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’…
You probably know this as oud (or oudh) – which has become an incredibly popular perfume ingredient, in the past few years. A key ingredient in old and new Arabic perfumery, renowned as an element within high-quality incense in Arabic, Japanese and Indian cultures, oudh has now definitively crossed over to the west. It’s rare, and seriously expensive, and even endangered: as it’s become more popular, high-quality oud is becoming hard to source.
That’s because it takes almost forever to produce agarwood, which is actually the resinous heart-wood from fast-growing evergreen trees – usually the Aquilaria tree. The agarwood is a result of a reaction to a fungal attack, which turns this usually pale and light wood into a dark, resinous wood with a distinct fragrance – a process that takes hundreds of years. From that ‘rotten’ wood, an oil is made – and then blended into perfume. The aroma of ‘natural’ oud is distinctively irresistible and attractive with bitter sweet and woody nuances: seriously earthy (and in small quantities, seriously sexy).
Collection of agarwood from natural forests is now illegal under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endanged Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), but some is now beginning to be plantation grown in Vietnam.
As an alternative, perfumers have turned to synthetic oud, although trained noses will tell you that it smells plainer, woody and leathery – but without the warm, balsamic qualities.
Smell agarwood (oudh) in:
Aldehydes triggered a revolution in perfumery. Think of them as something like ‘rocket fuel’, boosting the ‘whoosh’ of a fragrance, when you first smell it: they’re like the fizz of champagne, having the power to make a perfume truly sparkle and effervesce. Aldehydes may be found in natural materials – rose, citronella, cinnamon bark and orange rind, for instance – but are also a family of synthetic chemicals, formed (here’s the science bit) ‘by the partial oxidation of primary alcohols’.
Contrary to legend, aldehydes first made their fragrant debut in 1905 in a scent called Rêve D'Or (Golden Dream), by Armingeat. They also feature in Houbigant’s Quelques Fleurs (created 1912) and Lanvin’s Arpège. But it was their appearance in Chanel No. 5 that changed everything – literally sending perfumery on a new, modern trajectory, opening up a world of richness and strength.
So the story goes, Ernest Beaux – Chanel’s original perfumer – either misread his sums, or accidentally tipped a much greater quantity of aldehydes into the sample of perfume he was preparing for the discerning Mademoiselle Chanel, creating an overdose with almost 1% aldehydes. She loved it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Aldehydes are actually a family of ingredients: they can be metallic, starchy, citrusy, waxy. Take C7 – or heptanal, naturally occurring in clary sage, with its herby-green odour. Or C8 – octanal – which is reminiscent of oranges. C9 – nonanal – smells of roses. Aldehyde C10 – decanal – powerfully conjures up orange rind. Citral is lemons, while C11 gives a ‘cleanness’ to fragrance (it’s naturally present in coriander leaf oil). C12 – well, that’s lilac or violets. C13? Waxy, grapefruity. And where would Guerlain’s Mitsouko be without the peach-skin warmth of C14…?
Smell aldehydes in:
This – yes – spicy ingredient comes from the dried, unripe berries of the Pimenta dioica (pimento), an evergreen tree that flourishes in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.
Why allspice? Apparently, this got its name from the way it manages to smell like a combination of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – sweet and dry, all at once. You might know it best from Caribbean jerk seasoning, or from Middle Eastern cuisine (or Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie spice mix) – and in perfumery, allspice offers a similarly warm, sensual, nutty quality.
It’s a key ingredient in Bay Rum aftershave/scent, and often used in men’s perfumery – but also to spice up a chypre fragrance, or in a mysterious ambrée…
Smell allspice in:
Friedemoden Rosee de Nuit
Almond notes are very ‘gourmand’, with a foodie quality – and most often enjoyed in fragrances within that almost good-enough-to-eat perfume family: almond’s a less sweet alternative to vanilla, delivering a buttery or creamy impression.
This tree - native to the Middle East and south Asia but now also blossoming across Europe, Africa and the United States – first offers us a froth of white or pale pink blossoms: almond blossom absolute, taken from those flowers, is a soft note with hints of subtle heliotrope, or honey. The absolute created from the nut itself is sweet, but with a bitter edge (think Amaretto, here); almond can give a fragrance a marzipan quality, maybe even remind you of macaroons.
