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’…
As any gardener will tell you, camellias don’t smell. It’s the leaves which can be distilled: the resulting oil is very high in a chemicall called eugenol. But in perfumery, it features more often as what’s known as a ‘fantasy’ note: a synthetic, designed to conjure up an image – here, the soft, voluptuous beauty of this winter-blossoming shrub. Camellia Japonica (our garden shrub, which originated in – yes – Japan) is also related to the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis. Sometimes, then, it’s paired with other tea-like ingredients – but more to paint an olfactory picture, in marketing terms, than for any other reason. That doesn’t detract, though, from camellia’s soft, voluptuous beauty.
Smell camellia in:
Noses know to tread v-e-r-y carefully with this most bracing, potent note – which can all-too-easily conjure up mothballs, or cough medicine, or Vick’s chest rub. As an ingredient, camphor can be extracted from the camphor tree (an evergreen which flourishes in Asia), but it’s also present in rosemary and eucalyptus: they have that same ‘lung-opening’, nostril-opening effect. Camphor – which comes in the form of a white, crystal-like powder - is actually quite popular in Arabic perfumery: it’s present in a quarter of the legendary formulations from a renowned perfumer known as ‘al-Kindi’, as well as being is in widespread therapeutic use: for embalming, as a medicine (see aforementioned chest rub etc.), and in pomanders to protect against infection. In India, meanwhile, camphor lends its pungency to cooking. In an expert perfumer’s hands, though, that potency works to emphasise and amplify other ingredients, like patchouli, or to cut through what can be the overwhelming sweetness of tuberose and other white flowers.
Smell camphor in:
As a perfume ingredient, cannabis has been in the news recently as a controversial ingredient in actor Richard E. Grant’s debut scent. This native of Central and South Asia, a relative of hops, is now probably grown in every country of the world (albeit quite often in attics under gro-lights). Most famous as a recreational drug, the fibres of the plant can be woven into tough cloth – hemp – and every part of the flower is edible: hemp seed oil is highly nutritious, and great for skin, too (internally and externally). But although cannabis has a famously strong, aromatic, herbal, sometimes nutty or grassy vibe (and occasionally ‘skunky’ and animalic, even), it’s probably present in fragrances more for its shock/publicity factor than for any genuine narcotic quality it brings. (Though it can help to accent other herbal elements of a composition.)
Smell cannabis in:
Fresh Cannabis Rose
Nasomatto Black Afgano
Richard E. Grant Jack
It was the legendary fragrance Angel which really put caramel as an ingredient on the map: that sweet, seductive, eat-me quality which gourmand fragrances embody. (Though it was probably L’Artisan Parfumeur Vanilia in which caramel made its sugary debut.) It may not come as a surprise, though, to discover that this is a synthetic, or ‘fantasy’, ingredient rather than something lovely distilled from desserts, puddings or candies. The actual aroma compound is known as ethyl maltol: its softness almost melts into floral notes, delivering a flirty, playful femininity, as well as depth and intrigue.
Smell caramel in:
By Kilian Love by Kilian
Cartier Le Baiser du Dragon
Dior Miss Dior Chérie
Guerlain Shalimar Parfum Initial
Juicy Couture Viva la Juicy
Prada Candy Prada
Thierry Mugler Angel
Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille
Spicy, sweet, sharp: this garden spice – which (so legend has it) will protect from theft and stop a lover straying – adds an aromatic twist to perfumery, working well across a wide range of fragrance families including Ambrées, florientals and fougères.
Smell caraway in:
Clarins Eau Dynamisante
Cardamom’s been spicing up perfumery (and the incense trade) at least since Egyptian times, and was one of the key fragrance plants used in Greek perfumes. It’s pricy –the third-costliest spice in the world (after vanilla and saffron) – but so aromatic that only a touch is needed of the essential oil that’s steam-distilled from the seeds of the Elletaria cardomomum plant. (What you see in a photo is the pod: pop it open and the tiny seeds spill out.) Widely used in cooking, too, in south-east Asia – and perhaps most famously, to flavour chai - its slightly camphorous properties work to freshen breath. In fact, there are two variietes of cardamom: earthy, smoky black cardamom – and the fresher, almost minty, eucalyptus-y green cardamom. The first works perfectly in more exotic, Ambrée blends – making for something that’s almost skin-like, or suede-soft - while the aromatic green cardamom adds brightness mostly to colognes and men’s scents.
