(Image from the Fragonnard perfume museum, Grasse 1998)
Making your own perfume blends with essential oils is a wonderfully
Once you get started, the possibilities are truly endless - so don't say I didn't warn you!
Before the mid 19th-century, when the first synthetic perfume chemicals were introduced, natural essential oils, absolutes and tinctures were the basis of the perfumer's art. Today the perfume industry relies mainly on synthetic chemicals; natural essential oils and absolutes are used only in small quantities to add richness, depth and class to the fragrance. So creating perfumes only from natural eo's and absolutes is a great privilege!
Of course, many of the effects that commercial perfumers achieve with synthetic chemicals in simply can't be reproduced with natural eo's. This may seem like a limitation, but in fact it's wonderful: It means you don't have to worry that you'll accidentally recreate Obsession or White Shoulders or Shalimar in the comfort of your own home and end up with a horrendous lawsuit on your hands!
It also means that by using only natural eo's and absolutes, we are
working with materials rich with their own depth, beauty, character and
class. Commercial perfumers often combine hundreds of synthetic chemicals
in precision-measured amounts to get the effect they want. The simple
perfumes we make, on the other hand, get their unique appeal from the natural
complexity of the oils and absolutes we use.
When you use natural eo's and absolutes to make perfumes, you may not be concerned with the aromatherapeutic effects of the blend you're making. But please never forget that the oils don't know this! They have the same effects whether you're making a fragrance or a therapeutic blend. This means that basic eo safety applies to your perfume blends just as it does in aromatherapy:
- Always dilute your perfume blends before using them on your body.
There's a section below that gives details about diluting perfume blends, and the recommendations given there really do apply to you!
- Read up on every eo or absolute you're thinking of using in a perfume
blend. Oils that are irritating to the skin will still be irritating
to the skin, so don't use them in large quantitites in your perfumes.
Oils that are photosensitive will still be photosensitive, so don't go out in the sun or under a sunlamp while wearing blends that include them. Oils that are easy to get sensitized to will still be easy to get sensitized to; oils that are risky during pregnancy, or for people with epilepsy, high blood pressure or allergies are still risky; and toxic oils that are unsuitable for use in aromatherapy are also unsuitable for use in natural perfumery. If you have any doubts about an oil you're thinking of using, look it up in an eo-safety reference book. If you can't find it in any books, don't use it.
Some of the "rules" of classic perfumery can be helpful to bear in mind as you compose your own natural fragrances. But don't forget: Genius is "a mistake that works"!
A lot of the language of perfumery is borrowed from music, because perfumes
- like music - evolve with time. The "notes" in perfume compostions
are the volatile aromatic elements of essential oils, which react to each
other, and to your body heat and body chemistry, in different and fascinating
ways, over time. Perfumers also talk about accords: harmonious combinations
of notes that contribute to the whole composition.
The top notes are the most volatile ones in the blend - the ones you'll smell first, and also the ones that will evaporate first as you wear your blend. They form the first impression your perfume makes, and should "lead" your nose into the heart of the perfume by harmonizing well with the other notes.
The heart notes (also called middle notes or coeur notes) are the ... well, the heart of a perfume! They aren't as volatile as the top notes, so they emerge a bit later and last longer. They should give your perfume roundness and fullness and complexity.
The base notes have two functions in a perfume. First, they're the least volatile elements, so they emerge more slowly, and their aroma will remain the longest. So it's very important to make sure you like your base note! Second, they can have a "fixative" effect on the entire blend, keeping the top and middle notes from evaporating as quickly.
Natural essential oils and absolutes are complex, so very few of them
are only top notes or strictly middle notes or
inarguably base notes. Most of them have top-note and middle-note components, or middle-note and base-note
components. Some of them include notes from the whole spectrum.
Also, because they're natural products, they can differ widely from batch to batch - your geranium eo, for example, may have much more of a top-note character than mine. So the categorizations below are only guidelines; you have to work with your own eo's to learn how they behave. Also, I've only mentioned oils that are relatively easy to find; there are many many more that are fascinating and wonderful additions to perfume blends, if you decide to search off the beaten track.
