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’…
Magnolia is one of those blowsy white floral ingredients that perfumers just love, love, love: creamily sweet, but with a fresh edge to its petal power. Unlike rose or jasmine, which are more familiar, you may never have smelled a magnolia up close – but this family of flowering trees is worth sniffing out, especially the Magnolia grandiflorum variety.
There are around 200 different types of magnolia (named after a renowned French botanist, Pierre Magnol, who came up with the concept of classifying flora into ‘plant families’).
Magnolias originate in both Asia and the Americas, and are thought to be one of the most ancient flowering plants, dating back to prehistoric times: it’s quite a thought that dinosaurs would have seen magnolias blossom... (Though they wouldn’t have been able to dab magnolia on their pulse-points, of course…)
Sometimes, magnolia’s given a starring role in a scent – but it’s there in many a white floral…
Smell magnolia in:
Acqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile
Britney Spears Curious
Burberry Sport for Women
Chloé Eau de Parfum
Creed Love in White
Dior Dolce Vita
Donna Karan DKNY Be Delicious
Estée Lauder Sensuous
Guerlain L’Instant de Guerlain Eau de Toilette
Lancôme Miracle Intense
Serge Lutens L`Eau Serge Lutens
Nina Ricci L’Air
Revlon Charlie Silver
Zing! Mandarin’s zestiness is instantly cheering: sweet, fruity, citrussy, with hints of neroli – and just what perfumers often look for to ‘lift’ the overture of a scent. (Though mandarin also blends beautifully with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and clove in perfumery – rather as it does around Christmas-time, in cooking and in our homes…)
The whole orange family is invaluable to perfumers; mandarin peel has long been used in sachets and pot pourris to scent the home. The essential oil itself is produced from the fruit’s skin: you get a hint of how this happens when you tear into a mandarin, and the oil scents your hands. (Always hoping, of course, for a really sweet, juicy mandarin – rather than the occasional disappointment of something a little tart…) In Traditional Chinese Medicine, mandarin also has an important role: it’s used to regulate qi, or ‘life-force’ – and in China itself, the fruit’s still linked with good fortune and luck.
Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays shared her thoughts with us on mandarin: 'It’s childhood Christmases for me. I’d use more of it except that citrus fruit essential oils are restricted these days, and I almost always want to get some grapefruit in there too. It has more character than sweet orange; it seems naughtier to me. It’s a special treat and it’s packed with sunshine. Oddly enough, I find that my customers describe certain synthetic fragrances as ‘fresh and natural’. Tangerine is one of the genuine natural fragrances that has the same effect. It’s light and flighty though, so it works as a top note then flits off, leaving an impression but not hanging around to be judged. Mandarin works nicely as long as you don’t mind its lack of commitment...'
Today, mandarins grow in many countries: across Italy, Sicily, Spain, Florida, Argentina, Brazil and more. The subtly different names for the fruit give a clue to their origins: Mandarin (from China), Tangerine (named after Tangier in Morocco, Clementine and Satsuma (Japan).
But by any name, this uplifting fruit is always pure joy to discover, in a scent…
Smell mandarin in:
Chanel Coco Mademoiselle
Hermès Eau d’Orange Verte
Juicy Couture Viva la Juicy
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mandarine
Miller Harris Fleurs de Bois
Tommy Hilfiger Tommy Jeans
Succulent, juicy, drippingly sweet: mango works wonderfully in summer perfumes in particular, delivering that hint-of-the-tropics perfumers seek to capture in a bottle. With its hints of plum and peach, and a touch of lush green, mango’s often to be found alongside floral notes in the fruity-floral compositions which have become so popular in recent years.
Many of us have enjoyed mango on holiday (though they’re rarely so perfectly succulent when they’ve been transported half-way across the world). But did you know that this stone-fruit is related to the cashew family…? Mangifera indica originates in the Indian subcontinent, where it’s prized for its spiritual significance (and even now, it’s celebrated as the ‘royal fruit’); today, there are over 1,000 species in the world.