Smell cardamom in:
‘Supermarket’ and ‘garage forecourt’ carnations are mostly a huge disappointment because the spicy, clove-y smell you get when burying your nose in a garden-picked bloom is generally missing. Actually, it’s a flower closer to the cottage garden ‘pink’ – similar to the variety so loved by British gardeners, and known as ‘clove-pink’ – which is used in perfumery. (Carnation absolute is only produced in the south of France, though.)
Unpick the chemical structure of this plant and you’ll find it’s incredibly rich in an aroma compound called eugenol - so quite often, what you smell in a perfume hasn’t come from a plant at all, but has been synthesised. The price of the natural ingredient probably doesn’t help: it takes 500 kilos of flowers to produce one kilo of ‘concrete’, and about one-tenth that quantity of absolute.
Once upon a time (in the Victorian/Edwardian era), carnation was hugely fashionable (and if you ever manage to get your hands on a bottle of Caron’s now-extinct Bellodgia, you can experience just why it was so beloved). Now it has a somewhat old-fashioned, great-aunt-ish image, which means carnation tends to be consigned the chorus of a perfume rather than placed in the spotlight. Nonetheless, this piquant spicy flower is a cornerstone of many, many Ambrée perfumes, adding a delicious, almost nose-tingling brightness, and complementing the floral notes: carnation and rose, in particular, were just made for each other.
Smell carnation in:
Calvin Klein Eternity
Donna Karan Black Cashmere
Estée Lauder Youth Dew
Miller Harris Fleur Ambrée
Nina Ricci L’Air du Temps
Paloma Picasso Paloma Picasso
Prada Prada Amber
Vivienne Westwood Boudoir
Yves Saint Laurent Opium
Say ‘cashmeran’ and somehow you know it’s going to be soft, smooth, almost snuggly. There’s no cashmeran bush, or tree, or root, though: this is a synthetic ‘fantasy ingredient, also sometimes referred to as ‘blonde woods’ on perfume note ‘pyramids’. (Cashmeran™ is a trademarked ingredient from the perfumer supplier International Flavours and Fragrances, or IFF.) It’s a-little-bit-musky, a-little-bit-spicy, a-little-bit-powdery qualities become even more versatile in the hands of perfumers: they know how Cashmeran™ almost ‘melts’ into many types of ingredients to add an extra, almost tactile sensuality to perfumes within a wide range of fragrance families. Cashmeran™ also works to ‘expand’ and diffuse floral ingredients. (Lots of perfume notes work ‘synergistically’ in this way, which is why perfumery is such a complex art.)
You may also be familiar with it from body products and even fabric conditioners: Cashmeran™ ‘clings’, and doesn’t rinse out well, leaving traces of its sensuality on the skin after showering, or your bedlinen after laundry day.
Smell Cashmeran in:
Beaver’s anal glands. Now who, exactly, first thought that an ingredient from the ‘castor sac’ (a gland near the beaver’s reproductive organs) would be just fantastic when bottled and dabbed onto the pulse-points…? (We often marvel at who must first have experimented with some of the more unusual elements in perfumery – and try to imagine some of the failed experiments, too…) Not surprisingly, this carnal, animalic note has since the beginning of the 20th Century – for ethical and environmental reasons –almost always been recreated synthetically: it’s really not on to kill an animal to extract a scented oil. (Although it was also used by physicians to treat fever, headache and hysteria.) But whatever the source, there’s no getting away from castoreum’s seriously musky sensuality, which also has a hint of fruitiness. Smelled neat (we’ve tried it: really not a good idea), it whiffs intensely of birch tar and leather; only when expertly blended does it soften and seduce, blending well with rose and oud in particular, and acting as an excellent ‘fixative’ for other notes. (‘Castor’, by the way, gets its name from the Greek word for beaver.)
Smell castoreum in:
Do you remember the smell of your school pencil case? That’s really the smell of cedar, which is of course also the wood used for pencils. Of course it smells woody, but that’s just too simple: it also has a freshness, with hints of resin. If you’ve ever walked in an evergreen forest, cedar will transport you back there, too. It’s mostly the foliage (from trees grown in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, or Virginia in the USA) that is steam-distilled to produce the intense oil, which is also used in aromatherapy for calming and balancing. Sometimes, the roots and the wood of this slow-growing tree are used, putting some environmental question marks over its use today. Partly for that reason, there are now quite a few cedar-like synthetic notes used to give depth and a ‘grounding’ quality across some women’s fragrances – and many men’s.
As 'nose' Christine Nagel explains, cedar wood can be used to different effect. 'Virginian cedar has a dry and almost "nervous" effect in a fragrance, whereas cedar wood from the Atlas Mountains is much warmer...'
