Fragrances today are mostly a fusion of ingredients taken from nature – or inspired by nature – together with the synthetics (man-made ingredients) that are used to make them last longer, ‘carry further’, or stay ‘true’, when worn on the skin.
Here, you can read about literally hundreds of the different perfume elements in use today. If you know which ingredient you want to read about, you can either input the name into our ‘search’ box (top right). Or click on a letter of the alphabet below – and it’ll take you to a collage of all the ingredients that start with that letter. Alternatively, let your eye travel over the scrolling, rolling collage below – and click on whatever takes your fancy: a visual ‘lucky dip’…
Bacon…? In a fragrance…? Yes, really: this salty, smoky breakfast food has been used in synthetic form as a ‘novel’ (very novel) perfume ingredient in John Leydon’s Fargginay fragrance brand, in a specific bacōn collection. Nowadays, perfumers have to work ever-harder to create a point of difference. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sniff out a bacon fragrance for yourself, and make up your own mind…!
Smell bacon in:
Balsam of copaiba
Sweet, almost honeyed, balsamic, peppery: copaiba essential oil is often used in incense. It’s derived from a tree in Central and South America (Copaifera officinalis) and acts as a base note and fixative. (It’s also known as copahu balm.) We’re not sure why the three ‘balsamic’ ingredients (copaiba, Peru and tolu) have the word balsam first – ‘balsam of’ but that seems to be the tradition…
We all know bamboo. Pandas love it. In the garden, it grows like wildfire and can be invasive (bamboo’s one of the fastest-growing plants on earth). But in perfumery – where it’s surprisingly widely-used - it’s woody, dry, green and almost paper-like, used to conjure up nature in both feminine and masculine fragrances. Bamboo is of course also linked with Asian culture: it’s the Chinese symbol of longevity, while in India it’s a symbol of friendship.
Smell bamboo in:
Byredo Mister Marvelous Eau de Cologne
Since gourmand fragrances took off, banana’s been used more widely: the sweetness of the juicy fruit note gives a good-enough-to-eat quality. But smell carefully and you might pick up hints of pink jasmine or even ylang-ylang, perhaps with green undertones. (And don’t blame us if you’re busted sniffing the fruitbowl!) In some cases, the juice of the fruit – from the Musa sapientum plant – is distilled. More likely, these days, it’s synthesised. The leaves of banana are sometimes used in perfumery, too: less sweet, more green and subtle. (Meanwhile, did you that technically, a banana plant is a herb, not a tree…? Just threw that in because you never know when it might come in useful in Trivial Pursuit, someday…)
Smell banana in:
L'Artisan Parfumeur Bana Banana
Ah, pesto… Basil is a delicious herb, when used in cooking – and a delicious, aromatic fragrance note, too, with a green, slightly sharp and spicy edge that lends itself really well to men’s scents. In ancient Arabic perfumery, basil was known as ‘the king of the fragrant plants’. Closer to home, this annual (a member of the mint family) grows up to three ft./almost a metre high, and the oil’s derived from the paper-thin leaves leaves. Different basils have different fragrance qualities: it can be lemony, or tarragon-like, or – well, just plain basil-y. Because some of the natural chemical compounds found in basil – eugenol, linalool and methyleugenol – are sensitisers, those now must be listed on perfume ingredients lists as a caution to those who know they react.
Smell basil in:
In Greek and Roman times, heroes were garlanded by laurel – another name for bay - as a symbol of victory. Today, we can garland ourselves with bay through the use of fragrance: it’s a green, herbal note, maybe giving whispers of oregano and thyme, if you smell carefully, with subtle sweet hints of flowers. Bay laurel is evergreen (where would our gardens be without it?), and originally native to the Mediterranean. Like quite a few perfume ingredients, this is one that’s invaluable in cooking, too: a sprig in a casserole, or a sauce, adds a wonderful aroma. Contrary to myth, laurel is no relation to the bay used in the traditional spicy West Indian aftershave, Bay Rum – though it can be found in plenty of masculine fragrances, as well as feminine chypres.
Smell bay leaf in:
Jo Malone London Blackberry & Bay
Does beeswax smell? Yes, it does: it’s honeyed, musky, softly sweet and intimate, sometimes with hints of pollen. Natural perfumers – whose palette of ingredients is limited – love it, as it delivers an ‘animalic’ quality yet is cruelty-free, generally harvested from hives that have matured over five years or so, carefully harvested by hand and then extracted using solvents. Beeswax also works brilliantly as a fixative, helping to anchor will-o’-the-wisp, volatile notes.
