Buying a fragrance because it smells good on you and brings pleasant associations or memories with it is one reason to buy it. Buying a fragrance because you know who designed it, and you think of it as a wearable work of art, is another reason. But buying a fragrance because of the ingredients in it is entirely a different matter. Some people prefer to know exactly how their perfume was made, and from what. Do you care whether you are wearing real or patent leather? Or eating artificial or real vanilla extract in your dessert? Or that the wine that calls itself 100% French might actually be made from 100% Chilean grapes? Probably not and you probably don’t care so long as you can afford it. But what’s in it, and how much of the real thing is in it, determine the price and value of a fragrance.
Perfume – and I use the term loosely here – being a luxury item, is only as good as the fragrant essential oils, fixatives and solvents from which it is composed. In the same way, a musician sounds much better when playing on a premium instrument than on a shoddy one. Perfume types reflect the concentration of aromatic compounds (in other words, the combination of essential organic oils) in a solvent which is typically ethanol or a mix of water and ethanol.
Some aromatic compounds are much stronger and longer-lasting, than others. The more of an aromatic compound (or essential oil) there is in a perfume, the purer and stronger the perfume is. As the percentage of aromatic compounds increases, so does the intensity and longevity of the scent.
Although fragrant extracts are known to the general public as the generic term “essential oils”, in the trade essential oils can be five different types, depending on how they were produced: absolute, concrete, essential oil, pomade or tincture. Absolutes are purified from a pommade or a solid waxy material, by soaking the material in ethanol, producing an oily liquid. Essential oils are extracted from a source material directly through distillation (by steam) or expression (pressed) and obtained in the form of an oily liquid. Tinctures are thin liquids produced by soaking the raw materials in ethanol, the solvent. Only absolutes, essential oils, and tinctures are directly used to formulate “perfumes”, which are the most intense form of fragrance.
Broadly, the categories of fragrances are as follows:
- Parfum or Extrait, also Perfume Extract, Pure Perfume, or just “perfume”: 15–40% aromatic compounds (IFRA: typically ~20%). Generally, the word perfume is used as an alternative for fragrance, though that is imprecise.
- Esprit de parfum: 15–30% aromatic compounds, a seldom used strength concentration in between Eau de parfum and parfum/perfume.
- Eau de parfum (The strength usually sold as “perfume”): 10–20% aromatic compounds (typically ~15%); sometimes called “eau de perfume” or “millésime”.
- Eau de toilette: 5–15% aromatic compounds (typically ~10%)
- Eau de Cologne: often simply called cologne: 3–8% aromatic compounds (typically ~5%)
- Eau fraiche: products sold as “splashes”, “mists”, “veils” and other imprecise terms. Generally these products contain 3% or less aromatic compounds and are diluted with water rather than oil or alcohol.
A new term which has recently sprung up is “perfume absolue” or “absolute perfume”. With reference to the ways of extracting essential oils, above, an “absolute” perfume is a perfume made from “absolutes”, essential oils produced through solvents. Producers say that the method of extracting the essential oils used in the fragrance make them somewhat more natural and stronger than other “parfums” or “perfumes”.
“An absolute is similar to an essential oil, but the difference lies in the extraction process. To get technical, essential oils and absolutes are both highly concentrated extracts from flowers or plants. But where essential oils are produced through steam distillation, an absolute is extracted using a solvent such as hexane or ethanol. Absolutes therefore contain even more of the aromatic detail of the original ingredient (compared with steam-distilled extracts) making the smell closer to its ‘natural’ form and, therefore, superior in quality. This method is also more effective at capturing very delicate substances, such as rose and jasmine.” (Jessica Punter, What is an absolute fragrance? in GQ Magazine UK, 21 September 2015, rtrvd. 2018-12-05)
If you want to get seriously confused, consider this men’s fragrance, Trèfle Pur Cologne Absolue by Atelier Cologne. It’s called a “Cologne”, which has 3–8% aromatic compounds, but is also called “Absolue” which puts the aromatic compounds in it at 15–40%. I wonder exactly what it is or how strong it is.
So, on a sliding scale:- parfum or perfume is the strongest, and eau fraiche or splashes/mists is the weakest. The stronger, purer and rarer the oil is, the more expensive it usually is. This then leads to the fact that perfumes can be more nuanced and complex, and last longer on the wearer. So the next time you shop for a Christmas perfume, remember to look at the name and read the label. What exactly is this? An Eau de Cologne? Or an Eau de Parfum? Then judge if you are getting your money’s worth.