Smell cedarwood in:
Woods of Windsor Cedarwoods
Miller Harris Le Cèdre
In recent years, perfumers have been giving thanks for celery. The crunchy bits we like to eat aren’t much use to perfumers – but the earthily-scented oil harvested from the seed is: restricted from using oakmoss in its natural form, because of sensitisation issues, celery seed oil actually comes pretty close. In fact, it’s what Guerlain’s in-house nose Thierry Wasser used to ‘plug’ a hole in a new, ‘fractionated’ oakmoss note, to make it smell just like the original – and so, return the legendary Mitsouko to its former glory. It also blends beautifully with sweet pea and with tuberose.
Smell celery in:
The daisy-like chamomile isn’t one note, it’s two – because different varieties offer different nuances to a perfumer. (Confusing spellings, too: it can be spelled camomile, chamomile and camomile.) Wild chamomile, for instance, is herbal, sweet and fresh, more reminiscent of the tea we drink to calm ourselves or beckon sleep. The oil steam-distilled from German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) is more sweetly smoky, with hints of apples, working well as a base note. And Anthemis nobilis – Roman camomile, English camomile, ‘true camomile’, call it what you will – is sweet and heady, though also with an apple-iness.
Smell chamomile in:
So juicy, you can almost imagine this running down your chin: sweet, slightly tart, and of late cherry’s become Miss Popularity in the perfume stakes, with the rise in pretty, girly fruity-florals. (See also cherry blossom, a floral note.) In general, what you smell is a synthetic or ‘fantasy’ ingredient rather than the scent of punnets-ful of squeezed red fruits.
Smell cherry in:
Generally blooming from March to mid-April (earlier, if temperatures are warmer), the beautiful cherry blossom – also known as sakura – is a welcome harbringer of Spring, and has become an iconic feature of Japan's tourist industry, with visitors flocking to see the stunning canopies of pink blooms in all their splendour. In the past few years, fragrance fashion has looked to the Middle East for inspiration – and catered to perfume-lovers there who often own as many as 170 perfumes. Word is that next, perfumery is looking to the Orient: China is just discovering the joy of perfume. The soft, sweet, pretty-pretty powderiness of blossoms from the flowering Prunus – so prized in Japan – are expected to start turning up in many more fragrances, as perfume starts to look East in earnest. Adding an ethereal veil of softly charming fresh-airiness to a fragrance, we invite you to explore this so-pretty ingredient in your next perfume...
Smell cherry blossom in:
Amouage Blossom Love
Christian Dior Sakura
Elizabeth Arden Green Tea Cherry Blossom
Fragonard Cerisier en Fleurs
Marc Jacobs Daisy Eau So Fresh Kiss
Nina Ricci Nina Fantasy
Ralph Lauren Ralph Wild
Salvatore Ferragamo Signorina In Fiore
Shay & Blue English Cherry Blossom
You almost certainly love eating it. (We do.) But do you enjoy wearing chocolate…? If you’re a fan of gourmand perfumes (read more about them here), then maybe – and if you love Thierry Mugler’s ground-breaking Angel, the most renowned gourmand scent of all, for sure. But chocolate’s not a piece of cake for perfumers to work with: in the wrong hands it tips right over into ‘ickiness’, but in the right hands it further ups the sensuality of florals and of patchouli. Depending on the perfumer’s wish, it can add a bitter allure – or a creamy sweetness. In general, it’s a ‘fantasy’ or synthetic note you smell, rather than any essence from cocoa beans themselves – but it’s there for the sheer, pleasurable links with one of man’s (and especially woman’s) most indulgent foods…
Smell chocolate in:
Photo courtesy of Green & Black’s
It smells like cinnamon. (Actually, it tastes like cinnamon too.) It looks like cinnamon. Cinnamomum cassia even has cinnamon in its botanical name, and is known sometimes as ‘Chinese cinnamon’, or even ‘false cinnamon’. Both were among the most popular perfume ingredients of ancient times, referred to as far back as ancient Egyptian unguent recipes. (Although some scholars – and we’re really not qualified to argue – think that the cassia plant of old is inferior to the one still used today in teas, ointments and perfumery.) The twigs, buds and foliage of this 3-metre tree can be steam-distilled – but cassia is sometimes recreated synthetically, giving a potent and seriously spicy, almost earthy note that when handled with care lends itself especially well to Ambrées.
Smell cinnamomum cassia in:
Cinnamon is one of the smells of Christmas: spicy and enticing, comforting and sweet, all at once. Our love of cinnamon dates back thousands of years: 2000 years ago the Egyptians were weaving it into perfumes (though it probably originates way before that, in China).