Smell beeswax in:
Deadly nightshade. How mysterious is that, as a fragrant ingredient? In nature, of course, it’s toxic: the Atropa belladonna plant can kill. In perfume, it features as a ‘fantasy’ note, to conjure up mystery and danger. Belladonna gets its name from the Italian, belle donna (‘beautiful woman’): when consumed in small quantities, it opens the pupils, enhancing a woman’s attractiveness, and it has a long tradition of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and recreational hallucinogen (in small doses). The poisonous, hallucinogenic black berries are what we’re most familiar with (and warned about, as kids). Preceding the berries come green-and-purple-tinged bell-shaped flowers which do offer up a delicate scent – but the sweet, subtly floral belladonna note used in fragrances is generally synthetic. And - we suspect – is used to give an aura of magic, dark mystery and allure to perfume, rather than for the perfume itself. That's really confirmed by perfumer Julie Massé, who based whole fragrance around Atropa belladonna - called (yes!) Atropa Belladonna. 'Of course there isn't literally any deadly nightshade in the fragrance - but the overall effect of the perfume I created is deep, intense, intoxicating...'
Smell belladonna in:
A Bellini cocktail is a must for many thousands of visitors to Venice, who since 1948 have flocked to Harry’s Bar in Venice to sip on their speciality: a cocktail of sparkling white Prosecco and white peach puree. (And they’re in good company: Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles were early habitués of this now world-famous bar, with its strangely low seats and tables that almost make you feel you’re at a doll’s tea party.) You can’t shake a real cocktail into a scent, of course – so the drink has been conjured up synthetically as a ‘fantasy’ fragrance ingredient to give a sense of sparkling, crisp peachiness. You’ll find it in a handful of creamy, floral feminine fragrances.
Smell Bellini in:
Christiane Celle Bellini Calypso
Not much romance here, we’re afraid. Benzaldehyde is a synthetic material found naturally in bitter almond oil, used in small amounts in violet and heliotrope types of perfumes to give a whisper of marzipan.
In common with balsam of Peru and balsam of tolu, this is an oil – tapped from a tree (Styrax benzoin), after deliberately damaging the bark. It was first described in the 14th Century; the Arabs called benzoin ‘frankincense of Java’, and it’s had a seriously long tradition of use in pomanders, pot pourri, incense and soaps. (Rather usefully, benzoin multi-tasks as an antiseptic and an inhalant, as well as a stypic, i.e. it actually stops minor wounds bleeding.) Benzoin gives ‘body’ to many perfumes (it’s especially widely-used in orientals) and is sweetly seductive. As perfumer Alienor Massenet explains: 'Benzoin is as suave as vanilla, and has a touch of cinnamon to it. I use it for feminine and masculine fragrances: it gives an "openness" and sensuality to fragrances.'
It sounds synthetic. Often, a synthetic note of benzyl acetate IS used by perfumers – but in reality, benzyl acetate is also found naturally in many flowers, including ylang-ylang, gardenia, hyacinth and jasmine. It has fruity undertones (peachy, pear-y, banana-y, apple-y), but complements white flowers wonderfully. So much so that the colourless liquid is actually used in almost all jasmine-based scents…
An aromatic alcohol, benzyl alcohol can be derived from many plants including jasmine, tuberose, wallflower and ylang-ylang. As well as occurring naturally, though, benzyl alcohol may also be chemically produced from petrochemical sources. It’s generally used as a fixative or stabiliser in many perfumes – helping to make sure that a favourite scent smells consistent, and keeping it ‘true’ for many years in the bottle. It can be a skin sensitiser for some people, and is therefore listed on fragrance packaging so that it can be avoided by those who have a problem. (In concentrated form, benzyl alcohol can also work as a treatment for head lice – although we don’t for a moment recommend dousing your child’s scalp in a favourite white floral scent…)
Bergamot orange is the fragrant citrus fruit of the Citrus bergamia, a small evergreen tree which blossoms during the winter. The fruit is the size of an orange, with a yellow-green colour similar to a lemon. The juice tastes less sour than lemon, but more bitter than grapefruit – which explains why bergamot has become known for its aromatic essential oil, rather than as something we eat for breakfast... (Although bergamot is used in Earl Grey tea…)
Its scent is fruity-sweet with mild spicy hints, and you’ll encounter it as a top note in compositions within most of the fragrance families – male and female. In fact, it’s used in different proportions in almost all modern perfumes - particularly within chypre and fougère fragrance categories, giving an initial fresh, airy, uplifting quality. (No surprise that in aromatherapy, bergamot is actually used to treat depression…) For perfumers, it’s invaluable for helping to blend notes into a single bouquet, and fix them there…
Its use goes back for centuries: bergamot was famously known to be a component of the original Eau de Cologne, developed in Germany by J.M. Farina in the 17th Century. For centuries, the essential oil of bergamot has had a close link to perfumery and scent, even used to scent small papier-mâché boxes for keeping small precious mementos - like locks of hair and ‘love letters.