Last but not least, there’s an ‘almond tree’ note use sometimes used by perfumers - in this case, a synthetic ‘fantasy’ note: green, nutty and woody.
Smell almond in:
Many windowsills boast an aloe vera plant, so useful for treating burns (including sunburn) – but outside this cosmetic use, this perennial succulent plant is also – very occasionally - used as a note in perfumery: green, ‘vegetal’, fresh and aquatic.
Smell aloe vera in:
Victoria's Secret Pear Glace
What is ‘eau de saucepan’ (or aeroplane wing) doing in fragrance? Well, recently, the third most abundant metal on earth has made an appearance – mostly in men’s perfumery, so far – to add a cooling, metal edge, for instance in the Blood Concept fragrances, but also Creed’s Acier Aluminium, which was inspired (so they put it) by the chain mail worn by medieval knights.
Naturally, it’s a synthetic ‘fantasy’ ingredient: you can’t distil a metal, or extract it through enfleurage…!
Smell aluminium in:
Creed Acier Aluminium
Amaretto on the rocks, anyone…? Well, these days you won’t only find this liqueur in a glass, but in some gourmand fragrances. It gets its name from the Italian word ‘amaro’ (for bitter) - even though the legendary alcoholic drink (lugged back home from many a Duty Free) is actually sweet and almond-y.
We rather love the story of Amaretto, which has its roots in the Saronno region of Italy (hence the name ‘Amaretto di Sironno’, on the label). Allegedly, in 1525, a Saronno church commissioned one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils, artist Bernardino Luini, to daub their sanctuary with frescoes. As the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Luini needed to depict the Madonna, but was short of a model. Enter a young, widowed innkeeper, who sat for the painter – and also, it’s said, became his lover. She wanted to show her gratitude with a gift, and soaked apricot kernels in brandy, presenting the concoction to Luini. And so, Amaretto (the drink) was born.
The fragrance note itself is synthetically created, adding a touch of syrupy bitter-sweetness – most often, as we’ve said, to gourmand perfumes.
Smell Amaretto in:
Cartier Le Baiser du Dragon
Anyone for ‘Naked Lady’? That’s an evocative name for a fragrance ingredient, if ever we heard one. But if you’ve ever received (or even grown) one of these bulbs (generally at Christmas), you’ll know what the name means: this trumpet-shaped flower really blooms when the foliage has died down. Bury your nose in an amaryllis (do mind the pollen!), and you might get whispers of a floral note, with fruity undertones – somewhere mid-way between a rose and a nectarine.
Smell amaryllis in:
Yves Saint Laurent Cinema
There’s a fog of confusion about amber, and ambergris. Both give a snuggly, cosy-sexy feel to fragrances – but amber is a ‘fantasy’ (synthetic note), and ambergris is a whale by-product (NB no whales are harmed in its production, which is a completely fascinating process).
Even more confusingly, the perfume ingredient doesn’t even come from amber itself – that time-hardened resin of Pinus succinifera, which is often shaped into jewellery. Instead, it’s the name given to a simple fragrance accord of labdanum, benzoin and vanilla – and/or, sometimes, touches of tonka and Peru balsam, which also have a sweet, resinous quality. ‘Amber’ as a perfume ingredient first made its debut in the late 1800s, with the invention of synthetic vanilla (vanillin); nowadays, it’s so widely used in ambrée-style perfumes that it’s given rise to a whole category (Amber ambrée).
It has an animalic quality, and is warm, a little powdery – and decidedly erotic. One of those ‘light-the-blue-touch-paper-and-retire’ perfume ingredients, this. As perfumer Alienor Massenet explains, 'Amber notes are warm, and can evoke liquor. But above all, they give depth and sexiness to a fragrance…'
Smell amber in:
Shay & Blue Amber Rose
Much was made, not long ago, of the discovery on a British beach of a whacking great lump of greyish-beige waxy material – which turned out to be worth thousands of pounds. That was ambergris, one of the most valuable and legendary ingredients in perfumery, prized for its ability as a fixative, to enhance a fragrance’s staying power by anchoring the more volatile ingredients, and ‘round it out’.