Cinnamomum verum is thought to have been an ingredient in the original holy ‘anointing oil’, mentioned in the Bible. The Greeks and Romans used it too, often with its near-relation cassia. It’s long been considered to have aphrodisiac properties, when eaten – though if spicy scents turn you on, maybe when dabbed onto pulse-points, too.
Because cinnamon bark oil is a sensitiser – and as such, you may ‘cinnamates’ on perfume packaging, as a warning – where natural cinnamon’s used, it’s likely to have been distilled from the leaves and twigs. But it’s often also synthesised, adding a spicy warmth to Ambrées (and quite a few men’s scents). Here's Andy Tauer on the restrictions on using cinnamon, which he shared with The Perfume Society - and why he loves to use it, all the same:
'Ah... a forbidden fruit, restricted by the EU and IFRA. Sensitising cinnamal, potential allergen. So warm, metallic almost, spicy of course, gourmand, hitting the nose with memories of rice pudding with cinnamon sugar, and making your saliva flow. I love to cook with cinnamon. It brings out the flavors of ginger, onions, adds warmth to the cocktail of exotic flavors from clove, pepper, cumin, fenugreek. In my perfumes, I love it - like a synthetic aldehyde - as it switches the light on, brings out the colours and contrasts. One fine day, in perfumery heaven, we will all smell and enjoy cinnamon in heavy doses: Until then, we have to life with the regulations that we have...'
Smell cinnamon in:
Dior Dolce Vita
Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur
Paco Rabanne 1 Million
Parfums de Nicolaï Maharadjah
Tauer Perfumes 08 Une Rose Chyprée
Yves Saint Laurent Opium
Whoosh! That’s the zesty, lemony burst of citral, a natural aldehyde which is present in the oil of quite a few plants, including lemon myrtle, lemongrass, lemon tea tree, lemon verbena, lemons themselves, limes, as well as orange and petitgrain (the flower of the bitter orange). Citral is pure ‘freshness’, and used for that effect. (It also helps to develop rose notes, in soap-making.)
Unfortunately, the downside of citral is that it can lead to sensivities and allergies – so IFRA (the International Fragrance Association) regulates that it has to be used only with other ingredients that prevent a sensitising effect, and insist it’s labelled. (Hence citral is one of the few perfume ingredients you may see listed on the box your scent’s packaged in). Another note of warning: in its purest commercial form, citral can paralyse the nose for several hours, making it impossible to smell anything at all.
Citron is French for lemon. But a citron fruit (Citrus medica) is rarer than a lemon – and not nearly so juicy. It’s generally the (antiseptic) essential oil from the leathery, knobbly rind of citron which makes its way into zesty Colognes and as a richly fragrant top note in some perfumes, adding a dry citrus edge.
Smell citron in:
Perfumers love animalic notes – including civet – for the raw sexiness they deliver to perfumes, and for that reason it’s incredibly popular and found in many of the world’s most notoriously seductive scents.
Heaven knows how or why someone had the idea of using the soft, paste-like glandular secretion from underneath the swishy striped tails of civet cats, however, which they use to mark their territory: it’s extraordinarily powerful and even stomach-turningly obnoxious in its concentrated form. (Yes, think concentrated ‘cat pee’.) But in the hands of a gifted nose…? Diluted, blended, civet morphs into something altogether lustily musky and inviting, adding warmth and radiance to floral scents especially, and working as a ‘fixative’.
Actually, it was 10th Century Arabic perfumers who pioneered the use of civet (which isn’t a cat at all, rather confusingly; it looks more like a spotted-and-striped possum). It rapidly became incredibly desirable (in every way) as a perfume ingredient, with artisans using civet (albeit highly-diluted) to scent gloves, in Shakespeare’s time.
There are two types of civet: one African (its habitat spans Ethiopia through to South Africa), and Indian, native to Nepal, Bangladesh and Vietnam. For a while, attempts were made to keep civet cats in captivity – including in Britain – to ensure a ready supply of this perfume ingredient. Happily for civet cats, most of the civet now used is synthetically recreated, for ethical reasons (the cats are kept in cages and stressed, in order to produce the secretion) – although we have heard that some small perfumers still secretly source the real thing, a practise we absolutely can’t condone.
Smell civet in:
Amouage Gold pour Femme
Calvin Klein Obsession
Cartier Le Must de Cartier
Chanel No. 5
Dior La Collection Couturier Parfumeur Leather Oud
Jean-Louis Scherrer Jean-Louis Scherrer
Jean Patou Joy
Yves Saint Laurent Y