Mango blossom, too, is sometimes used in perfumery: as sweetly floral as you’d imagine these soft white flowers to be, with a breath of lily of the valley about them.
Smell mango in:
Bright, bold, stop-you-in-your-tracks orange: most of us know what marigolds look like, but the scent…? Mix bitter herbs, ripe apples and green leaves.
Marigolds – the name comes from the phrase ‘Mary’s gold’, and refers to the Virgin Mary – are members of the sunflower family, grown throughout the world. There are actually two types, which share the same ‘marigold’ umbrella name: Calendula officinalis, and Tagetes Glandulifera (the French marigold, a.k.a. Indian Carnation). Calendula blossoms, with their musky pungency, are used to produce essential oil through steam distillation; tagetes oil comes from the seeds of that plant – though in terms of what they deliver to a perfume composition, they’re pretty interchangeable.
Although marigold is more widely used in ‘men’s perfumery’, a handful of well-known feminine fragrances do feature flashes of this unusual note, for an intriguing twist…
Smell marigold in:
Marshmallow isn’t just a smell. It’s a sensory experience: that candied breath of sugar. So with the rise in gourmand fragrances, marshmallow has begun to feature as a ‘fantasy’ note in perfumes, adding an airy sweetness, sometimes with a ‘toasted marshmallow’ edge.
Strictly, marshmallow is also a plant: Althaea officinalis was used to cure sore throats. And it’s sticky, which is how the powdered root came to be used in candy-making. Most marshmallow-makers today use gelatine (for convenience – and because the root’s quite hard to come by), mixing it with sugar and corn syrup to create the familiar, ‘puffy’, sponge-y sweets.
The gourmet food world has just ‘discovered’ marshmallows, with ‘designer’ marshmallows becoming available. And we fully expect it to be used in quite a few more ‘mouthwatering’ fragrances yet…
Smell marshmallow in:
Christina Aguilera Royal Desire
Dolce & Gabbana Pour Femme
Guerlain La Petite Robe Noire
Mariah Carey M
When you spritz a scent and get an aquatic hit of melon, it’s probably not actually melon you smell – that so-refreshing summer fruit – but an ingredient called ‘calone’, one of the best-known synthetic ingredients in a perfumer’s weaponry. Launched in the 1990s, calone recreates the honey-like, watery qualities of the delectable fruit – a relation of squashes and cucumbers - which originated in Africa and south-west Asia. The availability of this synthetic ingredient has probably helped to shape the trend for aquatic fragrances, as well as for fruity-florals.
Probably the most famous ‘melon’ fragrance is Calyx: originally launched under the Prescriptives brand (now a long-lost part of Estée Lauder), and newly relaunched by Clinique – but with fruity-florals still ‘hotter’ than a beach in St. Barth’s, there are plenty of others…
Smell melon in:
David & Victoria Beckham Intense Instinct
Frederic Malle Carnal Flower
Guerlain Champs Elysées
Ineke Angel’s Trumpet
Miller Harris Le Pamplemousse
Thierry Mugler Angel
Nobody grinds up metal and adds it to a perfume blend – but the genius of perfumers is that they nevertheless have a way of conjuring up hints of iron and steel in a bottle, as an evocative ‘fantasy’ note. (Sometimes, they’ll turn to synthetic iris to create that cool, almost sterile effect…)
Smell metal in:
‘Little darling’. Who can resist a perfume ingredient with a name like that…? And who can resist the smell, either: soft, sweet and violet-like, and a touch fruity…?
Mignonette – also known as Reseda odorata – originates in Northern Africa, but is cultivated commercially in the south of France to produce a delectably-scented essential oil, using solvents or a ‘maceration’ technique. The name comes from the Latin: ‘resedo’ means ‘to heal’, and the Romans used it as a charm against ailments. It would be nice to think that spritzing on a scent featuring this delicious, little-known ingredient worked the same way.