It’s basically whale poo. Yes, really: ambergris is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales - to make it easier for the whale to digest shard objects (like squid beaks), so it’s thought. Usually, the whale vomits these sharp bits. If not, they travel further down the gut and are covered in ambergris: a sticky, gelatinous material which dries to a lump with a resinous texture and then floats on the surface, ending up on beaches in places like South Africa, the East Indies, China, Japan, New Zealand – even Dorset. When it’s first produced, it’s useless as a fragrance ingredient - definitely faecal, at that point. As it ages, the smell matures and develops beautifully, and before it can be used perfumery, it must be diluted with alcohol.
Chemist Gunther Ohloff once described ambergris as ‘humid, earthy, faecal, marine, algoid, tobacco-like, sandalwood-like, sweet, animal, musky and radiant’. Others comment that it can smell a bit like the wood in old churches, or Brazil nuts. It’s been used in fragrance for millennia: the ancient Egyptians burned ambergris as incense, while the Chinese referred to ambergris as ‘dragon’s spittle fragrance’. During the Black Death in Europe, it was believed that carrying a ball of ambergris could prevent plague.
Wild-harvested supplies are obviously extremely erratic – and many countries have outlawed the trade of ambergris, as part of a more general ban on the exploitation and hunting of sperm whales, so ambergris tends to be created synthetically.
Although it’s called ‘grey amber’ (ambergris), it’s not to be confused with amber.
There’s an entire book dedicated to the story of ambergris: Floating Gold. Read more about it here.
NB This visual is of the painting Fumée d’Ambergris by John Singer Sargent
Smell ambergris in:
Balmain Ambre Gris
Musky, slightly sweet – and maybe a hint of Cognac in there…? That’s what you’ll get when you smell ambrette, an aromatic medicinal plant (musk mallow) which is native to India and used particularly in Ayurvedic medicine. (The shoots, leaves and seeds are also used in cooking, while ambrette flowers are sometimes used to add scent and flavour to tobacco). It was for a time the perfumer’s choice for replacing animal musks, although it’s gentler and not as sharp. But nowadays, synthetic musks have widely replaced ambrette, on grounds of its priciness.
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A couple of cutting-edge perfumers – Romano Ricci (with Not a Perfume) and Geza Schoen (Escentric Molecule 02) have daringly based an entire perfume around this synthetic note, which was discovered in the 1950s as a replacement for ambergris. Long-lasting, come-hither, velvety: it really is complex and (virtually) a fragrance in its own right. Some people find it salty, smooth, skin-like (it can have you sniffing your arm slightly compulsively!), while others describe it as creamy, musky or labdanum-like. It has an abstract quality and has become widely used as a base note, in more complex perfumes.
Smell Ambroxan in:
Escentric Molecules Molecule 02
Intoxicating, hallucinogenic, life-threatening plants – yes, truly – angel’s trumpet (a.k.a. datura) have been prized as sacred in many cultures.
Originating from south America, this member of the nightshade family can be grown in greenhouses – and outside, during summer months, as ornamental, which range from white to pale purple via yellow and pink.
Angel’s trumpets bloom at night, pumping out a heady, sweet scent which nowadays is often recreated synthetically. Probably just as well: the datura flower has been linked to many deaths, and has many powerful and/or downright dangerous side-effects. Down the years, those have been harnessed in rituals to induce a hallucinogenic state which allowed mere mortals to connect with the Gods (so legend has it). In voodoo, datura is used to induce ‘Zombification’.
There are other heady, rich, sweet flowers that can be used to add magic to perfumery, though. So there’s some suggestion that datura, or angel’s trumpet, is used mostly for its mythical status rather than any unique aromatic qualities…
There’s a great article on angel’s trumpet on the perfume website Fragrantica, if you click here.
Smell angel’s trumpet in:
Victoria's Secret Night
Angelica is a family of beautiful, ‘umbellifer’ (or umbrella-like) plants, including Angelica archangelica: both the root and the seeds can be used (though the root’s more pungent). The natural oil is also used in the liqueur Chartreuse (with its signature bright yellow-green colour, evoking the flowers of the plant itself), while the stem can be candied.
And in perfumery? Angelica gives a musk-like, green, aromatic odour – although today, it’s also synthesised, and used as a fixative and ‘synergist’. (Which basically means it makes some other ingredients work better together).