The word bergamot derives from bergomotta in Italian and from Bergamum, a town in Italy. But references also exist, indicating the name comes from the Turkish word beg-armudi – which translates as ‘prince's pear’ or ‘prince of pears’…
Bergamot is commercially grown in southern Calabria in southern Italy, where more than 80% of the essential oil is produced – by zesting the rind. It’s also grown in southern France and in Côte d'Ivoire for the essential oil (and in in southern Turkey for its marmalade…)
Smell bergamot in:
Sometimes bitter orange is referred to ‘bigarade’ – but many of us know it best as the too-sour-to-suck-on Seville orange, used for making marmalade. The bitter orange tree is actually incredibly versatile, in perfumery: most neroli/orange blossom and petitgrain extracts come from this single tree, giving their soft/sweet/fresh qualities to countless delicious perfumes. (Petitgrain, which you can read about here, is extracted from the leaves, for instance.) But bitter orange is a fragrance note in its own right, widely used in eau de Colognes and chypre fragrances, as well as adding a whoosh of freshness to florals.
Smell bitter orange in:
Ever smelled a scent that seems like it’s dripping in honey? There may be a touch of black locust in there. The tall tree – native to America, and great for furniture-making incidentally! – offers us intensely fragrant, creamy white blossoms, a little like orange blossom, which are particularly powerful at dusk. They’re also edible, should you ever find yourself in front of the actual tree (Robinia pseudoacacia). Bees love these intoxicating blooms: when you taste ‘acacia honey’, this is the tree whose pollen the bees have dipped into. Why black locust? Because when the flowers are over – and their perfume’s breathed its last – black seedpods emerge…
Smell black locust in:
Lanvin Clair de Jour
Black pepper’s variously referred to as ‘the King of Spices’, or even black gold, and it’s been traded since the Roman empire, when the ‘spice routes’ to China and India opened up. (Literally, it was a medium of exchange, a form of money.) Everyone knows black pepper as a food ingredient: it now spices up meals all over the world - it's actually the most widely-used spice on the planet. (That’s because it also helps digestion, as well as enhancing flavours.)
This flowering vine was originally native to the south of India, where it’s long been used in Ayurvedic medicine. Once upon a time, black pepper’s value was on a par with gold – hence the nickname – and only the rich could enjoy it. (Not only was black pepper ground onto food, though: it found its way into spells and was used as an amulet to protect against disease and other threats.)
In perfumery, the not-quite-ripe peppercorns of the Piper nigrum vine are dried, crushed and steam-distilled to create an intensely-fragrant oil which is surprisingly complex: as well as delivering a burst of heat, it’s surprisingly fresh – and woody, too, blending beautifully with citrus fruits like lemon, as well as aromatics including lavender, ginger, clove, coriander and geranium. We love the idea that (as fragrance writer Mandy Aftel puts it), black pepper isn’t just thought to stimulate the mind, but to ‘warm the indifferent heart’…
Perfumer Andy Tauer tells us he's still experimenting with it, as an ingredient. 'So far, I have used black pepper only once in my perfumes - together with a bundle of citrus and vetiver. This combo is unbeatable. The brightness and sparkling fuzziness of citrus, the damp woody, earthy brown vetiver and the sharpness of pepper fit like Coke, fries and burger. Pepper, is metallic and spiky, sharp. But compared to cardamom it is actually easier to handle - like a poodle compared to a bull dog. Both are lovely, but the poodle mostly just hops and jumps.'
