Pharmacies are often pigeon holed as merely a place to pick up painkillers and patches. Of course, this will always be a big part of our social responsibility. But in fact, our wares are many and varied. For example, a discounted chemist is a wonderful place to pick up fragrances and perfumes. Today, I am going to take a closer look at that previous ointment.
Perfume has come a long way to the little bottles we use today. The earliest recorded use of perfumes dates back to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) about four thousand years ago. The incense they created was used for religious ceremonies, and the region was renowned around the world for its sweet smell; In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth laments that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”. The word is derived from the word ‘per’ meaning ‘thorough’ and fumus meaning ‘smoke’. The use of perfumes in religious ceremonies spread south to Egypt around three thousand years ago. Over time, the ruling class began to integrate it into their daily routines. And the floodgates opened. The Greeks were the first to distil it into a liquid, and it continued to thrive in the near East all the while. It crept into the west in the seventeenth century in France, before crossing the ditch into England during the Elizabethan era (hence why it crops up so often in Shakespearean plays). It makes sense. Cities are congested and dirty, so anything to cover the smell would have been a hit.
How is it made?
Most perfumes were derived from essential oils. The real art lies in how to combine these to create something pleasant, sometimes containing over 800 different ingredients. After the scent has been perfected, it is mixed with alcohol to act as a carrier, and the ratio depends whether the fragrance is classified as a cologne, eau de toilette or perfume. Cologne generally contains around 10% oils, eau de toilette is 15% oils, while perfume is the strongest at 40%. Then, the perfume is aged. Depending on the quality, it might be aged from anywhere from a few months to a year. It is kept somewhere cool and dark to allow for the bonding of the alcohol and the oils. Otherwise it could separate giving you an uneven distribution. Imagine taking a quick sprig and only getting an odourless alcohol. During this time, an expert sampler (called a perfumer) comes in to assess whether the blend is acceptable. It often becomes stronger during this period, and alterations might need to be made before it is ready to be bottled. These experts are looking for three things:
- A top note: The first thing you smell once a perfume is applied. Typically, these are citrus scents like lemon, bergamot or orange, or floral notes like rose, lavender or basil. They tend to vanish after 5-15 minutes because the molecules of the scent are smaller and lighter. In a really good perfume, this will compliment the heart note that follows.
- A heart or central note: This is the true essence of the fragrance, as it makes up 70% of the total scent. It should retain the notes established by the top note, and typically lasts for about 20 minutes to an hour. Common choices include more full bodied aromatic blends like ylang-yland, neroli, geranium, or jasmine. Other choices include cardamom, black pepper, lemongrass, pine, pepper or cinnamon.
- A bass note: These compliment the heart note to create the long lasting suggestion of the fragrance for the next six hours. This will typically be made up of something with heavier molecules: Cedarwood, sandalwood, patchouli, musk, amber or vanilla. As you can see, there is a lot more than meets the eye to making a fragrance.
These days, most perfume makers add an antioxidant called butylated hydroxytoluene to prevent premature ageing. In days gone by, the storage of the fragrance in a dark space was the only way to prevent this decay.
Choosing the right fragrance
One of the first things to remember is that a fragrance is a deeply subjective experience. As such, you probably shouldn’t buy one for someone else. They might hate it.
- Read about it. You might find that certain notes sit very well with your natural odour (yes, that plays a role). A citrusy top note might clash awfully in ways that something more floral might not.
- Use samples of different fragrances to see what works for you. Then see if there are any commonalities between them.
- Know your own skin. Certain fragrances might make your skin feel sensitive or even give you headaches. If so, it becomes even more important to know which notes work for you and which need to be avoided like the plague. There tends to be a pretty wide variety of fragrances at a discounted chemist, so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from.
If you’re anything like me, you get a bit uneasy thinking about some of the unethical practices of beauty and cosmetic companies in the past. Here are a few labels you might like to look out for:
- Sustainable ingredients. Some ingredients are over harvested which can upset the ecosystem. Synthetic materials have a bad wrap, but actually, they are just as safe, and much more helpful to mother earth.
- Toxic ingredients. Some brands use a base that can be less healthy. If you keep an eye out for a sugar cane alcohol as opposed to ethanol (it’s got great antimicrobial qualities, but is pretty bad for the skin and climate)
- Cruelty free. Look for a third party certification like the Leaping Bunny to see which brands have committed to treating animals with respect and kindness in the development of their products.
So there you have it: a crash course into all things perfume, and how to use your discounted chemist to make sure you are putting your best foot forward. As Christian Dior said, a perfume tells you more about someone than their handwriting.
Which is just as well, because my handwriting makes most doctors blush…
All the best,