In neo-Pagan times, angelica was used to promote healing and protect against negative energies – and we rather like the thought of dabbing some of that on…
Smell angelica in:
Anise, aniseed – same thing: an annual herb (parsley family, FYI), which grows in the eastern Mediterranean region and south-west Asia, and has a strong licorice/fennel/tarragon flavour, often enjoyed in alcoholic drinks or sweeties (the famous aniseed balls of your granny’s childhood…)
It’s sweet and very aromatic, and really very popular in perfumery as a result: the most celebrated example is Guerlain’s gorgeous, iconic L’Heure Bleu. (Not to be confused with Star anise – although the key component of the essential oil, ‘anethole’, is actually found in both.)
Smell anise in:
Givenchy Very Irresistible
Did you know that the apple’s really a member of the rose family…? (Or rather, lots of members: there are thousands of varieties of Malus domestica, a tree originating in Asia). What it gives to fragrance, though, is a fresh, crisp, mouthwatering quality, reminiscent of biting into an apple itself.
Apples have been a part of fragrance creation right back to the medieval era of Arab perfumery. It isn’t just the fruit that’s used: apple blossom gives a soft, floral air to fragrances – and lately, there’s been a trend to using something called an ‘apple tree’ note: in fact, a synthetic, ‘fantasy’ ingredient which delivers a fruity-woodiness.
Through the rise in popularity of fruity-floral fragrances, apple’s been having a moment in the sun.
Smell apple in:
In perfumery, apricot can be lush and sweet – like the fruit – or bitter, like the extract of the apricot kernel (think of an Amaretto-ish bitter almond scent). It’s been used in scent-making almost forever – early Arab perfume recipes recorded by Al-Kindi include the use of apricot. In modern day perfumery the scent of apricot is re-created synthetically, most often for a soft, almost fuzzy fruitiness. Sometimes, alternatively, the scent of the blossom of the apricot tree (a.k.a. Prunus armeniaca) is evoked: pretty, soft and feminine, and a bit ‘floaty’ (just like the white or pink flowers themselves).
Smell apricot in:
Michael Kors Signature
Artemisia refers to a large family of aromatic plants – think: mugwort (‘moxa’, in Chinese medicine), tarragon and wormwood. (Wormwood gets its name from the plant’s power to treat parasites.) They’re incredibly bitter on the tongue, used to flavour vermouth and absinthe (if you’re a Martini fan, you’ll get the connection instantly). Artmesia absinthium is accordingly a very ‘green’, sharp, bitter herbaceous fragrance element; you’ll find it more usually in men’s scents, where it brings balance to floral notes.
Smell artemisia in:
Arum lily, calla lily, Easter lily: three names for one southern African native flower, which has the botanical name of Zantedeschia aethiopica. Long-stemmed, it’s pollen-rich (with a somewhat phallic ‘spike’ inside the sculptural single flower). Funnily enough, it’s not strictly a member of the lily family at all, though it is also symbolically a wedding flower, and also a funeral flower. (And it’s used in spells for beauty!) It has a waxy, soft floral quality, in perfumes – almost as if it lightly dusts the perfume with pollen.
Smell arum lily in:
Ralph Lauren Glamorous
Asafoetida comes from the dried taproot of Ferula asafoetida – note the word ‘foetid’ in the name, because it really does honk: strong and sulphurous, it’s known variously as ‘devil’s dung’, ‘stinking dung’, or (charmingly) in French, ‘merde de diable’ (devil’s poo).
It’s used in Indian cooking and also as a medicinal – not surprisingly, as a repellent. (It’s also, rather usefully, anti-microbial and anti-flatulant – though not in perfume!). Some people say it smells of onions or leeks; others, that it has a balsamy, resinous or even sweaty edge - but as with so many botanical ingredients, asafoetida can work magic when skilfully blended in perfumes: the teeniest of quantities acts as an ‘accenter’, to boost the power of other ingredients – including galbanum, which is widely-used in chypre scents, including Ma Griffe by Carven, and Pierre Balmain’s Vent Vert.
Smell asafoetida in:
L'Artisan Perfumer Premier
This yummiest of fruits originates from Central Mexico (‘guacamole-land’!). And are you ready for the explanation of the name…? ‘Avocado’ comes from ‘aquacate’ – which apparently derives from the Aztec for testicle. (A reference to the shape of the fruit.) It’s very rarely used as a fragrance note – more widely, for the brilliant skin-smoothing, nourishing properties of avocado oil, in body products and facial care.
But just sometimes, you’ll catch a whisper of avocado in perfumery: it has a green, slightly sweet, vegetal quality…
Smell avocado in:
Versace Versus Time for Relax