Smell mignonette in:
Mimosa. Acacia. Cassie. All names for the same plant, with those fabulous yellow pom-pom flowers which look delicate, but fill a room with their dreamy sweetness in minutes. The bark, roots and resin are all still used to create incense for rituals, in Nepal, India and China (including Tibet - and acacia/mimosa’s used in mainstream perfumery, too: the scent has a warm, honey, iris-like, powdery airiness, which enriches the complexity of fragrances. Mimosa has a long tradition in perfumery: it was first used in making incense, and symbolised resurrection and immortality: Egyptian mythology linked the acacia tree with the tree of life, described in the Myth of Osiris and Isis. (Aromatherapeutically, mimosa is said to have properties that help to relieve stress and depression, FYI.)
Mimosas are pod-bearing shrubs and trees now native mostly to Australia and the Pacific, though they put on a pretty spectacular show around the heartland of perfumery in Grasse, too, in the south of France . For centuries, aside from perfumery, the mimosa tree has been used for many different purposes from medicinal to ornamental. The seeds and fruit are edible and used in many cuisines and soft drinks, the bark produces a gum that is used as a stabiliser (gum Arabic) and in the production for printing and ink; and the timber is used in furniture making.
An all-round useful ingredient, and a dreamily-scented one at that.
Smell mimosa in:
Annick Goutal le Mimosa
Bulgari Pour Femme
DKNY Energising for Women
Frédéric Malle Une Fleur de Cassie
Guerlain Après L’Ondée
Gucci Alchemist's Garden Winter Spring
Jo Malone London Mimosa & Cardamom
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mimosa Pour Moi
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mon Numéro 1
Miller Harris Couer de Fleur
Philospohy Baby Grace
Prada Infusion de Mimosa
Versace Yellow Diamond
Vince Camuto Divina
Instantly cooling and utterly refreshing, mint has been infused for centuries in various preparations to be taken as a herbal remedy for digestive complaints, to soothe inflamed skin and also to splash on as a tonic for the senses.
In Greek mythology, mint is seen as "the herb of hospitality"- early records show mint was strewn over floors to deodorise and freshen rooms, as stepping on the leaves helped to spread its scent through the room, masking noxious odours best left undescribed...
Correctly known by the name Mentha (also known as mint, from Greek míntha) there are many differing varieties - the species ranging from 13-18 depending on who you ask, and proving rather indistinct to categorise exactly as hybridisation between the species occurs naturally. Indeed, there are so many varieties and cross-overs (see below for a selection from Wikipedia's extensive page), that to date, no one author has successfully categorised them all.
Highly aromatic, merely brushing against the dark green leaves releases the potent scent, all varieties of the plant have some common characteristics - mostly perennial, mint simply adores to be near water, pools and in partial shade.
Traditionally used as a medicinal herb - mostly in order to treat stomach ache and nausea - the Menthol mint essential oil (used at 40–90% concentration in compositions) has long been enjoyed for its skin-cooling and spirit-reviving properties in Colognes, perfumes and cosmetic products, and overall, mint is enjoying something of a resurgence in both male and female fragrances over the past few years.
Used by the handful for a bracing freshness or plucked by the leaf to add just a hint of breeze, mint is a favourite that's here to stay.
Smell mint in:
Can a perfume roar? Can it purr? Can it be ‘sex-in-a-bottle’…? If any single ingredient can create those effects, it’s musk. As the excellent fragrance blog Perfume Posse puts it, ‘Musk speaks carnally in whispers or shouts…’ And it’s in almost every scent we dab, spritz and splash onto our skins - because at the end of the day, most of us wear perfumes to feel more alluring…
But musk does more than this. It’s incredibly versatile, in a perfumer’s hands: it softens, balances, ‘fixes’ (adds staying power and keeps a fragrance on the skin, while stopping other short-lived ingredients from disappearing too fast). It smells like skin itself. It almost hypnotises…
And it’s controversial: the original musk came from a sex gland secretion from a specific a species of deer, the Tibetan musk deer, which became endangered - though since 1979 this creature has happily now protected by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). Numbers of musk deer dwindled, unsurprisingly, because it took 140 musk deer to produce a kilo of perfume ingredient. But its use goes way back: musk makes its first appearance in the 6th Century, brought from India by Greek explorers. Later, the Arabic and Byzantine perfumers (including the famous Al-Kindi) perfected the art of capturing its aphrodisiac powers, and musk’s popularity spread along the silk and spice routes.
