contrary to the idea that perfume is used to mask natural body odor, Daly and White (1930) suggest that it’s used to heighten and strengthen natural odor. But what makes you choose Kenzo’s L’Elixir over Dior’s J’adore? The answer may lie in our major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-correlated odor preferences (Vollrath and Milinski, 1995).
The MHC is a large chromosomal region that contains highly polymorphic genes that play a central role in controlling immunological self and non-self recognition. MHC diversity is said to be maintained by pathogen interactions and inbreeding avoidance mechanisms (Penn and Potts, 1999).
It was found that mice and humans prefer potential mates that have different MHC from their own (Egid and Brown, 1989; Yamazaki et al., 1976, 1978, 1983, 1994). In a double-blind study, women (who aren’t using contraceptive pill) prefer the odor of t-shirts worn by MHC-dissimilar men to those with more similar MHC-genotype. The same behavior was demonstrated by men too (Wedekind et al., 1995). This makes sense because the preference for MHC-dissimilar partners will increase MHC heterozygosity of an individual’s offspring (Brown, 1997).
In Milinski and Wedekind’s study, 137 male and female students who had been typed for their MHC (HLA-A, -B, -DR) scored 36 scents in a first test for use on self (“would you like to smell like that yourself?”) and a subset of 18 scents 2 years later either for use on self or for a potential partner (“would you like your partner to smell like that?”). The result showed a significant correlation between the MHC and the scorings of the scents ‘for self’ in both tests. The people who share the same type of MHC also tend to have similar preference for perfume ingredients. The study concludes that perfumes are used to help us reveal our immunogenetics and the MHC genotype can influence our choice of fragrance.
Remember that guy I met 3 years ago? The one who smells really good? Funnily enough, we ended up being more than friends.
The cologne he wore that night was Montblanc’s Starwalker.
I currently own Chanel’s No. 5, but there are a couple of scents I want to try in the future. After all, having more than one bottle of perfume provides an individual the freedom to mix things up according to mood and occasion.
Do you have a signature scent? Which one is associated with your favorite memory? Let me know in the comment section!
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