In the early days of perfumery, oils made from animal products were also frequently-used base notes: ambergris, civet, musk, etc.
Natural animal oils are very rarely used now and you most probably won't be able to buy them anywhere. If you want an animal-type note in your perfume, please look for synthetic or "vegan" blends that imitate the aroma and behavior of these oils.
Every essential oil and absolute has its own character, its own behavior, its own subtleties and complexities, and getting to know them is an endless process that will underlie all your blending adventures. The way an oil smells when you sniff it straight from the bottle is usually only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. An eo's aroma may be very strong, but not especially diffusive or tenacious (cool words that perfumers use to describe how "loud" an aroma is and how long it lasts). An oil that's quiet and retiring in the bottle may wind up dominating your blend or radically altering other aromas in it. One drop of Oil X may be enough to balance or accent five milliliters of Oil Y. And how does each oil perform in different blends, over time, in dilutions, on your skin? Be prepared for surprises, and be prepared to learn without cease!
Blending is exciting, especially when it's going well. The wave of inspiration rushes in - you are an artist - you know just what to add - now where is that oil - ah this is beautiful, I can't stop now!!
And make notes of everything you're doing. Record every drop of
every oil you add to your blend, and save your notes. You will be
so sorry if you don't, I guarantee it.
Regular breaks are important for safety reasons: Essential oils are very powerfully concentrated substances, and working with them too long, or in unventilated areas, can make you sick.
Breaks are also crucial to the creative process: Your nose has its limits. What you perceive after an hour of intensive blending work may be totally different from what you'll perceive after a brisk walk out in the fresh air, because your nose goes "blind" to aromas it's been exposed to for a while. Each nose is highly individualistic in this way, and you have to learn which types of aroma you personally get "immune" to quickly and how often you need to take breaks from your blending.
Some of the "tricks" that perfumers use during their breaks to keep
their noses up to speed include:
- Taking a walk in the fresh air.
- Running up and down stairs so that heavy breathing clears the nose.
- Sniffing their own elbows.
- Sniffing coffee beans.
This means that the ideal break will consist of you running up and down some outside stairs while sniffing coffee beans that you've tucked into your own elbow. If the neighbors complain that this looks funny, just sniff (clearing the nose) and inform them that this is what perfumers do.
Well ... hardly ever. Because perfumes evolve with time. This is true in two ways:
a) Blends evolve in the bottle. A freshly-made blend smells different
than a blend that's had a chance to meld and mellow. Very surprising
things can emerge if you leave a blend alone for a couple of hours, or
days, or weeks. Sometimes these changes are wonderful - all kinds
of unexpected hidden beauty can emerge. Sometimes ...
well, never mind! Let's just say that one of the most important aspects of the perfumer's art is the patience to discover how a blend behaves over time.
b) Blends evolve on your skin. A blend that smells harsh in the
bottle may become smoothly lovely on your body. One of the notes
thats hardly perceptible in the bottle can end up dominating everything,
for better or worse, when it's warmed by your body heat.
A good way to start your adventures in natural perfumery is to take
three oils - one top-note oil, one middle-note oil and one base-note oil
- and begin tinkering! First, hold the three bottles together under
your nose to get a very general impression of how they might work together.
If you like the effect, drip a few drops of each in a bottle. Don't
forget Rule #2 - write down how many drops of each.
You can do what you want, of course, but when I'm working with new oils or new combinations, I usually start with equal amounts - for example two drops of ginger, two drops of jasmine, and two drops of sandalwood (ahh!).
Now cap the bottle, and roll it between your palms to blend the oils
and warm them a little. Turn the bottle upside down a couple of times
to blend them further. Then take a sniff. Too much ginger?
Ginger is a top note, so it's natural that it'll come on the strongest at first. If that bothers you, you're free to increase the jasmine and/or the sandalwood - but remember that the ginger will also fade more quickly than the other two. To really see a blend's potential, you need to try it on a smelling strip or on your body.
Smelling strips are easy: Just slice up a coffee filter. Drip a drop of your blend onto one of the strips and leave it in some safe, warm, draft-free place to dry. Take further sniffs after twenty minutes, after an hour, two hours ... This will give you an idea of how the blend evolves.
