There are several categories of fragrances today: perfume is at the top, followed by eau de parfum, eau de toilette, and eau de cologne, each containing a lesser degree of aromatic oils, respectively.
The lower the concentration of aromatic compounds, the shorter the scent life. Perfume is highly prized precisely because it lasts from morning until night. Additionally, perfume wears well, meaning the scent stays fresh as the day wears on. In fact, good perfume is designed to smell nice throughout its various stages of wear.
Aromatic compounds used in perfumes have complex chemical interactions. While we might imagine a group of corporate executives sniffing bottles of various mixtures to see what smells best, the truth is far more complicated.
Fragrant compounds tend to breakdown quickly when exposed to heat, light and air. In order for a scent to last throughout the day, tens or even hundreds of ingredients are used so that the perfume continues to ‘bloom'. Essentially, as one group of compounds is spent, another re-enlivens the scent and adds its own tone. Perfume is said to have three notes that work together to form the lasting fragrance.
The top note is the initial scent when applied. This scent lasts only a few minutes to an hour, and may be somewhat strong. As it diminishes it reveals the middle note of the fragrance, also called the heart or body of the scent.
The aromatic compounds that make up the heart last longer, but eventually give way to the base note, or underlying tone of the perfume. The optimal scent of the base note takes time to develop, so initially this tone isn’t as pleasant, but is masked by the top and middle notes. By the time they soften, the base note of the perfume is fully developed, and ideally helps to bolster the other notes. This is the scent left at the end of the day.
Understanding this symphony of interactions makes it easy to see why a perfume might smell nice when first applied, but can take on a stale or heady note by the end of the day. In this case the base note of the fragrance is not to your liking.
Conversely, a perfume might smell better as the day wears on if your olfactory senses prefer the base note to the top and middle notes. When you find a perfume that really appeals from morning until night, you’ve discovered a love for all three notes that compose the scent.
With all we associate with perfume, it might seem counter-intuitive that fragrant chemicals are generally caustic irritants in concentrated form. For this reason perfume is made with diluted essential oils and compounds. Generally, the concentration is bout 20-40% for perfume, 10% less for parfum, 20% less for eau de toilette, and cologne only contains between two and five percent aromatic oils.
While flowers make up the largest source for chemical compounds used in perfumes, bark, wood, resins, leaves, tobacco and citrus also contribute to the different categories of scents. Synthetic chemicals have also become popular and are more reliable from an industry standpoint, as they are consistent to work with, unlike natural products.
However, the use of synthetic compounds is a new arena with an untested history in terms of health and the environment. Synthetic musk, for example, has been found in the Great Lakes due to nearby chemical processing. It has also been found in human fat cells and breast milk.
If you prefer to buy perfume that is made from natural compounds, look for the words, “all natural ingredients.” It will likely be more expensive and may be harder to find. Ingredients listed as “imitation” or “natural synthetic compounds” refers to synthetic chemicals created to copy real-world chemicals.
The synthetic version(s) might have a much stronger odor than their more expensive, natural versions. However, synthetic compounds are made from different elements than naturally occurring compounds, and are not “natural.”
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