Smell black pepper in:
Juicy, sharp, tangy: depending on when they’re harvested, blackberries (not actually berries but fruits, BTW) can be luscious and sweet, or slightly sour. Blackberries have oozed all over fruity-florals since this fragrance category became so ‘hot’ – but their tartness can also take the edge of gourmand-sweetness: clever perfumers capture different stages of that ripeness, in perfume creations. Many of us are familiar with blackberry-picking ourselves: the Rubus fruticosus bramble tangles itself over countless hedgerows, perfect for turning into desserts, jams, jellies and even home-made wine. Now there’s an entire harvest of blackberry-garlanded scents, too.
Smell blackberry in:
Perfumers use notes from two stages of blackcurrant’s life: the blossom, and the fruit itself, both from the Ribes nigrum plant. Gardeners cultivate these widely, albeit most successfully inside fruit cages – because birds, as well as humans, just love the perfectly-ripened fruit… The distilled absolute of the blackcurrant buds and leaves is known as bourgeons de cassis (say it ‘boor-shon da cassee’): a light, fruity, woody note with a slightly animalic edge. (Blackcurrant leaves can smell a little ‘catty’ when you rub them between your finger – though in a fragrance, that won’t be apparent.) With its tart/sweetness, meanwhile, the blackcurrant berry is a popular ingredient in today’s fruity-florals. The most celebrated use of bourgeons de cassis has been in Guerlain’s 1969 perfume, Chamade.
Says 'nose' Julie Massé: 'I use cassis to give a delicious, moreish touch. It can "lift" white flowers, but also - in partnership with woods or amber - can create roundness and depth.'
Smell blackcurrant in:
The ‘blood’ refers to the deep crimson flesh of this delicious Citrus sinensis orange, which flourishes in Italy. (Nobody’s quite sure where the fruit originated: maybe the southern Mediterranean, maybe China…) Because of their luscious, hint-of-raspberry juiciness, blood oranges have become incredibly popular to eat – and now they’re making their way into zesty perfumery, too, with a warm, tangy, citrussy, berry-like quality that adds a real sparkle factor to fragrance creations, complementing other citrus elements (mandarin, neroli, grapefruit), as well as rose and geranium, and spicy notes of clove and cinnamon. In aromatherapy, blood orange is considered uplifting, stimulating and anti-depressant. Sniff one of the fragrances below, and we think you’ll agree.
Smell blood orange in:
Shay & Blue Blood Oranges
Ah, bluebells: those nodding, beautiful five-petalled spring flowers that seem so quintessentially English – but actually flourish anywhere from here to northern Spain, with over 500 species in all. (And although described as ‘blue’, they can be tinged from white to pink to deep, almost hyacinth in colour). These apparently delicate flowers - a.k.a. bellflowers – offer up an essential oil which has been described as reminiscent of a ‘clear spring day’. Stand in a bluebell wood, close your eyes and a delicate, green-floral haze will envelop and delight you: that’s what perfumers who work with bluebell are trying to recreate.
Smell bluebell in:
Refreshing, subtly sweet – or positively jam-like: blueberry has different facets which perfumers have the power to play up. (Especially now fruity-florals are so popular in our fragrance wardrobes: blueberries work really well to enhance floral perfumes.) The flowering Vaccinum myrtillus shrub that gives us blueberries is native to north America, but now grown around the world: its nutritious berries aren’t just delish, they’re packed with health-boosting antioxidants. And they smell lovely. (Close your eyes, bite a blueberry open and inhale before popping one in your mouth, next time.)
Smell blueberry in:
Lanvin Lanvin Me
A really expensive fragrance material – one of the priciest in the world, in fact - boronia comes from a fragrant shrub native to Australia. Perfumer and author Mandy Aftel calls it ‘as close to heaven as we are likely to get’, telling us it’s reminiscent of raspberry, apricot, violet and yellow freesia. (Technically, boronia is a member of the citrus family.) It’s delectably intoxicating, in fragrances – and perfumers love to blend it with sandalwood, bergamot, clary sage and other floral notes. Find it mostly in chypre and fougère creations.
Smell boronia in:
Ralph Lauren Ralph
As you’d imagine, brown sugar adds sweetness to our perfumes in just the same way as it does to cereals, cakes, candies. Sugar was once a precious commodity, a delicacy. Now, as we know, it’s in countless foods, and most of us have a love-hate relationship with the stuff. But perfume-wise, sugar’s star is in the ascendant in line with the boom in gourmand compositions, adding almost a touch of ‘booziness’. Great with vanilla. (Just like in baking.) But with zero calories…
Smell brown sugar in:
Penhaligon's Equinox Bloom