Another technique is to drip a drop of your blend into a squirt of jojoba and apply that to the back of your hand. Yes, that's a much stronger dilution than is normal for eo use! So please don't do this very often, or when you're working with oils that are irritants or sensitizers, and don't apply them to delicate skin like your inner wrist or elbow.
If your blend evolves in a promising way, great! If it needs tinkering, you should now have a clearer idea of how to tinker with it. If you can't decide ... leave the blend alone, and check it out again tomorrow, or next week. (I know, I know! But you'll be busy creating other blends in the meantime!)
Some very simple blends are wonderfully successful - sandalwood plus sweet orange is amazingly lovely! But that doesn't mean you can't complicate things if you're so inclined. Building up a blend of a dozen or more oils is a fascinating, painstaking, often frustrating and wonderfully rewarding process, and in the end you'll have a blend that's truly and uniquely your own.
One very educational way to start complicating things is to focus on
each "level" of your composition separately. Perhaps you like the
ginger/jasmine/sandalwood blend, but feel something's ... hm, something's
missing, something's not quite as interesting as it could be. I agree.
To me, the sandalwood base is lovely but too bland.
So I'm going to try blending some patchouli with sandalwood to see that makes a more interesting base accord. Yes, that's very nice! And I see right away how I could use this with four totally different blends than this one we're working on! Where are those blending bottles, gimme that notepad, I am on a roll!
I'm a base-note freak, but for you, it might be the heart of the perfume that's too simple. Clary sage harmonizes nicely with jasmine, and so do other florals - perhaps some neroli or rose will be what you want. Someone else may enjoy a more complicated top note, so creating a citrus-and-ginger accord might be just the thing.
If you work on these different accords separately, of course you have to keep in mind how they'll work together, the harmony of the whole composition. Be open to sudden changes in direction, though - you might well come up with an accord that doesn't work at all in the blend you thought you had in mind, but will serve very well indeed in a totally different one.
Once you have a winner, what should you do with it??? There are two main possibilities for diluting your perfume blends: jojoba or alcohol.
1) The Jojoba School
Jojoba is an excellent carrier for perfume blends, since it doesn't turn rancid. It has one big advantage over alcohol: You don't need to age the perfume before wearing it (although a week or three of aging will only improve it!). The proportions you use depend on three things: how strong you want your perfume to be, how you plan to use it, and of course basic eo safety.
Never use more than eight drops of your eo blend at a time - less than that if it includes oils that can irritate your skin and/or very diffusive oils, we don't want the neighbors to complain!
If you mean to use your blend only on your pulse points, and if it's composed of therapeutically mild and "aromatically quiet" oils, you may find that as little as half a teaspoon of jojoba is enough; if you've used riskier oils, or have a "loud" sort of blend, you'll need to dilute your eight drops more than that. Half a teaspoon is more perfume than you're likely to use all at once, so store the remainder in a tightly-capped glass bottle.
If you want to use the blend as a massage oil, on large areas of your body (or someone else's!), you need to dilute it much more: eight drops of your blend to two or three teaspoons of jojoba is the usual recommendation for healthy adults using non-risky eo's.
You can also add your jojoba-based perfumes to bath salts, gels and the like - but that, I think, is the subject of another booklet!
2) The Alcohol School
A much more traditional way to dilute your perfume blend is to use grain alcohol (or the highest-proof vodka you can find). This method seems to make the perfume more diffusive, and brings more excitement to the blend, but! It means you have to let the concoction age for at least four weeks before using it. Otherwise it'll just smell like alcohol.
If you decide on this route, the ratios I find most successful are:
1 ml of your blend + 3 or 4 ml of alcohol + 5 or 10 drops (not ml!)
of distilled water. (If you aren't metric, that's: 20 - 30 drops of blend + hm, around three-quarters of a teaspoon of alcohol + 5 or 10 drops of distilled water.) Cap it tightly, label it, put it somewhere cool and dark to age. Shake the bottle every once in a while during this period, but otherwise: Leave it alone!
Once the waiting period is over, you can either use this blend in on your pulse points as a perfume, or dilute it further in a hydrolat or distilled water for use as a cologne or splash.
Oh and one more thing ...