There is really no way to know how far back in history humans first became interested in applying scent to the body to create an effect, but we do know that Tapputi, the first known chemist, was making perfume in Mesopotamia before 1200 BC. As the official Royal Palace overseer, Tapputi, along with a researcher named Ninu, used a simple distillation process to create fragrances using myrrh, calamus, oil, flowers, and various other ingredients. The scents were incorporated into salves used by the King for personal use and royal ceremonies.
Today, creating the finest perfumes takes place in international fragrance houses with a team of chemists, including a perfumer, to bring fragrances from concept to the market.
Perfumers sometimes referred to as the ‘nose’, often hold degrees in chemistry or cosmetic science. They apply their knowledge of chemistry, along with a keen sense of smell to formulate the recipes needed to create the final scent for the client.
Perfumes derived from natural sources like flowers or fruits, require processes to extract the fragrant oils from the plant, including chemical extraction and steam distillation. During chemical extraction, oils are separated from other parts of the plant using water, alcohol, and other solvents, while steam distillation utilizes evaporated water to extract the essential oils.
For fragrances that originate from synthetic sources, analytical chemists use gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) to analyze molecules in known substances, like chili powder, to reproduce the same scent synthetically. Natural chili powder would create a burning sensation on the skin, but chemists are able to reproduce the scent without the caustic chemicals known for giving chili its bite.
Once the oils are extracted or synthetically produced and filtered they are distributed in dilutions of alcohol which acts as a fixative to enable the scented oils to be easily disbursed from the container. The ratio of oil to alcohol determines several different categories of perfume. Parfum, the most concentrated fragrance, contains at least 25 percent oil. Eau de parfum requires from 15 to 18 percent oil, and eau de toilette consists of 10 percent perfume oil with 90 percent alcohol. Colognes are the most diluted with around 5 to 10 percent oil content.
Perfume is formulated to deliver scent in three stages comprising top notes, heart notes, and base notes. Within the first 15 minutes of coming into contact with skin, the top notes produce the dominant scent and continue to linger for up to 3 or 4 hours as they slowly evaporate and yield to the heart notes. The molecules in heart notes define the fragrance by category whether it’s floral or citrusy. These chemicals, synthetic and natural, evaporate more slowly during the heart note phase, lasting up to 5 or 6 hours. The residual molecules of the base notes complete the life cycle of the perfume.
The final chemical processes that give perfume its distinct fragrance don’t take place in the fragrance house. Once the perfume comes into contact with an individual’s skin, the perfume interacts with the oils in the skin to produce its own unique scent.