Of course we’ll never know someone, somewhere along the way, got the idea that it would be a good idea to try this potent ingredient out in a perfume: in its raw state, musk oil smells – well, a bit like poo... And yet, and yet – at the same time, strangely intriguing… A well-known German fragrance chemist, Phliip Kraft, brilliantly captures musk’s love-it-hate-it complexity. ‘The more one studies its character that of natural musk tincture, the more contrasting, vibrant and oscillating it becomes: repulsive-attractive, chemical-warm, sweaty-balmy, acrid-waxy, earthy-powdery, fatty-chocolate-like, pungent-leathery, fig-like, dry, nutty and woody, to give just some impressions’.
It’s said that if you added drops of natural musk oil to a handkerchief, you’d still be able to smell it 40 years later. Today, of course, it’s not the natural stuff that perfumers use, but a huge array of synthetic musks, ranging from sweet, powdery musks to almost metallic versions. Vast amounts of perfume industry research dollars have gone into creating alternatives to this cornerstone ingredient: patented notes like Galaxolide, Andoxal, Nirvanolide, Celestolide, Velvione, Helvetolide, among other inventively-named creations. (We secretly long for a job naming compounds like this...!)
Other ingredients, too – like extracts of ambrette seed, galbanum and angelica root – can also deliver a musky sensuality to a perfume. Although if you have trouble smelling musk, you’re not alone: ‘anosmia’ to some - or all - musk ingredients is actually pretty common…
Smell musk (or try to!) in:
Body Shop White Musk
Frederic Malle Musc Ravageur
L’Artisan Parfumeur Mûre et Musc
Miller Harris L’Air de Rien
Narciso Rodriguez Essence
Narciso Rodriguez for Her
Nasomatto Silver Musk
Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan
Famously, myrrh was one of the three gifts brought to the infant Jesus by the Three Kings. But long before that, myrrh was among the very first perfume ingredients used in prayer – as well as perfumery itself: as far back as 3,700 years ago, priests and believers believed that the smoke of incense was the only thing which could cross the barrier between earth and heaven. (Leading to the original name for perfume: per fumum, or ‘through smoke’…) Myrrh was a key ingredient in the ancient incense kyphi, used to fumigate ancient Egyptian temples. Then later, it was ‘discovered’ by (and became popular with) Greek and Roman perfumers.
What is it? A gum resin, tapped from the True Myrrh tree, or Commiphora Myrrha which originates from parts of Arabia, Somalia and Ethiopia; the resin’s produced by tapping the tree to make small incisions, from which small teardrop-shaped droplets emerge – and are left to harden into bead-like nuggets, which are then steam-distilled to produce an essential oil.
Myrrh gets its name from the Hebrew ‘murr’ or ‘maror’, which translates as ‘bitter’. It’s earthy. It’s resinous. It’s intriguing. And it’s still a key ingredient in many sensual and iconic Oriental perfumes today…
Smell myrrh in:
Agent Provocateur Eau Provocateur
Amouage Amouage Gold pour Femme
By Kilian Sweet Redemption
Caron Parfum Sacre
Czech & Speake Frankincense & Myrrh
Diane von Furstenburg Diane
Dior Bois d’Argent
Diptyque L’Eau Trois
Guerlain Myrre et Délires
Jovoy La Liturgie des Heures
L’Artisan Parfumeur Timbuktu
Pierre Balmain Ambre Gris
Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan
Yves Saint Laurent Opium